For four days, Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore sequestered himself in his suite at the Gaylord Opryland hotel and hunted for his ace. He burned up his phone's battery and sent his lieutenants out on reconnaissance missions to gauge the prices on every starting pitcher the Royals liked, wanting to leave the winter meetings with another starter. When he arrived at gate C-17 at Nashville International Airport on Thursday morning without his pitcher, he at least had a better sense of who he wanted – and who, in one of the biggest deals in years, he landed.
James Shields represents something different to the Royals than their trade partner, the Tampa Bay Rays, from whom they acquired him Sunday night in a blockbuster that sent the Rays consensus minor league player of the year Wil Myers as the headliner in a four-prospect package. The Rays valued him as a 200-inning workhorse, a pitcher on whom every homegrown pitcher they developed could model themselves – "a presence," one Rays executive said, forsaking the numbers-based analysis at which they excel for the sort of intangible in which they believe.
To the Royals, Shields is The Piece. In his six years as general manager, Moore has done something his predecessors dating back to John Schuerholz couldn't: build a team that looks like it can contend, one with a dynamic core of young everyday players and a dynamite bullpen that assaults radar guns everywhere. The only thing missing was starting pitching. This was Moore's flaw as GM. The starting pitchers he drafted either blew out or flamed out. And so when he traded for Ervin Santana and signed Jeremy Guthrie, those were mere precursors to finding the pitcher to start April 1, 2013, against the Chicago White Sox.
Desperate? Hell yeah this was a desperate trade. More than a quarter-century of irrelevance tends to foster desperation. The awful feeling of Tommy John surgeries piling up tends to hasten desperation. The knowledge that almost no team in baseball can match the Royals' youth – catcher Salvador Perez, first baseman Eric Hosmer, shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas, left fielder Alex Gordon, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and DH Billy Butler – and that they were primed to piss away another year of it to mediocre starting pitching tends to activate desperation.
Across the game Sunday night, they dropped LOLs in text messages about the Royals doing it again – about one of the teams that must rely on young, controllable talent giving away Myers, pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery and power-hitting Patrick Leonard for two years of Shields and up to five of Wade Davis, who they'll try to return to the rotation after a breakout year in the bullpen. They laughed because in a straightforward analysis of talent, cost and control, this was not a good trade for the Royals.
[Related: Rays give up big piece for top prospects]
They failed to recognize it was a necessary trade. Not necessary because Moore is trying to save his job – any GM who cultivates the farm system Moore has and locks in Perez, Escobar, Gordon and Butler to superb contracts is doing something right – but because he understood that without better pitching, the Royals weren't winning the American League Central, let alone a World Series. And with owner David Glass handcuffing the team's budget and making a run at Anibal Sanchez an impossibility, Moore's options were to dip into a deep cache of young talent and trade for a starter or jam a lesser free agent into an opening day role.
While Shields is a known quantity – six straight seasons of 200-plus innings, a strikeout rate that approached one per inning last year and battle scars of the AL East to show for it – there is little allure in the expected. The fetishization of prospects is a baseball-wide malady, and it's why sentiment skewed decidedly in the Rays' favor. Granted, it should – Myers has the sort of talent that wins awards, Odorizzi looks like a mid-rotation starter, Montgomery is a high-ceiling left-hander and Leonard comes with the one tool, power, that everybody wants – but not nearly to the degree it did.
There's a reason Tampa Bay turned down Myers for Shields straight up. There's a reason Oakland turned down Myers for Brett Anderson straight up. Despite the scouting reports that glow and the awards he won this year, the 22-year-old Myers remains a risk. He is a safer one than most – his .314/.387/.600 line with 37 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last season portends stardom – but any number of players have aced the minor leagues only to lag behind early in their major league careers.
Gordon was Myers six years ago, and it took him four seasons to establish himself. Hosmer and Moustakas were Myers two years ago, and both still have plenty of flaws heading into their third seasons. Scouts agree that Myers has far too much swing-and-miss in his game and that strikeouts could hinder his productivity, especially early in his career. Some don't think Myers' power will translate to the major leagues, either, though that opinion isn't altogether common.
Perhaps the most important point is why the Rays and A's wouldn't deal two years of Shields or three years of Anderson for Myers' entire pre-free agency career: He's a right fielder, and corner outfielders, while not a dime a dozen – see: Reggie Sanders, Jose Guillen, Jeff Francoeur and the misery they've unleashed upon Kansas City – are not exactly bank-breaking sorts, either. Whether it's Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel or Ryan Ludwick, it's easy to find someone cheap who can hit in a corner-outfield spot. Unless Myers develops into a Gold Glove-caliber fielder – no scouts expect that – he needs to hit like Ryan Braun to develop into a star .And there are but five players in baseball with Braun's bat.
When Moore talks with his amateur scouts, he tells them to target four things: center fielders, shortstops, catchers and starting pitchers. He recognizes and appreciates positional value, and that was the genesis of this deal. Starting pitching of Shields' caliber on the free-agent market takes five years and at least $15 million a season, the sort of contract that would suck up 20 percent of the Royals' budget and leave them a ligament tear away from disaster. At around $22 million over the next two seasons, Shields, who will be 31 and 32 during those years, represents a bargain.
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Which is why when the talks began in October, Myers wasn't enough. It took more than two months of haggling to finally settle on the pieces exchanged Sunday. The inclusion of Davis is the deal's wild card. He was a mediocre-at-best starter his first three seasons and thrived in a bullpen role last year. Now the Royals will shift him back to the rotation despite past shoulder- and forearm-related trips to the DL and hope he makes the three options they hold on him – for $7 million, $8 million and $10 million, through 2017 – worth exercising.
The Rays, in the meantime, celebrated Sunday night. As much as it hurt to lose Shields, the idea of an Evan Longoria-Ben Zobrist-Wil Myers heart of the order tickled them. To add the promise of Odorizzi, the possibility of Montgomery and the pop of Leonard sated them all the more. Freeing up salary to help fill a hole via free agency was like a second gumball coming with just one turn.
Still, the Rays understand for all of their celebration, and all of the industry's of them, this is the sort of deal on which they must hit to continue their tap dance around the reality of their finances. They were scared when they signed Evan Longoria to a six-year, $17.5 million contract in 2008 before he took a single major league at-bat. That one hit the jackpot. They took the same confidence into the draft that year. With the No. 1 pick, they chose Tim Beckham over Buster Posey.
Even the Rays whiff, and while chances are this turns into a signature deal for them, that doesn't render it a disaster for the Royals. Look at Moore's most renowned trade to this point: turning a massively leveraged Zack Greinke – he had requested out of Kansas City, which should've neutered his value – into Escobar, Cain, Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress. Escobar is a wizard at shortstop, Cain could be a well-above-average center fielder and Odorizzi helped land Shields. Huge win for the Royals.
[Related: Yahoo! free-agent tracker]
And, it turns out, for the Brewers. In Greinke's first season, he helped pitch them into the playoffs. And when they struggled last year, they flipped him at the trade deadline for shortstop Jean Segura and two hard-throwing right-handed pitchers – a lesser value, sure, but one that coupled with the postseason appearance made the original deal worthwhile.
If this whole thing blows up for Moore – if Perez doesn't develop into an MVP candidate and Hosmer or Moustakas don't grow and Francoeur continues to collect at-bats in right field – there's always the possibility of a talent-salvaging deal come 2014. For now, the Royals would prefer thinking about 2013 and how winning no longer seems like some far-fetched dream.
The Royals believed they were one starter away from contention, and while it's easy to sneer at that – and maybe rightful – they justify the means because their vision of the end is so bright. Both on paper and in spreadsheet this trade is wrong, and yet the Royals were tired of sitting around and watching others make bold moves.
Moore made those phone calls, and his lieutenants asked around, and this was the deal on which they settled. Was it the best available? Absolutely, Royals people say. Wish they would've called us, others retort. Maybe there would've been something there. Just not James Shields.
The last glimpse the baseball world got of Shields came Oct. 2. He threw arguably one of the best games of the last decade: nine innings, two hits, no walks, 15 strikeouts and one run on the one mistake of his night, which Chris Davis hit about 450 feet to dead center field. While a team cannot base a trade on a single game, this was the sort of pitcher the Royals envisioned putting atop their rotation: one who can stare at a playoff-bound Baltimore Orioles team and strike out 15 of those sumbitches.
This trade will define Dayton Moore's tenure as Royals GM more than any of his other moves because it marked the day he declared Kansas City a contender. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren't. Maybe Wil Myers will be another Ryan Braun or maybe he'll be another Brandon Wood. Even the surest thing in this trade, James Shields, is a maybe because he throws a baseball, and nothing in the game is quite as fallible as a pitcher's arm.
What cannot be deemed a maybe is the Royals' tack. They want to win. They want to win now. They want to win a weak AL Central. They're desperate, all right. In a city that hasn't seen a winner since 1985, it's tough to blame them.
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