The Kansas City Royals are perennially one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball. Ever since free-spending owner (and founder) Ewing Kauffman died in 1993, the franchise, which won the World Series in ’85, has been in drastic decline. From 2004-2006, the Royals lost over 100 games every season. Although Zack Greinke won the Cy Young Award last year, the team still finished with a 65-97 record. This year isn’t much different, although they make escape the A.L. Central cellar courtesy of the woeful Cleveland Indians.
The Royals’ first problem is its management. Dayton Moore is often named the most inept general manager currently working in baseball, with the Giants’ Brian Sabean and Cubs’ Jim Hendry close behind. Moore’s difficulties are manifold: he’s lousy with free agent signings, draft picks and trades. While even Sabean has drafted many superstars recently, and Hendry completed a few adequate trades in his long career, Moore has nothing to show for himself. Since Moore didn’t start running the Royals’ show until 2007, he deserves no credit for drafting and grooming Greinke, Billy Butler, or Joakim Soria, the three stars on this pedestrian ballclub. Gil Meche and Jose Guillen are two high profile signings that didn’t pan out. Meche was given $55 million, but instead of an ace, he’s a bottom-of-the-rotation starter who’s frequently on the disabled list; Guillen nabbed $36 million and he can barely swing a bat. The club’s one financial bright spot is Soria’s low salary, and he’s under contract until 2014.
While it’s still too early to call any of Moore’s selections from the 2007-2009 MLB Rule 4 draft’s duds, most of them appear destined to be AAAA players. There are two standouts: Mike Moustakas, 3B, and Eric Hosmer, 1B, plan to fill out the Royals’ two corner infield spots in the near future. Also, Christian Colon, their first round selection this year, might contribute to the major league club soon, even though he has a relatively low ceiling. The Royals may have a decent team in 2012, but will sink to the bottom again, probably the following season. Greinke will be a free agent in October of 2012, and will be looking for a sizable payday, one the Royals likely won’t be able to afford. Butler will need just one more year of service time until he could become eligible for free agency, and odds are that he won’t agree to a team-friendly extension. In order to play Hosmer regularly, they’d have to move him to the outfield, where he is supposedly a butcher (even though Butler’s no gold-glover at 1B). Meanwhile, Moustakas is also an average fielder, which makes for a lame defensive club.
I propose that the Royals overhaul their entire system as soon as possible, which includes dealing away the three superstars mentioned above. Greinke would corral the biggest haul of prospects, since dominant power pitching is always in demand. Butler would also bring back a fantastic return, since he can hit for average and power while still under control for three and a half years. Soria might not net as much as Greinke and Butler, but Moore would still fetch a fine player or two in return for his closer. Considering the Royals’ lowly station, it’s silly to keep an All-Star pitcher, especially when his value is at its peak. Finally, David DeJesus, Yuniesky Betancourt, Brian Bannister, and Rick Ankiel could also interest other teams, even though the payoff would be more modest.
Let’s start with Greinke. In summers past, competitive ballclubs in need of an extra push to make the playoffs often deal prospects in exchange for an ace pitcher. It happened last year with the Phillies and Cliff Lee, and also in 2008, when the Indians’ CC Sabathia was dealt to the Brewers. In a way, these two guys are connected in that they won the American League Cy Young Award the year before they were dealt. Sabathia was just a rental for the Brew Crew, and Lee had a year and a half left on his contract when he was acquired, but, if dealt this summer, Greinke would have two and a half years of team control remaining. So, if he were on the market, Greinke would emerge as the premier player at the trading deadline (like Roy Halladay last year, although the Blue Jays inexplicably never consummated a deal). Every team is in need of pitching, no matter how many runs they score. Because of payroll constraints, roster space, and prospect depth, I’ve narrowed down his suitors to a select few.
The Twins: At this wring, the Twins sit atop the standings of the AL Central, but it’s a tight race. The Tigers are just a game back, and the White Sox have turned their season around and are also in contention. With a strong starting rotation of Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Nick Blackburn, the addition of Greinke could push Blackburn or Slowey into the bullpen for long relief, and improve both areas of the Twins’ pitching. Pavano will be a free agent after the season, and the Twins would then have the luxury of deciding whether or not to re-sign him. Because the Twins are in the same division as the Royals, the price will be stiff. If a bidding war took place, Kansas City could easily make out with a king’s ransom. But Minnesota could posture in negotiations, and ultimately make the deal since their farm system is strong. Here’s what I have in mind:
Aaron Hicks: Generally considered the organization’s best prospect, Hicks is a top-notch right fielder with an 80 arm on the 20-80 scale. Though he has not proven himself in pro-ball yet, scouts love his raw talent. Eventually, most say that he’ll be able to maintain a high average while mashing 30-35 home runs annually, play spectacular defense and pose a threat on the basepaths.
Kyle Gibson: After a stress fracture in his throwing arm allowed Gibson to fall to the Twins in the first round of the 2009 draft, he’s off to a hot start in high A. With the injury behind him, Gibson now projects as a right-handed power pitcher who could definitely lead any rotation. It’ll be hard for the Twins to give him up.
Wilson Ramos: Here’s a righty catcher who has legit power but questionable on-base skills. Scouts say that Ramos will be able to maintain a high batting average, but worry about his walk rate. Still, patience can often be taught, and catching is at a premium now.
This price is steep, but for pitcher of Greinke’s caliber it’s not outrageous. Ramos would probably make it to the majors first of the trio, since he’s already appeared in a couple of games to spell the injured Joe Mauer. Hicks and Gibson would likely be ready in 2013. Ramos, most likely, will hit near the bottom of the order if every goes as planned. Not because of lack of talent, but because of the lineup around him. Hicks, Hosmer, and Moustakas might have to fight over the three, four and five spots, since they all project to be middle of the order guys. Gibson could anchor the Royals’ rotation down and possibly become the next Greinke.
The Rangers: Although the Texas Rangers’ ownership is currently in flux, and money is scarce, management has insisted they can take on payroll. ESPN’s Keith Law also ranked their farm system the best in the majors for the second year in a row. The Rangers are on the fast track to success, whether it’s through trading prospects to win right now, or waiting until they develop and possibly have a better team. The package they’d have to pony up for Greinke would likely look something like this:
Martin Perez: Law and Baseball America agree that Martin Perez is the real deal. Though only 19 and relatively far away from the Majors, Perez’s strikeout numbers and the potential for four plus pitches would make him the centerpiece in any deal involving Greinke.
Neftali Feliz: Feliz is destined for the bullpen. He throws 100 mph heat and has a swing and miss changeup, but lacks a definite breaking ball. The Rangers are using him in the pen this year, but still believe he has the potential to start. If acquired, the Royals would probably try him in the rotation, but ultimately use him as a dominant closer.
Julio Borbon: It seems like he’s been around for a while, but Borbon was only called up on June 29 of last year. Dayton Moore favors speedy center fielders, evidenced by trading for Coco Crisp in 2009 and signing both Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel last off-season. My guess is that Texas would be very hesitant to give up any major league talent, let alone two of them.
With most of Texas’ elite prospects already on the major league team, and contributing, a blockbuster deal of this magnitude is unlikely. The Rangers are best off in staying put, with the exception of obtaining a rental player solely for the playoff push.
The Braves: The Atlanta Braves are a candidate for both Greinke and Butler, but definitely not in the same deal. Greinke would really help them get the edge they need on the Phillies, who are a second half team. Obtaining Butler is probably a deal that could wait for the offseason, since Troy Glaus is still riding a hot streak. The Braves have pitching depth in the minors. Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, and Randall Delgado are all promising, and potential aces. But are two potential aces worth one proven ace? I guess Frank Wren will have to decide that one.
Julio Teheran: Almost all scouts agree that Teheran leads Atlanta’s minor league system in potential. He’s their best prospect, and most likely will be one of the top 20 prospects in baseball by the end of the season. Teheran is key to the deal and would have to be the centerpiece to get Moore’s attention.
Arodys Vizcaino: Acquired by Atlanta in the Javier Vazquez trade, Vizcaino quickly climbed the ranks in Atlanta’s farm system, and is now heralded as their second/third best prospect. Having both Vizcaino and Teheran in the same deal would make the rest of the players included just throwaways.
The Giants: At first blush, the Giants are a real dark horse, but you never can predict Brian Sabean’s actions. Even though most executives and fans think he’s one of the worst GM’s in baseball, as noted above, he does do a pretty decent job of scouting and drafting players. Matt Cain, David Aardsma, and Tim Lincecum are recent first round draft picks by the Giants who made it to the All-Star game last year. Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Zach Wheeler are his three most recent first round draft choices, and all of them look to have very promising MLB careers. Although this scenario is very unlikely, I’ll list what the Royals would need to think about dealing their franchise player.
Buster Posey: Posey is a right-handed, multi-tool catcher who is also polished behind the plate. An above average hitting catcher at the Major League level is relatively rare, and rarer still if he’s good defensively as well. While not the second coming of Joe Mauer, Posey might be second to the Twins’ icon. The Giants would need to be very motivated to him.
Zach Wheeler: Picked sixth overall in the 2009 amateur draft, Wheeler is young but has as much upside as Kyle Gibson
Madison Bumgarner: Getting Bumgarner, along with Posey and Wheeler from the Giants might be a stretch, but since Bumgarner’s velocity was down so much last year, his stock has fallen. It does seem like he’s righted the ship though, so including this burgeoning ace might be a deal breaker.
Do I really think that the Royals will trade Zack Greinke by the trading deadline of July 31? No way, but given that the franchise is going nowhere fast, Moore ought to consider it (as well as trading Butler and Soria). They could get maximum value for Greinke, shrink payroll for next year and save money for a serious rebuilding effort. Given the right leadership, there’s no reason why a once-vaunted organization like the Royals has to be awful every single year.