Dayton Moore and the Kansas City Royals front office have some interesting decisions to make in the next month before the MLB Trade Deadline on July 31st. The Royals are currently 36-40 on the season and 5.5 games back of the Detroit Tigers for first place in the AL Central. If the team manages to hang around .500 and the Tigers don't go a huge run to pull away from the division, the Royals will likely consider themselves contenders.
Whether the team should really consider themselves a contender is a different story. It's been way too long since the Royals last played in the playoffs, and I desperately want to see them in the post-season, but the team needs to honestly evaluate their chances. As of Friday, Baseball Prospectus gives the team a 2.7% chance of making the playoffs, which is a lower percentage than all five AL East teams.
I think the Royals decision regarding Ervin Santana before the trade deadline will reveal if the front office thinks that this team actually has a chance to reach the playoffs (or at least give off the appearance that they think so). Even if you can make the case that the team should move Santana regardless, I can't picture the Royals trading the team's second-best starter so far in 2013 if they think they can grab a playoff spot.
Moore acquired Santana this off-season from the Los Angeles Angels for relief pitcher Brandon Sisk. Even if you make the argument that Moore could have potentially signed Santana for less money on the open market, it's difficult to consider the trade anything but a success for the front office.
Santana will be a free-agent this offseason, and will likely enter the market coming off the second best season of his career. The veteran starter will be looking for a long-term deal, and does not seem likely to re-sign with Kansas City.
It makes sense to move Santana before the deadline so the Royals can get more than the draft pick that the team is likely to receive by making the starter a qualifying offer. The starter's contract will limit the haul that the Royals will acquire in return for the starter, but he could still bring back some useful pieces if the team decides to move him.
There have been a few pitchers traded over the summer in the past four seasons that pitched at a similar level to Santana, and were also impending free-agents. Below is a look at some of those deals so we can attempt to gauge the level of return for Santana:
Santana is currently a bit younger than Dempster was during his trade and has performed a little bit better in 2013, but Dempster had a more consistent track record. Hendricks and Villanueva were both performing well in High-A at the time of the trade. John Sickels of Minor League Ball rated Villanueva as the Cubs eighth best prospect heading into 2013, while Hendricks was an honorable mention.
Bedard had injury concerns, but still netted the Mariners an interesting power/speed outfielder in Robinson. Robinson has not been able to replicate his success since leaving the PCL.
The Cardinals netted Westbrook, and were willing to move a solid major-league hitter to do so. The Royals would not need a third-team to make a deal like this, and adding a player like Ludwick to the current squad would be a solid improvement.
Washburn actually had a 2.96 ERA in the first half of the 2009 season, but his peripherals were not as solid as Santana's are in 2013. Robles was the better of the two prospects; the southpaw has strong stuff, but could never get his walk rate under control.
Santana isn't going to give the Royals a haul like the Miami Marlins received for Anibal Sanchez (and Omar Infante!) last season, but these four trades show that the starter should net the Royals some interesting prospects or a solid major-leaguer if they choose to trade Santana.
I think the Ludwick deal would be the best case scenario for the Royals. With Danny Duffy in Triple-A and Felipe Paulino resuming his rehab assignment, Kansas City actually has some depth in the pitching rotation. Moving Santana for a current major-leaguer could provide the Royals a much needed offensive improvement, and the team could still consider themselves "in the mix," by replacing Santana with Duffy or Paulino.
I have a hard time picturing the Royals actually moving Santana if they hang around .500. This team is supposed to be contending this season, and trading a veteran starter who has pitched well is not the sign of a contending team, even if it could actually improve the team this season.
Barring another long losing streak, I expect Moore to keep Santana for the rest of the season, and live with the draft pick the Royals expect to collect if Santana turns down his qualifying offer. Moore has surprised me in the past, and could snag a quality player in return for Santana.