With the Royals in a competitive position, they would naturally look to the trade market to improve their club. I wrote last week about this very thing. Unfortunately, it's a sellers market; there will likely be more buyers than sellers at the deadline. Prices will be high.
Nevertheless, rumors will abound. Here's a new one:
#Royals casting wide net with trade inquiries, including Ben Zobrist, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, sources tell @Ken_Rosenthal and me.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) June 23, 2015
Let's break this down. First, Morosi notes that the Royals are casting a wide net with trade inquiries. One might interpret from this language that Dayton Moore has sewn his flip phone (he probably has a flip phone) to his face such that he might remain on phone calls all the time. Then again, I did say that the list of sellers would be limited, so maybe "wide" is relative in this case. At any rate, the Royals have some specific needs, so they likely will troll as many teams as they can to see what the market has to bear.
Second, note the positions of those players. Ben Zobrist, second baseman and also everywhere else. Second base first. Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, starting pitchers. Those are two of the teams' biggest needs, so clearly the Royals are not oblivious to the performance of the fellows they have currently playing those positions.
Finally, let's examine each player. Zobrist has a long history of being awesome. Every year from 2009-2014, he posted a well above average fWAR to go along with his extreme defensive versatility. He can do it all, except pitch (probably). Again, the Royals would plunk him at second base. He's been rated as a good defender by DRS and UZR for his career at second base, but this year the numbers don't like him as much in only 134.1 innings.
On the offensive side, Zobrist has rebounded. He started April and May playing poorly, but June has seen his numbers increase. Overall, his 113 wRC+ this season is not far from last season or his career value. He's walking just as much as ever and striking out less than ever, but his BABIP is low. Interesting trends to note with Zobrist - his grounder rate is increasing, his line drive rate is decreasing, and his swing rate is decreasing. I'm not sure what to make of this other than "he's not hitting the ball very hard". His walk rate and strikeout rates are stellar, though, so he has a lot of room for error in terms of what contact he generates.
Zobrist spent about a month away from MLB due to injury this year, so his May stats are basically meaningless. Of course, splitting things out by month is rather arbitrary anyway, but it's encouraging that since his return on May 26th, he has a 124 wRC+.
Zobrist's contract this year was for $7.5 million. Despite his poor start to the year, his more recent performance and contract combined with Billy Beane being his general manager will probably keep his price high-ish. However, he's a half-season rental with a trip to the DL this year; that could help keep his price lower. He's projected for 1.6 fWAR for the rest of the season (average of ZiPS and Steamer RoS); that's a win and a half that the Royals could certainly use to help maintain their lead.
The starters, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, both pitch for the Reds, who are mired in another losing season. Cueto would be another half-season rental, but he is a mighty good pitcher. His current FIP and xFIP are virtually identical to last year, when he finished the season with 4.6 fWAR. Cueto is a good pitcher whose newfound "fly ball tendencies" would be a good fit for Kauffman (Cueto has been a grounder guy in the past). His home park is also very favorable to hitters hitting home runs. Despite the move from the NL to the AL, Cueto would likely be just as effective if not MORE effective. He is projected for 2.2 fWAR (again, average of ZiPS and Steamer RoS) for the rest of the way, and he's likely the best pitcher on the trade market this year. His contract is affordable at $10 million over the course of 2015. His price will be top dollar.
Mike Leake, on the other hand, is not an ace. Despite his Cueto-like price tag of $9.8 million in 2015, his performance is more akin to a number three or four guy. His current 4.01/4.70/3.89 ERA/FIP/xFIP line doesn't inspire. However, he's young for a pitcher headed into free agency (will turn 28 after the season). He's also run a very high home run rate over his career (14.0 percent!), which could at least partially be attributed to his home park. His 15.9 percent HR/FB at home is worse than his 12.2 percent rate on the road. He has a .336 home wOBA allowed vs. a .315 away wOBA allowed. His ERA is lower on the road. His FIP is a bit better on the road (lower home run rate, but a lower strikeout rate as well). Only his xFIP is better at home, but I don't think there's any reason to expect Leake's home run rate to regress at home.
Like most pitchers, Leake would benefit from Kauffman's spacious confines and stellar defense. Leake's price will be lower than Cueto's. Of course, Cueto is the better pitcher. Leake is projected for only 1 fWAR for the rest of the way (an average again).
Given that the players these guys would be replacing are basically replacement level, that makes the comparison easy. Overall, Cueto would be the largest improvement, and he would have the highest price tag. Zobrist would be the next biggest improvement. Leake would be an improvement and probably have the lowest price tag. All three are rentals. Naturally, it's a spectrum of price vs. improvement. How much is one more win or two more wins worth to the Royals?