It's now July, which means that the annual mid-season trade deadline hullabaloo is quickly building up its energy for an explosion of moves. Whether the Kansas City Royals will or should be part of those moves is a legitimate question, but regardless it seems discussion about possible trades is in full swing. In particular, there are lots of discussions about starting pitching.
However, the Royals have two black holes in their lineup right now--second baseman Omar Infante and right fielder Alex Rios. Both aging players in their mid-30s, both don't have any real upside and are unlikely to positively contribute at all this season.
Thankfully, there is a perfect player on the market--Ben Zobrist. Zobrist has quietly been one of the best players in baseball. Since 2011, Zobrist ranks 9th in value among all hitters with 23.3 WAR (our own Alex Gordon is 4th with 24.9). Zobrist has been worth at least 5 WAR every year from 2011-2014 and, after a slow and injured start, he is healthy and productive again. He fits in with the club defensively, as Zobrist is a good defender at multiple positions, but has played mostly second base and right field in his career. Offensively, Zobrist is a happy difference from your average Royal; he achieves his value primarily through impeccable plate discipline (12.1 career BB%, 15.4 K%) and decent power.
It is Zobrist, not starting pitching, that the Royals should direct their primary interest. Here's why.
1. Any move the Royals make should aim to improve the team's chances of winning a World Series
This is less of a comment about Zobrist specifically than about the generality of midseason moves for a team in Kansas City's position. For years, midseason moves for the Royals were aimed at improving their future or by filling a hole that pushed them to a playoff berth (last season's acquisitions of Jason Frasor and Josh Willingham come to mind).
2015 is a markedly different year. According to Fangraphs, the Royals are calculated to have a 74.7% chance of making the playoffs, the highest rate in the American League, and a 68.4% chance of making the AL Divisional Series. Baseball Prospectus gives the Royals even better odds--BP gives the Royals a 78.5% chance of making the playoffs and a 72.3% chance of making the divisional round. Again, both marks are best in the American League.
Playoffs are a different animal. Off days are plentiful, every game is magnified, and the pressure is never higher. Playoff baseball is still baseball, but some things happen (like, oh, Madison Bumgarner pitching 21 innings over 3 games in a 9-day stretch) that just can't happen in the regular season. For the Royals, who are extremely likely to make the playoffs, any move must improve their playoff chances lest it waste good prospects. Which brings me to my second point...
2. Playoff series help shore up the starting pitching
Let's get this straight: the Royals have not had good starting pitching this year. They rank 12th out of 15 AL teams with a starting ERA of 4.41; they rank 11th in FIP at 4.16.
Part of that has been poor performance and injuries from the first part of the year. Just a little bit ago, the Royals were rolling with a rotation of Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, Joe Blanton, Jeremy Guthrie, and Yohan Pino. That is a rotation that does not inspire confidence. And yet, things could soon be very different. To quote Craig Brown:
Dayton Moore likes to examine and exhaust all internal options before moving beyond his organization. If Ventura and Vargas return to the rotation ahead of the All-Star Break and if Medlen stays on track and if Danny Duffy makes progress you could have pretty much a brand new rotation on July 17.
As Craig says, the Royals will have a much better rotation very soon. Duffy is back already. Between Volquez, Young, Duffy, Ventura, Vargas, and Medlen, the Royals can probably find four serviceable options.
Yes, four, not five. As I mentioned before, playoff series are different. The generous off days allow for a fully loaded bullpen of Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland every single game, in addition to Luke Hochevar, Jason Frasor, and Brandon Finnegan. Starters are often pulled in the fourth or fifth inning or as soon as trouble arises. When you only need to get through five innings before handing it off to the bullpen A Team, the need for starters is mitigated.
This is not to say that the Royals would not be improved by a starter. They absolutely would, especially if they sustain a key injury or two down the stretch. Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, or Jeff Samaredgizja would definitely improve the Royals' chances, but all three come with what will probably be a particularly high price tag. Meanwhile, the Royals have other holes to fill as well.
3. Infante and Rios are terrible
We know this, clearly. Infante has aged faster than anyone dared worry would happen, and Rios has been a total disaster in every facet this year. Offensively, both are particularly hideous.
The thoroughness of this dastardly duo's inability to provide offensive value is rare, especially among playoff teams. I took a look back at all the ALDS playoff teams from 2010-2014 and found the worst offensive starters for each position (classifying a starter as the player who played the most at that position in the season). I then inserted Infante and Rios into the mix.
- 2011 Rays, Reid Brignac 28 OPS+
- 2015 Royals, Alex Rios 44 OPS+
- 2015 Royals, Omar Infante 50 OPS+
- 2011 Tigers, Brandon Inge 50 OPS+
- 2012 Athletics, Kurt Suzuki 51 OPS+
- 2014 Tigers, Andrew Romine 56 OPS+
- 2010 Rangers, Matt Treanor 57 OPS+
- 2012 Orioles, Robert Andino 61 OPS+
- 2014 Orioles, Jonathan Schoop 62 OPS+
- 2012 Athletics, Cliff Pennington 66 OPS+
- 2013 Rays, Jose Molina 68 OPS+
- 2011 Rays, Kelly Shoppach 71 OPS+
- 2010 Rangers, Julio Borbon 71 OPS+
- 2014 Orioles, Caleb Joseph 72 OPS+
- 2010 Rangers, Elvis Andrus 72 OPS+
- 2012 Athletics, Jemile Weeks 73 OPS+
- 2011 Tigers, Magglio Ordonez 73 OPS+
- 2014 Royals, Mike Moustakas 74 OPS+
- 2014 Royals, Infante 76 OPS+
- 2012 Tigers, Brennan Boesch 76 OPS+
- 2010 Rangers, Justin Smoak 77 OPS+
- 2012 Tigers, Infante 78 OPS+
If you're thinking 'Geez, Brignac was terrible' you would be right. The poor 2011 Rays employed mostly Brignac and Elliot Johnson at shortstop that year, and somehow Brignac managed to accumulate 92 games of playing time.
Other than Reprehensible Reid, no other player out of a pool of starters 180 deep had an OPS+ below 50. Kansas City is dangerously close to carrying two of these players. Not only that, but of these bottom 22 players, there are no repeats--but there is one threepeat. Who else but Infante, of course.
Defensively, Infante is still somewhat valuable, but it's not enough to overcome glaring deficiencies. Rios...not so much that either. Infante and Rios have accumulated a combined -0.5 WAR in 103 games.
4. Zobrist is a perfect fit for the Royals
Zobrist has played all over the diamond in his career, but he has played the most games at second base and the second most games in right field. This is obviously very convenient for Kansas City
Even more convenient is that Zobrist is a switch-hitter. This allows Zobrist to platoon both at second base and right field, playing full-time and increasing the overall production of both positions.
Consider: Zobrist plays second base against right handed hitters while Jarrod Dyson plays right field. Against lefties, Zobrist can play right field and Infante can play second base. This maximizes Dyson's sneaky-good value and limits Infante's weakness to right-handed pitchers to make him playable.
The Royals would have a few roster options:
- DFA Rios, Zobrist replaces him
- DFA Rios, call up Paulo Orlando, send Brandon Finnegan to AAA, Zobrist replaces Finnegan
- DFA Rios, call up Orlando, send Christian Colon to AAA, Zobrist replaces Colon
- send Colon to AAA, Zobrist replaces Colon
It would be simplest for Zobrist to simply replace Rios on the roster. However, the Royals could choose to send the final reliever or Colon down to Omaha so that Zobrist takes the utility infielder spot rather than the fifth outfielder spot.
So what would it take to get Zobrist? I am admittedly not a trade guru, and even trade gurus don't know the inner workings of specific deals or mindsets of General Managers. Still--Oakland traded John Jaso, Daniel Robertson, and Boog Powell to Tampa Bay for one year of Zobrist and three years of Yunel Escobar in the 2014/2015 offseason.
If Jaso and Escobar are roughly a wash, then Robertson, ranked by Baseball America at #66 for 2015, and 22 year-old athletic defender Powell could be considered what Oakland paid for Zobrist. With half a season gone, perhaps all it would take would be a single mid top-100 prospect? Brandon Finnegan, whose name is already being whispered as trade bait, was ranked #55 by Baseball America for 2015 and could be the guy in that hypothetical trade.
Ben Zobrist is a great player, one who probably has a reasonable price tag and would fill the two largest holes on this team. If the Royals stand pat or choose to grab a starter, we could be seeing both Infante and Rios regularly playing in the playoffs. This would not be good for Kansas City.