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Four players the Royals should target in a trade

It’s trade season again.

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Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The 2016 Royals season so far has been a giant rollercoaster, not unlike the Mamba at Worlds of Fun. After a huge high, the Royals have plummeted, soared, banked around, and lost an arm and a leg here and there. This stands in stark contrast to last year’s team, which was more like that time in Halo you ran three people over in a Warthog before getting out and then immediately sniping them when they respawned. Nobody came close to touching the Royals in the regular season.

There are lots of reasons why this year has been more rollercoaster and less Killimanjaro, but the core reason is that this team just isn’t as good. And that’s totally understandable! Most baseball teams don’t win the World Series, and last year’s Royals did.

But part of last year’s success was the trades for two extremely important pieces: Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. Cueto turned in a salvo of brilliant postseason starts, and Zobrist was baseball Midas, everything he touched turning into runs instead of gold. In return for their services, the Royals gave up a quartet of pitchers: John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan, Sean Manaea, and Cody Reed. Thus far, none of them have been any good as starters. Still, that’s a fair amount of talent, but you have to give talent to get talent.

This year, the Royals will need help to overcome a few nasty injuries and just overall regression from their championship season last year. They sure won’t make two big moves like they did last year, but they might make one. Their window, after all, is closing.

So what should the Royals focus on in a trade? Despite a recent offensive renaissance, the Royals rank 23rd out of 30 teams in runs per game. The Royals’ starting pitching has been subpar too, as Kansas City ranks 27th in the league in innings pitched by starters.

Considering those two things, here’s a few guys who the Royals should target in a trade.

Jay Bruce

Everytime I read the name Jay Bruce I think of Bruce the Shark in Finding Nemo. I can just picture him happily rambling: ‘Name’s Bruce. Jay Bruce. Fish are friends, not food.’

Bruce (not the shark one, but maybe underwater baseball exists so who knows) has been like Bruce (the shark one) this year in that he has used his hulk and power to succeed. With 223 career home runs to his name, Bruce has topped 30 home runs in a season three times and is on pace for a fourth. The last time a Royals player hit 30 home runs was when Jermaine Dye hit 33 homers in 2000. Frosted tips and grunge were popular in 2000. It’s been a minute or two.

Bruce is a left-handed bat, which is important because the Royals are very right-handed heavy. After losing Mike Moustakas, they have had Cheslor Cuthbert, but he’s a righty. The end of Omar Infante has featured Whit Merrifield, a righty, as well as Brett Eibner, also right-handed. Kendrys Morales has been dreadful from the left side this year. Chase Vallot, Bubba Starling, Hunter Dozier, and Jorge Bonifacio are all right-handed.

What Bruce is not is passable in the outfield. Switching to the American League would allow him the luxury of the DH. By UZR, Bruce is on pace to be -35 runs in right field. To put it kindly, that is impressively poor. To put it less kindly, I’m pretty sure #TeaLizard would be a better right fielder, as would the Obama Chia pet.

Bruce is a Cincinnati Red, and he’s under contract for this year for $12.5 million, with a team option for 2017 for $13 million. Kendrys Morales is a free agent next year, so a powerful Bruce could offer an easy transition DH as well.

Carlos Beltran

Back in the day, Beltran was a five-tool centerfielder for the Kansas City Royals. The Royals traded him in 2004 to the Houston Astros, the same year he would hit 38 home runs. Since then, his offense has been excellent, though his defense has declined with age. He’s only had two below average years offensively since he left the Royals, and both of those were only barely so.

When the New York Yankees signed Beltran in 2014, the Royals were rumored to be interested in his services as well. The Royals couldn’t match New York’s money, though. Now, Beltran would be a good fit, as he could replace Morales as DH if he continues to languish. Should Morales heat up, Beltran could be used in the outfield to be defensively replaced later in the innings a la an actually good Alex Rios.

Beltran is in the final year of his contract and would only be a rental. Still, the acquisition cost would not be nothing, as Beltran’s switch-hitting ability and the Yankees’ willingness to move him would bring multiple suitors. Beltran’s age is also a downside, as next year he turns 40 and most 40 year-olds aren’t very good anymore (read: Raul Ibanez). However, most 40 year-olds don’t have Hall of Fame cases like Beltran, so there is that.

Zack Cozart

At first blush, it seems odd that the Royals would seek to upgrade at shortstop, a position that the Royals have comfortably set for the next two and a half seasons.

But...I thought up a lot of colorful ways to describe just how poor Alcides Escobar’s 2016 season has been, but I’ll just let the facts speak for themselves in this case. Here are a list of categories in which Escobar is on pace to put up a career worst number since he became a regular shortstop in 2010:

  • Home runs
  • Slugging percentage
  • Fielding percentage
  • Defensive Runs Saved
  • Runs batted in
  • Baserunning runs above average
  • Wins above replacement

And the categories in which Escobar is on pace for a career second-worst:

  • On base percentage
  • Isolated power
  • Walk rate
  • Strikeout rate
  • Ultimate Zone Rating
  • Weighted runs created
  • Caught stealing

Escobar has been ‘worth’ -0.9 WAR this year, driven forward by his hitting 49% below league average. He is projected to produce +0.4 WAR for the rest of the season by ZiPS, and +0.7 WAR for the rest of the season by Steamer. But if Escobar’s defensive maladies are for real, well, the projection systems won’t pick it up until it’s too late.

Combine this with the fact that there is no shortstop depth in the system at this moment, and that the Royals are currently using two players with a combined 116 games of Major League experience. So, yeah, middle infield help could work wonders.

As for Cozart himself, he’s an excellent defensive shorstop with decent power numbers at that position. He’s another Red of Cincinnati, and his name has swirled a bit in trade rumors for the same types of reasons that Bruce’s has. Like Bruce, Cozart has one more year of control after this one, as next year is his final season of arbitration before free agency.

Jeremy Hellickson

Look, Hellickson is boring. For the last three years he has played for three different teams, for which all of them he has pitched an ERA in the mid 4s with a similar FIP. He’s never pitched 200 innings, he’s never made 32+ starts, and he turns 30 next year.

That being said, the Royals’ starters have certainly not been boring, but they’ve been non-boring in the same way that a wildfire ripping through the Colorado mountains is non-boring, which is to say: bad. They’ve been bad. The Royals have used seven different starters this year. Only one of them, Danny Duffy, has an ERA and FIP below 4. Only two of the others, Edinson Volquez and Yordano Ventura, have an ERA and FIP below 5.

Hellickson would allow the Royals to put another legitimate and proven arm in the final rotation slot other than the revolving door of Kris Medlen, Chris Young, and Dillon Gee. The Royals won’t have an ace, but they don’t need one to succeed in the playoffs with their deep and excellent bullpen.

Hellickson is in the last year of arbitration, will become a free agent next year, and is unlikely to garner a qualifying offer. Additionally, Hellickson plays for the Philadelphia Phillies, who willingly employed the services of Jeff Francoeur last year and sent him to the mound to pitch two innings of a real-life baseball game. The Phillies would move their cooler if they thought it would bring back talent. Maybe they already have.