The Kansas City Royals came into this year hoping to compete for a last hurrah, or at very least a fashionably late hurrah. General Manager Dayton Moore answered the question of “Will he start a sale in the offseason after a disappointing 2016” with a resounding “SOMEWHAT (but not really, lol).” Moore traded two impending free agents in Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson for Jorge Soler and Nate Karns, the latter two with four years of team control apiece, but Moore kept the rest of his crew that can walk way at the end of 2017. He hedged—Moore looked to reload, not rebuild.
But 2017 has gone rather disastrously thus far. The Royals have dwelled in the American League basement since a truly terrible April. Smelling blood in the water, writers have gleefully discussed consistent and omnipresent rumors that the Royals would be a selling team at the July trade deadline.
But! The Royals have been bad, but they aren’t out of it yet. Even considering Kansas City’s many problems this season, the Royals are less than a half dozen games from second Wild Card spot and first place in the AL Central division.
Speaking of that, go take a gander at the rest of the teams in the AL Central. Do you really think the Minnesota Twins, who lost 103 games last year and 92 two years before that, are going to stay in first place? Do you really think the old Detroit Tigers, who haven’t won a playoff game since 2013, are going to conjure up a magical run out of nowhere? What about the Chicago White Sox, who traded Chris Young and Adam Eaton in the offseason and are going to dangle Jose Quintana at the deadline? The Cleveland Indians are a legitimate threat (and will be for years), but they themselves have started rather slowly, leaving a door cracked open for a challenger this year at least.
It is most likely the Royals continue on their current path of being a bad team. But it isn’t out of the question that they might go on a run. Let’s say it’s early July and the Royals look like an improved team—maybe above .500 by a few games!. Even so, a team does not go 21-29 over its first 50 games without some serious problems, and an improved Royals team wouldn’t have those same issues.
Look, Esky Magic is a sham. It’s basically Essential Oils, but baseball and somehow more sad. There’s just no statistical evidence that Esky Magic is a thing. For those of you who are inevitably reading this and thinking something along the lines of “baseball isn’t played by computers, the only thing that matters is winning, and the Royals win with Alcides Escobar leading off, so deal with it,” let me remind you that ‘wins’ are also a statistic and the Royals win games at a better clip with Escobar hitting eighth rather than leadoff.
This year, Escobar has been worse than abysmal, if that’s possible. He has the worst OPS (on base plus slugging) of any qualified batter by a gigantic margin. While his defense has been good, he’s suddenly lost all semblance of speed on the base paths, as he has yet to steal a single base this year. Since Escobar is 30 years old, and has had the lowest OPS of every single qualified batter since 2015, it’s not likely that Escobar will improve. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that top prospect Raul Mondesi will be any better this year. Thus, acquiring Zack Cozart from the Cincinnati Reds is imperative.
Cozart is off to a phenomenal start this year, and while that start will not last, he’s everything the Royals would or should want from a shortstop. Both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating have rated Cozart as a very good defensive shortstop every year of his career, and due to a concerted change in batted ball profile Cozart has been an above average hitter over the past three years. Kansas City already knows what kind of value a two-way player has at a premium position thanks to Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez, so the possibility of plugging Cozart into the lineup everyday should be an irresistible one.
Let’s put it another way: the difference in OPS between Cozart and Escobar this year is significantly greater than the difference in career OPS between Barry Bonds and Willie Bloomquist. That sounds like it is a make-believe statistic, but it isn’t. Escobar has been that bad and Cozart that good.
Cozart is a free agent at the end of 2017. Considering the trade that Kansas City pulled for Ben Zobrist in 2015, Josh Staumont would be a very reasonable offer for Cozart.
Alright, so if the Royals are in contention, that probably means a few things likely happened. Alex Gordon probably started hitting, and if he didn’t his at bats would be free for the taking. Brandon Moss followed the 2016 Kendrys Morales plan, heated up, and stayed hot. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, or Mike Moustakes could have added another gear to their production.
But all of those things will not happen at the same time, and even if they do, you don’t go from being ‘worst offense in the American League’ to ‘great offense in the American League’ with the exact same set of players.
Matt Kemp offers a fantastic solution. A corner outfielder, Kemp can be used in left field, right field, or as the DH, where his defensive deficiencies can be hidden. But more importantly than where he plays is how he plays: Kemp just hits year in and year out. His career OPS is 25% better than league average, and since his age-30 season in 2015 Kemp has kept trucking with an OPS 15% better than league average. In fact, Kemp has been an above average hitter every single year of his career except his 52-game rookie campaign.
The best part is that the Royals are in a great position to trade for Kemp. Due to an, ah, less-than-stellar contract Kemp is saddled with, a team trading for Kemp would owe him $31.5 million in 2018-2019 (which doesn’t sound that terrible, until you consider an additional $12 million is being paid by the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres). But in 2018 alone the Royals are moving over $50 million off their books, as Hosmer, Moustakas, Escobar, Cain, Mike Minor, Jason Vargas, and Chris Young all become free agents.
The Atlanta Braves are looking to compete soon, and taking some money off their hands whilst also offering minor league compensation would be an attractive offer. If the Braves pay the rest of Kemp’s salary for 2017 and maybe a few million for 2018-2019, all it might take could be a guy like Scott Blewett.
Yeah yeah, Kansas City traded Dyson this offseason, but that doesn’t mean the Royals don’t have a spot on this team for him. Let’s take a look at two things real quick:
Thing One is the Royals’ MLB rank in stolen bases; the first bullet is 2016, the second is 2017. Thing Two is the Royals’ collective outfield DRS; the first bullet is 2016, the second is 2017.
Without Dyson, the Royals aren’t running as effectively and have taken a severe hit in outfield defensive prowess. Then there’s the fact that Lorenzo Cain is the only true center fielder on the team; if he goes down for a long period of time, even a week or two, the Royals are screwed. Yeah, Bubba Starling exists in AAA Omaha and Billy Burns technically exists on the 25-man roster himself, but those are two guys you don’t play in the midst of a pennant race—and neither of them can provide what Dyson can.
Dyson is a free agent after 2017, and with his skillset would have a relatively low acquisition cost. Think ‘minor league name you have heard before but hasn’t done anything of note to have a prospect writer tweet about him recently.’
Two years ago, McCutchen hit 46% better than league average, or better than any qualified Royals hitter has done since Mike Sweeney’s 2002 campaign. Since 2016, the former MVP has fallen on hard times, hitting below league average and seeing his center field defense quickly evaporate.
McCutchen has been the target of trade speculation for years. His contract is up at the end of 2017, but there is a team option for 2018. Pittsburgh understandably doesn’t want to sell low on McCutchen, who nevertheless hasn’t played any better this year than a random AAA outfielder called up to his first big league season, but this may be the final year they can get any value out of McCutchen.
Offensively, McCutchen’s woes are pretty simple: he’s hitting more ground balls than he ever has and is making good contact less often. And defensively, he’s looked good in right field this year, albeit in a tiny sample size. ‘New scenery’ could help the immensely talented McCutchen, and his upside remains pretty immense. This is only his age-30 season, after all.
The Royals, in search of an X-Factor for a playoff run, could turn to McCutchen to try and capture lightning in a bottle, and if what the Pirates ask for McCutchen (which could be a wide range of possibilities) matches up with what they are willing to send. Nobody else presents quite the upside that McCutchen does. Nobody else presents quite the risk that McCutchen does, either.
McCutchen-to-Kansas City might sound insane, but it’s only moderately more insane than these Royals looking to buy rather than sell at the deadline in the first place. If you’re gonna drink the Kool-Aid, drink it hard.