Most reports have the Royals as buyers this trade deadline, or at least a team that will hold. But with the team slumping the last two weeks, many fans are now calling on the team to sell, and begin the rebuilding process by dealing their impending free agents - Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Jason Vargas.
Dayton Moore has dismissed talk of them selling by downplaying the return when trading away a “rental” player, who is only under club control for two months. Around baseball, it does seem that club control is becoming increasingly valued, and the price for two months of a good player has gone down - the recent J.D. Martinez trade is example of that.
What could we expect the Royals to net in a trade if they were to become sellers? I wanted to get an idea based off of other recent trades made in the weeks leading up to the July trade deadline for players eligible for free agency at the end of the year. Let’s take a look at the trade candidates.
Someone can correct if I’m wrong, but the last significant first baseman I can find that was traded in July and was an impending free agent was Carlos Lee in 2012, when he went from the Astros to the Marlins on July 4. Last year, not a single first baseman was traded in July, and the year before that it was just role player Mike Morse. Contending teams typically don’t need a first baseman - if they’re contending it usually means their first baseman is playing well.
The Yankees are an exception to that this year, hanging around in contention despite getting the second-worst production in baseball, by OPS, from the first base position. However they seem to have recently filled that need by acquiring Todd Frazier from the White Sox. If there is a team out there that wants Eric Hosmer, what would be a good comp trade to use in negotiations?
Comp trade: Athletics trade Ben Zobrist to the Royals for Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks (July 2015)
Hosmer is out-hitting what Zobrist hit that year with the A’s, but not by much, according to OPS+, and at a less premium position. Zobrist also had some injuries that year. The Royals went all-in for the 2015 season and made the bold move to get Zobrist, giving up former first-round pick Sean Manaea, who was ranked the #81 prospect in baseball before the year by Baseball America, and #48 following the season. Aaron Brooks was a low-ceiling AAA pitcher who was mostly a throw-in for the deal. Dayton Moore has admitted he was willing to pay an even higher price to get Zobrist.
Hosmer is probably worth about that price - a lower-end Top 100 prospect plus a throw-in. The problem would be finding a team that needs a first baseman and is willing to give that up.
Potential teams interested: Yankees, Indians, Mariners, Pirates
Moustakas is having by far his best power season with 25 home runs, good for fifth in the league. But his on-base percentage has fallen to .301 as he has begun swinging at everything. His defense has also taken a hit by the metrics, although by the eye test he still seems like a very good defender. Despite being on pace to break the single-season franchise home run record, his OPS+ is just 118 and he has been worth 1.7 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.
Comp trade: Yankees trade Carlos Beltrán to the Rangers for Dillon Tate, Erik Swanson, and Nick Green (July 2016)
Beltrán was also enjoying a power surge when the Yankees shipped him and his 22 home runs to Texas for three minor leaguers. Beltrán was much older, but when teams are looking for just two months of service, age is not as big of a factor. Dillon Tate was ranked a “B+” prospect by John Sickels and was the #69 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America. He was bumped down to a “B-” prospect this year as he has moved to the bullpen. Erik Swanson and Nick Green were both A ball pitchers who were a bit old for their level, throw-ins for the deal. Much like Hosmer, you’re looking at one solid, Top 100-type prospect and maybe a throw-in or two.
Potential teams interested: Red Sox, Astros, Angels, Braves
Cain could be quite valuable as .he can slot into any of the three outfield positions. The Diamondbacks may have had interest, but they already struck with the acquisition of J.D. Martinez from the Tigers. After a red-hot June, Cain has slumped badly in July, which would hurt his trade value a bit, although he has an established track record that teams can count on. What they cannot count on him, is him staying healthy.
Comp trade: Phillies trade Shane Victorino to the Dodgers for Ethan Martin and Josh Lindblom (July 2012)
This is probably the shakiest comp - it is hard to find an outfielder like Cain being dealt. Yoenis Cespedes netted Michael Fulmer from the Mets in 2015, but Cespedes was having a monster year (4 WAR when he was traded). With Cain’s offensive slump, his numbers are looking more like Victorino’s.
Like Cain, Victorino had a very good defensive reputation (although Cain has the metrics to back it up, while Victorino really doesn’t). Victorino was a late bloomer like Cain, and was 31 when he was traded, the same as Cain is now. Cain has been a better hitter this year - Victorino was hitting .261/324/.401 when he was traded, so this is not a perfect comp, as Cain is more valuable.
The Phillies were beginning to dismantle their championship-winning ballclub by 2012, sending Victorino to the Dodgers for three minor leaguers. Josh Lindblom was a rookie reliever, who had been rated a “B-” prospect by John Sickels before the year. He was solid in 2012, but has bounced around as a journeyman since then. Ethan Martin was a former first-round pick who had major command issues, but bounced back a bit in 2012 and was ranked the #80 prospect in baseball by MLB.com at the end of the year. He ended up pitching in 17 Major League games and is now out of baseball.
With Cain being a more valuable player, I think you could expect a fringe Top 100 player and maybe a low ceiling player in the upper minors with good numbers.
Potential teams interested: Rays, Nationals, Cardinals
At the beginning of the year, no one expected Jason Vargas to be on this kind of list. But the left-hander has wowed since returning from Tommy John surgery, leading the league in wins, with the fifth-best ERA. Starting pitchers are always in demand, and although Vargas is no one’s image of a fireballing ace, left-handers with post-season experience who can toss quality innings will have a hot market.
Comp trade: Athletics trade Scott Kazmir to the Houston Astros for Jacob Nottingham and Daniel Mengden (July 2015)
Kazmir also surprised baseball by his first-half performance in 2015, with a 2.38 ERA in his first 18 starts that year before Oakland shipped him to the Astros. It was a deal some criticized for being too light of a deal - neither Nottingham nor Mengden were top 100 prospects, although Notthingham was #66 on Baseball America’s list that winter. Nottingham was a 20-year old catcher tearing up A ball, but has struggled at higher levels so far. Daniel Mengden had put up very underwhelming numbers as a 22-year old right-handed pitcher in High A ball in 2015, but rebounded to have an outstanding 2016 season that saw him get 14 starts in the big leagues.
Vargas track record and his patch of rough starts may give teams pause that his performance is real. But the Royals could certainly expect to get a fringe-Top 100 prospect for two months of the left-hander, as teams will be desperate for pitching.
Potential teams interested: Astros, Brewers, Cubs, Braves, Twins
There are many caveats to this analysis - one comp trade does not necessarily set the market, Royals players may differ in many ways from these examples, the market may be different this year, and trade are always subject to the vagaries of the personalities of individual people running each club. If the Royals were sellers, they would have to find a team that (a) is a buyer; (b) has a club need at that position; (c) wants the Royals player in question; and (d) is willing to give up the asking price in prospects. Oh, and they have to hope another seller doesn’t undercut them. And they have four players to trade in two weeks.
Certainly there have been teams that benefited greatly from trading away rentals. Michael Fulmer (for Yoenis Cespedes), Eduardo Rodriguez (for Andrew Miller), Jean Segura (for Zack Greinke), and Adam Duvall (for Mike Leake) are just some of the prospects acquired for rentals in the past few seasons that have already showed a lot of promise. However we also know that the success rate of prospects on the lower end of the top 100 list is about 25%. If the Royals were successful in selling off their veterans, they would probably get four solid Top 100-type prospects and a few “lottery ticket” (long-shot) players. They would be pretty lucky if two of those players became Major League regulars.
That isn’t to say the Royals shouldn’t be sellers. Even adding one future Major League regular can make a big difference for a low-revenue team with a thin farm system. But the Royals will not be able to come close to matching the prospect hauls teams like the White Sox have gotten the past few years. The Royals can still get draft picks this winter for Moustakas, Cain, and Hosmer should they leave, and while draft picks are further away and even more risky than prospects, the Royals will at least not be left empty-handed. For fans concerned about the future, the trade deadline may not make as big an impact for the Royals as you might think.