The Royals were still floundering in year six of their rebuild in 2012 under Dayton Moore, when the general manager decided to push all his chips to the center of the table with a deal for Rays pitcher James Shields. The deal required the Royals to give up the top prospect in all of baseball - outfielder Wil Myers - as well as pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery, and infielder Patrick Leonard, with the Royals getting back Shields and pitcher Wade Davis, as well as infielder Elliot Johnson.
But the deal could have worked out much differently, according to an excellent article from Andy McCullough at The Athletic. McCullough gives some of the backstory behind the deal and how it came together, which is definitely worth reading. It seems the Royals were determined to improve upon their pitching rotation that finished 11th in the league in ERA at 5.01 in 2012. While engaged in talks with the Rays about moving Myers for Shields, they also had talks with the Chicago Cubs about flipping prospect Jake Odorizzi for veteran pitcher Matt Garza.
Even so, the Royals considered flipping Odorizzi to the Cubs for veteran right-hander Matt Garza. The duo of Shields and Garza might stabilize the rotation. The idea fizzled when the Rays sounded amenable to moving Davis.
“The second part of this move was we’re going to get Garza from Chicago,” Picollo said. “But then when they put Wade into it, ‘alright, we’ve got more years of control with Wade.’ You felt like you were getting a ‘now’ major-leaguer — with upside.”
Garza - who had been teammates with Shields earlier in his career in Tampa Bay - was 29 years old at this time and had established himself as a solid 2-3 WAR pitcher. He was coming off a season in which he made just 18 starts due to a stress reaction injury in his right elbow, but was solid with a 3.91 ERA and 1.5 WAR. While Shields had two years left of club control, Garza would be eligible for free agency after just one more year, following the 2013 season.
The Royals dropped plans to get Garza once the Rays made Davis available. Davis was a gamble - he had more years of club control due to a long-term contract he had signed - but he had mixed results as a starter and had actually spent the entire 2012 season in the bullpen. That contract was a bit of a risk too, it would pay him up to $7 million per season near the end which would be pretty expensive if he simply turned into a middling reliever.
Davis turned out to be a disaster as a starter in 2013. He posted a 5.32 ERA, and his 63 ERA+ is the 11th-worst of any Royals pitcher with at least 130 innings pitched in a season. His -1.9 WAR that year is the second-worst of any Royals starter with at least 15 starts. By September, he was demoted to the bullpen, and as it turned out, it was a permanent move that would change the course of Royals history.
Garza turned in a pretty solid 2013 season, despite missing the first month with an injury. He made 24 starts and turned in a 3.82 ERA and 1.6 WAR. The Cubs traded him to Texas in July in a blockbuster deal for then-top prospect Mike Olt, and pitchers Carl Edwards, Jr., Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez.
How would things have changed had the Royals pursued Garza over Davis? The 2013 Royals, who won 86 games and were at the periphery of a pennant race, would undoubtedly be better. The rotation looks pretty solid with Shields, Garza, Ervin Sanatna, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen. Garza instead of Davis is a 3-4 win difference, but it would have taken 92 wins to make the playoffs that year as a Wild Card. Garza would have been able to leave as a free agent following that season, and the Royals would have been left with a compensatory pick in the 2014 draft (the Rangers did not receive one because Garza was traded mid-season).
The 2014 and beyond Royals clubs would undoubtedly be worse. Wade Davis turned into one of the most dominating relievers in recent memory. From 2014 to 2016 he had a ridiculous 1.18 ERA - by far the best in baseball over that time - with 234 strikeouts in 182 2/3 innings. He pitched out of a jam and recorded the final out of the 2015 ALCS, and later struck out Wilmer Flores to record the final out of the 2015 World Series, bringing home the second championship in club history.
Ultimately, the Royals made the right move pursuing Davis over Garza, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time.