Brett Phillips was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays last month, ending his tenure with the Royals. He was in the midst of his best MLB season (at least offensively) since his brief stint with the Brewers in 2017 with a line of .226/.294/.387 in 34 plate appearances. For all of his offensive failings, he was the seventh best hitter on the team this season by wRC+ (minimum 30 PAs), outhitting O’Hearn, Mondesi, Gordon and Nicky Lopez.
In his time with the Royals, he was worth 0.9 fWAR, based almost entirely on his defensive skills. His 83 wRC+ this season is actually good enough combined with his defensive skills, for him to be a starting #9 hitter playing center field for competitive teams, though his future is almost certainly that of a fourth outfielder. Normally I would miss a young (kind of, he’s 26) defensive outfielder with occasional pop who could take a walk (fourth-best walk rate this season and a career BB% of 9.2), but given that the Royals have a glut of fourth outfield types in both the majors and high minors, I doubt his production will be missed.
In a move I missed earlier this month, the Baltimore Orioles claimed Jorge López off waivers from the Royals after he was designated for assignment. Jorge López was a complete bust as a pitcher for the Royals. He dealt with some personal issues that may or may not have impacted his on-fielder performance, and I wish him nothing but the best in the future.
The reason that these two players bear mentioning in the same article is that they were both acquired by the Royals in 2018 for the final two months of Mike Moustakas’ contract. Reactions at the time were largely positive, with many applauding the Royals for being able to get two former top-100 prospects for a rental. There were plenty of questions surrounding the two, but the thoughts at the time were that Phillips was a fourth outfielder at worst, and that Lopez had terrific “stuff” but struggled with command.
Of course, we know now how this really turned out. Lopez was terrible, and Phillips was, after many months of work, exactly his floor - a fourth outfielder.
Now that the results are in and we know that the Royals received essentially nothing for the final two months of one of our heroes final seasons with the Royals, what judgments can be made? Can the front office really be held at fault for the lack of return?
Since the 2015 World Series, GMDM’s calling card in trades has been to target major-league ready players. We saw it in the Moustakas trade, we saw it in the Wade Davis trade, and even now with the trade of Brett Phillips for Lucius Fox, who himself is a near major-league ready athlete. His refusal to sell off Major League pieces (looking at you, Whit) for higher-upside/higher-risk players who were not major league ready may be costing the Royals as their window for contention opens.
The biggest indicator that these trades were completely futile is in the standings. The Royals have lost 100 or more games in both 2018 and 2019, and with their current win % extrapolated over 162 games, were on pace to lose 100 games again (technically, the .387 winning % figures to be 99.3 losses). With Soler finally blossoming into the elite power hitter with on-base skills we had all hoped he could be, how many more games would the Royals have won if both Phillips and Lopez realized their fullest potential?
Had Phillips blossomed into peak Lorenzo Cain (which he was never going to be), and Lopez turned into a true Ace (which he was also never going to be), the Royals might have won an additional 10-15 games in 2018 and 2019. Yes, a team that loses 87 games is much more fun to watch than a team that loses 100, but in reality it’s not much closer. And sure, in 2020 having those two on the team might make the difference, but nobody could have foreseen at the time a 60 game season due to a global pandemic.
This is all nothing new. Many have written, both on this site and elsewhere, criticizing the decisions of Dayton Moore. His refusal to embrace a rebuild (at least publicly, he’s actually done a decent job of tanking the team in the standings) and trade off his remaining assets to infuse the minor league system with more depth has led to a farm system that has stagnated in the rankings despite having some elite talent.
Going into the 2020 season the Royals farm system ranked 18th in baseball out of 30. This is a step up from the previous ratings, the highest it’s been since 2015 actually, but it is still in the bottom half despite a largely successful 2018 draft and drafting the #1 ranked high school athlete in 2019. The biggest criticism against the Royals farm system is depth. If the top half-dozen or so prospects don’t all (or almost all) succeed and advance, the Royals have very little talent to back it up.
In the end, it looks like the Moustakas trade was the worst case scenario. I don’t know what other offers may have been available for Moose at the time, and perhaps no other team showed interest (though I doubt that highly given his talent), and it’s possible the offer was take-it or leave-it, but more than likely GMDM insisted on getting players who were ready for the big leagues, and the result was two players who will likely never be more than 25th/26th/28th men on the roster. The result of too much emphasis on winning now in seasons that were lost before they even began.