The Royals have found their left-handed bat, acquiring 26-year old outfielder Andrew Benintendi from the Boston Red Sox in a three-team trade with the Mets that will send outfielder Khalil Lee to New York, and outfielder Franchy Cordero and two players to be named later from the Royals to Boston.
In a vacuum, you can see why the Royals made this trade. Khalil Lee was a player I was personally very high on (full disclosure - I supported him in the Adopt a Minor Leaguer program and found him very gracious in our online interactions). He was one of the few prospects the Royals have developed in the last decade that had the ability to draw a walk and he had intriguing speed and defense with the hopes that more power would develop. But he also had high strikeout rates and the power had not yet materialized. He was generally ranked #8-10 in a farm system that is considered middle-of-the-road. Khalil Lee could very well be a solid player, but he wasn’t a top prospect.
Franchy Cordero was another prospect I was fairly high on, but that’s using the term “prospect” very loosely. Did you know Cordero is just two months younger than Benintendi? Cordero is still very green when it comes to big league action because he has been so oft-injured. His power/speed combo is so intriguing, particularly for a rebuilding team, but it is not clear he’ll ever be healthy, and the Royals only got to see him in a handful of games last year before he got hurt with a hand injury. There are also a pair of players to be named later the Royals will send out, but those tend to be lower-level prospects, essentially lottery tickets, although we will see if they move the needle on this deal.
The Royals are buying low on Benintendi, who was a really solid 2-4 WAR player with a good on-base percentage and solid 40+ double and 15-20 home run power in his first three seasons. He had a disastrous 2020 season, but it was only a handful of games due to a ribcage injury. He has shown some signs of slipping in the speed and defense department, but even if the Royals are just getting his bat, he has been a solid above-average corner outfielder who can get on base. From 2017 to 2019, he posted a 10.3 walk rate, a mark only four Royals have achieved in a single season since Dayton Moore took over (Alex Gordon in 2008, Billy Butler in 2013, Jorge Soler in 2019, and Hunter Dozier in 2020). With the Red Sox paying some of his salary, the Royals will be paying just $3.8 million for Benintendi. If he returns to anywhere near his 2017-2019 numbers, that is tremendous value, and a big upgrade from what the Royals were projected to get out of their left fielders this year.
Clint Scoles at Royals Academy put it well when he said this trade helps the Royals in “reducing the ifs” in their lineup. Khalil Lee could be a really solid regular for many years for the Royals IF he cuts down on his strikeout rate and IF he develops a bit more power. Franchy Cordero could also be a solid regular for many years IF he can stay healthy and IF he can make more contact. Knowing the Dayton Moore emphasis on winning, it is understandable that he would want to remove the uncertainty after three poor seasons in the standings.
The bigger question is whether now was the right time to pull the trigger on such a trade. Benintendi is under club control through 2022, and will be eligible for free agency after that season. This suggests the Royals see themselves as contending some time in the next two seasons.
Some have drawn parallels to 2013, when the Royals went all-in in a trade for James Shields. This trade is a far cry from that move in terms of prospects given up, but the signal it sends to the league is similar - the Royals want to win now. But recall in 2013, their top prospects were largely at the big league level already. Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar were all established regulars by the outset of the 2013 season, and the six of them averaged 25 years of age that year. By contrast, only two of Kansas City’s elite crop of pitching prospects - Brady Singer and Kris Bubic - have reached the big leagues by now, and their top hitters from last year - Whit Merrifield, Hunter Dozier, Salvador Perez, Jorge Soler, and Adalberto Mondesi - average 29 years of age. It’s a lineup that finished second-to-last in runs scored last year, will Benintendi, Carlos Santana, and Michael Taylor improve the lineup enough?
On the other hand, developing pitchers is a whole lot different than developing hitters. While it took several years for the Royals to get Mike Moustakas to be a productive hitter, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic were fairly solid in their rookie campaign. There is some evidence that while hitters tend to improve up to age 27 before declining, pitchers peak much earlier, then decline. So if Brady Singer or Daniel Lynch or Asa Lacy are going to be good, it is probably going to be right away, and the Royals should take advantage of that window as soon as they can.
You can also see Dayton Moore surveying the landscape around baseball and seeing an opportunity. With many teams finding it fashionable to tank to redevelop their organization, and with others hurting financially from the pandemic, there is a market to exploit for teams that want to be aggressive in improving their teams. While the Royals arguably have not built as much minor league depth as similar rebuilds in Detroit and Baltimore, their prospects have become MLB-ready much quicker, so the Royals may want to beat them to the punch and start actively trying to win. The potential of expanded playoffs - if not this year, possibly in 2022 - gives the Royals even more incentive to try to get into the window of contention.
Perhaps those pitching prospects are more MLB-ready than we realize - no one outside the organization has really seen them on a mound in over a year. While I like the prospects given up, I have my doubts we’ll be lamenting what we gave up five years from now. And even if the Royals aren’t immediately in a contention window after all, Benintendi could very well be more valuable by the summer of 2022 as a trade asset than Khalil Lee or Franchy Cordero ever could be.
The Royals have said for over a year that there is no rebuild, but this off-season they have backed up those words with action. This brings added excitement, but it also puts added pressure. If there is no rebuild, we expect to see wins now. And that could make this a fun summer at the K once again.