Years ago, I read a book about the development, usage, and history of the atomic bomb. It was for an assignment for a college class I took on World War II. The book itself was fascinating and explored angles we seldom take when considering the events leading up to, the use of, and the consequences of the United States government dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
One of the most interesting points that the book made is that there is nothing magical or special about nuclear weapons themselves. They are quantitatively different than other bombs—in other words, they’re just bigger and more destructive. There is an alternate version of history where nuclear weapons continued to be used after World War II in conflicts around the world.
However, due to a variety of circumstances—some of which did indeed stem from nuclear weaponry’s quantitative difference from traditional weaponry—atom bombs became seen as qualitatively different than standard weaponry. In other words, the bombs were different enough to be something else entirely, the break-in-case-of-emergency existential threat to the world at the root of the Cold War and not simply a bigger bomb.
The salient question in these cases is whether or not something can become qualitatively different based on simple quantitative differences. And while baseball is obviously not nearly as historically important or as serious as nuclear weaponry—understatement of the century, perhaps—the duality between qualitative and quantitative differences is applicable for things both historically consequential and trivial. The Kansas City Royals’ trade for outfielder Andrew Benintendi signifies this transition.
Baseball teams everywhere are eager to get maximum value. Tanking might be relatively commonplace, but even tanking teams mine the value bin in order to get players to improve their team. And it’s certainly commonplace for many teams to trade players in their organization for buy-low candidates.
But, as it is everywhere else, there is a difference between a quantitatively improving your baseball team and qualitatively improving your baseball team. Benintendi is clearly a quantitative improvement over Franchy Cordero—he has proven himself to be an above average big league hitter, an above average big league baserunner, and has stayed mostly healthy; Cordero has done none of those things, and at 26 years of age is still mostly a question mark. Khalil Lee is an even bigger question mark, one that hasn’t seen a single plate appearance at Triple-A.
Benintendi isn’t simply a quantitative improvement over Cordero and Lee, though: he is a qualitative improvement over Cordero and Lee. Unquestionably, Cordero and Lee have more upside. Cordero has an extremely rare combination of power and speed, and Lee is the youngest of the three. However, Benintendi represents a qualitative improvement because of the type of player he is—a proven veteran with age on his side and and a strong track record.
To put it another way, there is a difference between the type of team that prefers Benintendi to Cordero and Lee. While the Royals have not made any big splashes in free agency this year, and while they have not taken a big step by trading some of their premium young pitching for a bat—something that has been a common postulation among baseball thinkers—Benintendi represents a change in philosophy.
Franchy Cordero and Benintendi are similar players, different only in a quantitative measure. Both are in their mid-20s, both are outfielders, and both are in their arbitration years before free agency. And it certainly seems like the Royals are modestly improving their outfield, going from the intriguing but unproven Cordero to the proven but still slightly questionable Benintendi.
I actually disagree with my colleague and editor, Max, when he says that the Benintendi trade signifies that the Royals mean to contend now. As stated previously, the Royals haven’t made a major splash in free agency, nor have they traded any of their premium prospects—and they haven’t dramatically shuffled their lineup by trading someone under significant team control, either. Benintendi is a better version of Cordero, and the rise of Kyle Isbel opend up the door to freely leverage Lee’s trade value. The Royals are clearly not ready to step fully into the limelight and compete, or else they would have been more aggressive.
At the same time, the Royals have moved into a new phase. They are using modest monetary resources and modest prospect value to markedly improve their roster. When it all comes down to it, having a player like Cordero in your organization is good. But teams that intend to contend aren’t satisfied with relying on players like Cordero to do so. By making the Benintendi trade, the Royals are confidently moving away from that direction. It is a meaningful step, even if it may not be the best step from a long-term contention standpoint.