The Jorge Soler era in Kansas City is now over, with the Royals having shipped him to Atlanta in a trade deadline deal for 23-year old A-ball pitcher Kasey Kalich. In four and a half seasons with the Royals, Soler played in 395 games, hit 80 home runs, and hit .236/.328/.471, with 1.5 WAR, according to Baseball Reference.
The Royals originally acquired Soler from the Cubs in December of 2016 in exchange for closer Wade Davis. The Royals were coming off a disappointing season, in which they made a late charge at a Wild Card spot, but collapsed in September to finish 81-81. They knew they had the core of their 2015 championship team under club control for one more season before they’d likely lose many of them - including Davis - to free agency.
At that point, the Royals had three options. First, they could keep their entire core for one more run in 2017, then take their chances on the players departing, netting perhaps draft compensation. Second, they could begin a teardown a year early, trading players like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Davis with one year of club control left, and receive very young prospects for the future.
The third option - the one they took - was a hybrid model to try and do a bit of both. They traded a few complementary players - but not core players - for players that could help now, but also stick around after the core was long gone. Jarrod Dyson, one year away from free agency, seemed expendable in the outfield, and was dealt to Seattle for pitcher Nate Karns. Karns would pitch just nine games for the Royals, struggling to stay healthy before the Royals let him go after just two seasons.
Wade Davis also seemed ripe for a trade. The Royals already had a deep bullpen and could afford to deal from a position of strength. He had also experienced some worrying forearm issues that summer that raised alarms about a potential injury. There were also some financial motivations to move Davis. After supporting high payrolls during the pennant-winning seasons, owner David Glass imposed more austerity in 2017, forcing Moore to cut his costs a bit. So the Royals shipped him to the Cubs for then 25-year old outfielder Jorge Soler.
The trade turned out to be a dud.
The problem is not so much Soler’s performance. If anything, Dayton Moore should be applauded for finding a power hitter who could draw walks, a player profile that has largely eluded him in his decade and a half on the job. The reactions at the time saw the trade as a fair deal in terms of value, with Dave Cameron of Fangraphs writing “If he takes a leap forward and turns himself into, say, Justin Upton, well then the Royals will have picked up a potential All-Star for one year of a reliever with a bad elbow.”
The problem with the trade was in misevaluating the timeline of contention. The Royals were a .500 team that flirted with contention, but also had likely overachieved, having posted the third-worst offense in the league. Moore could have taken a hard look at the team, decided the party was over, and begun a large firesale to acquire prospects to set the franchise up for the future.
On the other hand, they still had the core of their championship team, and black holes in the 2015 lineup at second base and right field had been filled with interesting finds like Whit Merrifield and Paulo Orlando, with young Adalberto Mondesi waiting in the wings. They had gotten a strong season from free agent starting pitcher Ian Kennedy, and a solid, and largely healthy season from Danny Duffy to join exciting, yet bombastic ace Yordano Ventura to fill out the rotation. It was also reasonable to build around the pieces they already had and make one last big push for the post-season.
Instead, Moore tried to go in two directions at once. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Small market clubs in Oakland, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay do this all the time - the Rays just traded their World Series ace Blake Snell away, and yet sit in first place. These clubs are more “transactional”, something Dayton Moore has said he wants to be more like.
The problem with what Moore did was trying to go in two directions when a cliff was approaching. Years of bad drafts and player development left the farm system barren. There was no way the 2018 club was going to be competitive at all. By trading Davis away for a MLB player like Soler, he made his 2017 contender worse, while acquiring a young MLB player who would not be around through the next rebuild. He drove the team right into the ravine.
Would Davis had made a difference in 2017? He posted a 2.30 ERA with 32 saves for the Cubs, who lost in the NLCS to the Dodgers that year. The Royals were in the Wild Card hunt most of the summer, until a 10-18 August torpedoed their chances, ending their season at 80-82, five games out of a Wild Card spot. Perhaps Davis helps bridge that gap (and prevents them from trading Matt Strahm away for Trevor Cahill, Ryan Buchter, and Brandon Maurer). The money saved from trading Davis and Dyson went to slugger Brandon Moss, and later to starting pitcher Jason Hammel, following the tragic death of Ventura. Both turned out to be huge free agent busts, not the best way to reallocate money saved from dealing Davis.
Or perhaps the Royals trade him for some prospects that are ready to contribute in 2020-2026, when the fruits of their farm system could bring the team back into contention. The Cubs had a farm system at the time that featured Eloy Jimenez, Ian Happ, and Dylan Cease, a player like that might fit better on the team the Royals are building now.
Jorge Soler pretty much lived up to his reputation as a high on-base hitter with tremendous power, serious defensive limitations, and an injury bug. He struggled initially, earning a demotion, and missed over 100 games with a toe fracture in his second season. But in 2019, Soler showed why the Royals set out to acquire him. He set the single-season club record for home runs, becoming the first Royals player ever to lead the league in dingers with 48. He played in all 162 games, and hit .265/.354/.569 with 73 walks and 117 runs batted in. He posted the highest OPS by a Royals hitter since Mike Sweeney in 2002, and earned MVP votes that winter.
Despite that performance, the Royals finished 59-103, their second consecutive 100+ loss season. Soler would be under club control through 2021, so had the Royals been realistic about their timeline for contention, they would have realized that they were not likely to be contenders while Soler was still in a Royals uniform. Had they traded Soler at the peak of his value, they might have salvaged the Wade Davis trade by getting players that would be around for the next window of contention.
But they didn’t.
Soler fell back to earth in the subsequent two seasons, making his 2019 season really stand out as an outlier. Aside from his home run title season, Soler hit .228/.312/.398 with just 32 home runs in 901 plate appearances with the Royals. After rumors of long-term contract talks this spring, Soler went out and had his worst season yet, hitting just .192/.288/.370 with 13 home runs in 94 games before he was sent to Atlanta.
Now he’s gone, the Royals aren’t contenders, and they have nothing to show for trading away one of the best closers in the game. Hopefully the Royals will build another contender soon, and learn the lesson of the Jorge Soler trade to be realistic about the window of contention.