Do you smell it in the air? The barbecue coming from a cookout in the neighborhood. The chlorine and sunscreen from the pool. The smell of smoke from fireworks being shot off more and more often in celebration of America’s birthday. And, of course, that familiar stench of losing that the Royals give off most years that results in discussions around Kansas City’s most eligible trade pieces.
It is June and the Royals have already proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are sellers. This is unsurprising considering that their payroll is lower than it was last year, no new prospects have arrived, and last year’s team lost 97 games. But here we are nonetheless, and as you might expect names like Scott Barlow and Aroldis Chapman have popped up as guys who could be sent off for returning talent.
And there’s the rub, the whole point of trading players to other teams: “Returning talent.” Baseball is not a card game or other economy with more or less fixed values, and there are a lot of ways to evaluate players and a lot of different types of things to value in a return, and where you stand as a team impacts all these factors. It can get complicated.
The basics, though, are pretty simple. Every player exists as a point somewhere in a three dimensional graph. On one axis is talent. This is the single biggest variable in determining overall value, as you might expect. On another axis is age and years of control (which are, more or less, tied closely together). Finally, you have the axis of MLB-readiness, which often dovetails with the other two but is its own axis.
Under the previous baseball operations administration helmed by Dayton Moore, the team famously placed a premium value on the last axis of MLB-readiness; they traded for players who were close to being ready for the big leagues or already were in the big leagues. You can see that in this table of prominent Royals trades made in the last five years.
Prominent, recent Royals trades
|Michael A. Taylor||Evan Sisk||26||AAA|
|Michael A. Taylor||Steven Cruz||24||AA|
|Whit Merrifield||Samad Taylor||23||AAA|
|Whit Merrifield||Max Castillo||23||MLB|
|Cam Gallagher||Brent Rooker||27||MLB|
|Emmanuel Rivera||Luke Weaver||28||MLB|
|Andrew Benintendi||Chandler Champlain||22||A|
|Andrew Benintendi||Beck Way||22||A+|
|Andrew Benintendi||T.J. Sikkema||23||A+|
|Carlos Santana||Wyatt Mills||27||MLB|
|Carlos Santana||William Fleming||22||A|
|Mike Minor||Amir Garrett||30||MLB|
|Jorge Soler||Kasey Kalich||23||A+|
|Homer Bailey||Kevin Merrill||23||AA|
|Kelvin Herrera||Kelvin Gutierrez||23||AA|
|Kelvin Herrera||Blake Perkins||21||A+|
|Kelvin Herrera||Yohanse Morel||17||Rookie|
|Jon Jay||Elvis Luciano||18||Rookie|
|Jon Jay||Gabe Speier||23||AA|
|Mike Moustakas||Brett Phillips||24||MLB|
|Mike Moustakas||Jorge Lopez||25||MLB|
|Wade Davis||Jorge Soler||25||MLB|
For a team that has cozied up to last place to the extent that the Royals have over past half dozen seasons, a lot of their returns were for MLB-ready talent (or close to it). Those guys have, almost exclusively, not worked out. No, I don’t expect every trade to be a home run. But focusing on MLB-ready talent significantly lowers the ceiling on what a return could be.
There’s a reason for this, as you can probably surmise. Independent of the other variables in our three-dimensional graph of talent, MLB readiness is a good thing—players who can help now have more value than players who can help later, and if they’ve already reached MLB, the risk associated with the acquisition is much lower.
In other words, focusing heavily on MLB readiness means that you are purposefully devaluing the other two variables: talent and age/control. And for a rebuilding team, this is not good, because you don’t need MLB readiness. What you need is...young talent. Go figure.
So, what about the Royals under new GM JJ Picollo? Surely, they’ve learned their lesson and are going to focus on talent upside rather than honing in on MLB-readiness, right? Right? Oh, there was an article in the Kansas City Star where Picollo talked about this:
Picollo also mentioned that the team has metrics to evaluate the trade market, seeking to acquire pitching and defensive value when possible to bring flexibility to the lineup, rotation and bullpen.
“Pitching is always going to be a priority no matter how deep you are,” Picollo said. “We are experiencing that right now with injuries. Positionally, from a defensive standpoint, that is important to us. Really, it’s how you match up with a certain team that is going to be more predictive. Ideally, we could get pieces back that are major-league ready or close to major-league ready.”
Well, ok, maybe not, then.
Look, I know that every team out there has their own talent evaluation formulas that they use to calculate whether or not a trade was fair. I know that teams value prospects more than they ever really have. I know that taking risks as a leader can be dangerous to your job security if you don’t think ownership has your back.
But I’m not asking the Royals to do anything crazy. No, what I’m begging the Royals to do is, for the love of all that is holy and good in this world, focus more on upside and raw talent than big league readiness. Focus on getting under-the-radar prospects in A ball or High-A ball who are 19, 20, 21, 22. Yes, I know that those guys are far more likely to never step foot onto Kauffman Stadium than Luke Weaver or Wyatt Mills or Jorge Lopez or whatever. So what? The Royals need more players with high ceilings. You can get low-ceiling guys anywhere. It just takes a few who work out to justify the entire approach.
One of my big, annoying soapboxes is that the Royals aren’t accidentally bad. They are bad for reasons of their own doing. Focusing on the wrong thing while negotiating with other teams about trade returns is one of those reasons. I pray to the Kauffman Stadium parking lots that the Royals won’t trade Aroldis Chapman for some 25-year-old starting pitcher with mediocre numbers in Triple-A so he can be promoted and give up five runs in his first start against, like, the Detroit Tigers. I fear that the parking lot gods will not grant my request.