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The Royals, regrettably, have once again chosen MLB-readiness over upside

Was the lack of rotation depth a motivator?

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

The Royals are well on their way to their seventh consecutive losing season, and are already looking to the future. Last week that meant trading reliever Aroldis Chapman to the Texas Rangers for pitcher Cole Ragans and outfielder Roni Cabrera. It was certainly not a surprise to see Chapman traded - it seemed the team was already counting down the days until they could flip him from the moment they signed him to a one-year, $3.5 million contract last winter. But rather than try to cash him in for upside, the Royals appeared to once again prioritize MLB-readiness.

This wasn’t a surprise. MLB-readiness was a hallmark of Dayton Moore trades (remember Octavio Dotel-for-Kyle Davies?), even as the team was mired in losing seasons. In the week leading up to the trade, Picollo indicated he was looking for “talent ready to help the big league team sooner rather than later”, telling Anne Rogers that “with the core players we have here, we want to add as much as we can around them.”

In Cole Ragans, the Royals get a MLB-ready pitcher, someone who has already seen big league action in the last two seasons. Ragans was once a first-round pick, but his career was sidetracked by not one, but two Tommy John surgeries. When he returned he did put up decent numbers in the minors, but nothing that got him high on prospect lists, and he was left unprotected for the 2021 Rule 5 draft. In the summer of 2022 after he excelled in Double-A at the age of 24, Fangraphs ranked him #20 in a good Rangers farm system, writing that an added cutter gave him “that fifth starter look.”

Ragans made nine starts down the stretch for the Rangers, flashing a plus change up, but an underwhelming 92 mph fastball that Fangraphs called “vulnerable.” His strikeout-to-walk ratio was very poor. But aside from one poor start against the A’s (ironically one of his best strikeout-to-walk performances), he didn’t give up many runs, with a 3.75 ERA in his other eight starts combined. Baseball America ranked him #19 in the Rangers farm system after that season, writing that if he adds more power to his fastball, he “could carve out a career as a back-end starter.”

Ragans moved to the bullpen and did add power to his fastball, amping it up to 96 mph. He started off well with scoreless outings in his first five appearances, including an April 11 outing against the Royals, but he would blow up for five runs in less than an inning in a late April game against the Reds. He didn’t give up many hits after that, but was prone to walks and home runs, and overall had a 5.92 ERA in 24 13 relief innings, leading to a demotion in mid-June.

The Royals sent Ragans to Omaha presumably to stretch him out as a starter - he gave up five runs in 4 23 innings in his debut for the Storm Chasers. You’ll probably see him in the Royals’ rotation in a matter of weeks, and that was the point of the trade - to add someone to a rotation that is running on fumes and trotting out Jordan Lyles to lose every five days. Ragans has a chance to be the next Jordan Lyles - a back-end-starter - only they won’t have to pay him $17 million.

There’s a chance he surpasses that expectation of course. He does have a nice four-pitch mix and his change up does look terrific. Preston Farr has a good thread breaking down Ragans’ repertoire if you want to be optimistic on the left-hander.

But he’ll be 26 by next Opening Day - by that age most pitchers that are going to stick in the big leagues have stuck. The clock is ticking for Ragans to figure out how to retire big league hitters.

The Royals also received outfielder Roni Cabrera, a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League. He looks good, but it’s just impossible to project anything for such a young player with so little data - he has played all of 15 games this year. The Royals should be applauded for getting a “lottery ticket”-type prospect in return. There’s a 99 percent chance he doesn’t pan out, but if he becomes the next Fernando Tatis Jr., the trade is a huge win and a franchise-altering move. But the most likely outcome is that this is the last time you hear of Roni Cabrera.

Should fans have expected more of a return for Chapman, a 35-year-old reliever who will be eligible for free agency in three months? While Baseball Trade Value isn’t perfect, it does give a more objective measure of trades, and their model found this as a “moderate overpay” by the Royals.

The trade value of rentals has certainly gone down in the past few seasons as teams value years of control more. But just last year the Cubs were in a similar spot when they traded away David Robertson to the Phillies. In return for their aging, soon-to-be free agent reliever, they received pitcher Ben Brown. Brown had not been on any prospect lists before the year, but he was in the middle of a terrific season in High-A, and Baseball America ranked him #7 in the Phillies system by mid-season. Now, Brown is ranked #3 in the Cubs system by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline, and like Ragans he’s at the Triple-A level, but nearly two years younger.

There is value in having high-floor, low-ceiling prospects. Small market teams like the Royals need cheap back-end starters and utility infielders. But the Royals’ farm system is already flush with these kind of players. What they need are more high upside players who can potentially become stars. Maybe Ragans fits that bill. He does have a first-round pedigree, he did have a nice velocity bump this year, and maybe he gives Brian Sweeney a better project to work with.

But for a player Picollo said there was “a lot of interest in” the return seems a bit a underwhelming. The Royals need to add the most talent they can, and sacrificing that for a guy that can be in the big leagues now will only keep them from getting back to contention.