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Echoes of the Past: Lopez trade a warped reflection of Yuni trade

An unpleasant trip down memory lane

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Texas Rangers
Deja vu, and not in a good way
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Note 1: This is a weird spot for me. You’re used to seeing me on Fridays, dishing out links and writing massive screeds about something pop culture-y like video games or movies or some other random off topic, um, topic. However, I also fashion myself an amateur RR historian, if there is such a thing. No, not an actual good baseball historian like Bradford. But I’ve been around here long enough that I had a series called “Best of Royals Review” that ran more than 50 times in Friday Rumblings. I started writing a comment this morning and, eventually, I turned around and it was long enough to turn into a story so here we are.

One of the first articles I featured was the news article announcing the Yuniesky Betancourt trade. It’s not because the new article was particularly notable. But the comments, which have now been lost to time (thanks, Coral), were something to behold. It was amazing to see how much vitriol and passion were still there for a team whose only winning season since the strike was the fluky 2003 team.

I don’t think the trade broke Will. But he didn’t pen his usual elegant, yet fiery rebuttal. Though, to be fair, there was no need. The title of his follow up article was “After Bizarre Betancourt Trade, There’s Little Goodwill Left For Dayton Moore” and was a long, long list of links blasting the trade.

The baseball world’s condemnation was as swift as it was universal. The only variance in the articles was in the tone. How many parts pity were needed to adequately sweeten the derision? While Rob and Rany had broken up long ago, in their own way, they provided a familiar commentary as they had done so many times before.

Buried in the middle of Rany’s four thousand word missive is a paragraph that has always stuck with me. It would not turn out to be prophetic but it very easily could have been:

But in practice, I think that years from now we will look at the Betancourt trade the way we look at the Neifi Perez trade. Just as the trade for Perez signaled the death knell for the Allard Baird era – even though it would take years for the Royals to finally put the era out of its misery and make a change at the top – I think that the trade for Betancourt signals the point at which Dayton Moore’s tenure as GM becomes untenable. It will probably be at least a few years before the Glass family sends Moore packing, but I no longer have any expectation that the Royals will ever win anything under the current administration.

Rob Neyer, formerly of Rob and Rany, summed it up in his article on the trade:

Lately, the Royals seem close to losing Rany Jazayerli and Joe Posnanski. They lost me a long time ago, and it’s because of brain-dead moves exactly like this one. As R.J. Anderson notes, even after this deal the Royals still desperately need a shortstop.

Sunday’s Nicky Lopez trade brought back some uncomfortably familiar memories.

For those who didn’t remember the details of the Yuniesky Betancourt trade that brought about all this angst, “Batter Nine, You Sucky” (most apt anagram ever) had net negative value and was under contract. The only reasonable way any team should have acquired him was as a salary dump where they picked up assets to pay him. If, at the time, the Royals were the type of team to eat salary to pick up prospects (spoiler: they were not), it could have been a way to spend money to strengthen the farm. Inexplicably, however, the Royals saw him as a net positive. They actually traded a decent prospect, Dan Cortes, and another lottery ticket, Derrick Saito, for the “pleasure” of having Betancourt’s plus plus hands on the infield for the duration of his contract.

So, in short: trading away positive assets to get a negative asset. It was not merely a bad trade or bad evaluation, but an indication of bad process. That’s the reason it was the final straw for many fans for many years, even amongst fans who had hung onto many bad teams for those many years.

Mercifully, Sunday’s trade wasn’t as bad as that. Thanks for small favors? However, in a small way, this recreated some of that thought process.

Nicky Lopez was a positive asset. We saw that a couple of teams checked in on him last week. His value was only a little positive in the same way that Yuni wasn’t very negative, but Lopez was still a distinctly positive asset. From there, a bad process followed the evaluation.

If the goal was merely to give more playing time to Michael Massey, et al, the team could have simply put Lopez on the waiver wire and, likely a couple of teams could have claimed him. The cost of “free” is quite appealing when you’re trying to save your assets to acquire real talent (sadly, we’re going to revisit this concept in a few paragraphs). As an added bonus, the Royals would have gotten out from under Lopez’s salary for the rest of the year. Yes, they would have been, rightfully, blamed for not getting something out of this positive asset. But it would have been better than what they did.

Similarly, trading him for cash considerations would have been preferable to that. Even if it’s just a little bit of cash, at least then the Royals get more to invest in the team in future years. Paradoxically, even though it’s better asset management, it’s worse PR-wise than the previous option. Couple that with the stadium funding fight and, admittedly, it’s not a good look.

They could do what most other teams do in that situation. Cover up a salary dump trade with a “live arm” down in A-ball. As baseball fans of rebuilding teams, sometimes we get obsessed with not maximizing returns in a particular way with every single trade. Maybe we’re doing that here. We always want a lottery ticket to give us tiny bit of hope, even if it’s a false hope. In our irrational baseball optimism, we whistle past the fact that most players down in Rookie or Low A ball are /also/ lottery tickets. When we pick up one of these low chance lottery ticket players, we release another one, essentially swapping one for another.

But what happened instead was a trade for Taylor Hearn. By all accounts, he’s roughly a replacement-level player: -1.0 bWAR and +1.0 fWAR. And that’s without getting into cheap shots about his 14.73 ERA or how his one appearance with Atlanta involved giving up 4 ER in 0.1 IP before getting shipped back west.

More importantly, this isn’t about turning Lopez’s modest current value into potential future value. He’s half a year older than Lopez and both have 2 arbitration years of club control left. This move has absolutely no impact on the contention clock.

Just to rub salt into the wound, Mark Polishuk from MLB Trade Rumors left this nugget in his article about the trade last night:

Hearn finds himself on the move for the second time in less than a week, as the Braves just picked up the southpaw on July 24 in another trade that sent cash considerations to the Rangers. Given that Texas had designated Hearn for assignment prior to working out the deal with Atlanta, it is a little curious that the Royals are surrendering Lopez to acquire him now rather than acquiring him at a lower cost shortly after his first DFA.

The Royals could have had Hearn last week FOR FREE.


Let’s ignore how Hearn has little to no value on the MLB level. Let’s pretend that the Royals see something in the they could fix and turn him into a workable reliever. It’s not a crazy premise. Though the current regime hasn’t shown Dayton Moore’s touch for picking the Moylans, Madsons, Moraleses, and Frasors of the world off the scrap heap and turning them (back) into quality relievers.

The more important point is that for a franchise that should be in asset collection mode, they missed the chance to add this asset last week. And, after missing that chance, gave up one of their few desirable assets for him.

Squinting to find a reason for this trade, Polishuk talks about how Hearn “fits a more immediate need” in the Royals bullpen. He talks about the lack of left-handed arms and the expected exodus of more relief pitchers between now and tomorrow’s Trade Deadline. But, really, does a team that is going to be below .300 at the Trade Deadline have /any/ immediate needs? There will be a number of pitchers released or waived in the next two days as contending and restocking teams deal with roster crunches. A number of them could be added to the roster for the last 2 months just to facilitate the playing of games.

This hits too close to home:

Here’s the block quote version because the embed cuts things off:

Relevant given todays trades.

LAA acquired cost-negative assets that have current surplus WAR value for low/mid level prospects. That’s an overpay but they don’t care about having a solid Sharpe ratio. They want to increase beta (variance) and go all-in.

On the other hand, KCR trading neutral assets and gaining zero future WAR or cost control is a great example of not understanding the organization’s place in the competition cycle, or the fungibility of certain roster slots.

I probably should write a longer post on this but most fans intuitively grasp why both LAA and COL did fine in this trade (both are in rational seats with good intentions and understand their time and place in the competitive cycle) and why KCR doesn’t understand this by trading Lopez for an MLB RP.

If you’re a fan and defending the trade because Nicky Lopez isn’t good, you don’t understand org theory at all. It’s not about equivalent value today. It’s about understanding how to build a roster and have cost control curves lined up properly, no different than modern portfolio theory.

Nicky Lopez was never going to bring a huge return. Teams that are historically bad have few pieces that winning teams want. But he did fluke his way into a BABIP- and fielding-fueled 5 WAR season and still has a couple of years of club control left. A couple of teams were looking to add him to the end of the bench and the Royals could have gotten a slightly brighter future for it.

In the end, much like the Yuni trade meant little in the grand scheme of things, an ideal trade of Nicky Lopez is unlikely to move the needle for future contending Royals teams. But the fact that they didn’t even try is indicative of a worrying thought process. This isn’t a carbon copy the Betancourt trade but a warped mirrored reflection of it. And I hope, echoing Rany’s words more than a decade ago, this isn’t an indication of where the GM’s tenure has become untenable.

Ed note 2: As a fan, this is all just so maddening. I’m not trying to find reasons to pick on the Royals front office. You guys know that’s not my usual jam. I want to feel good about the direction of the team. This weekend was fun, right? Sure, I’d rather have swept the Yankees and been swept by the Twins, but it was a good baseball week. In real time, we may be seeing Witt turn to the player we all hoped he could be and some of the other bats are coming around. Similarly, I love my little niche I have on this blog. I like to write things to get positive engagements like stories about video games or dumb movie reviews. So if the Royals could stop doing things that cause baseball PTSD, I’d greatly appreciate it.