Friday, July 31, 2015

Royals Reel in Big Fish

Cueto can help Kansas City win it all (Kansas City Star)
It was surprising--nay, shocking--that the Royals were the first team to make a major splash leading up to the deadline, landing Johnny Cueto on an otherwise sleepy Sunday. Not just because they already had the best record in the American League and were favored to win the World Series, but because it was totally out of character for an organization known for its restraint whenever superstars become available.

They Royals, because they are a small-market team with an average payroll, rarely generate shockwaves of this magnitude. Their last was the intensely-ridiculed Wil Myers for James Shield swap, which happened nearly three years ago. That the trade actually ended up working out better for Kansas City than it did for Tampa Bay, who promptly dumped Myers on San Diego two years after the fact, is besides the point. The point is that the Royals rarely come up whenever big name players are discussed, largely because they can't afford them. Giving somebody a lengthy nine-figure contract is simply out of the question.

But while that's the case for many teams, most can afford a superstar's final months before he reaches free agency, even the Royals. The issue is no longer salary, then, but the prospects one must give up to net such a big fish. When you're in the playoff hunt and every win counts, it can be worth it to sacrifice tomorrow for today. But for Kansas City, an organization that builds and develops from within, mortgaging the future for a few months of an elite rental was never in their best interest, especially because they were never in contention. Two months of a star player doesn't make a difference when you're in last place.

Well, the Royals are no longer also-rans: they are legitimate contenders, and when you're a contender you have to try to separate yourself from the other contenders. You have to plug your leaks as best you can, whether that means shoring up the bullpen, adding a frontline starter, or bringing in another bat. Stand still, and you run the risk of getting passed.

It's been awhile since the Royals were buyers at the trade deadline--usually they're at the other end of the table--and it felt like a ravenous tiger being let of its cage. They pounced, coming away with Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist to kick off a busy week across baseball. They might not be done--they could still use another arm--but they have to be satisfied with impressive haul.

The cost for Cueto was steep--three young lefthanded pitchers--but should also pay big dividends in the short-term. In Cueto, the Royals finally have a legitimate ace to replace James Shields, who departed over the winter via free agency. He's somebody you want to hand the ball when a championship's on the line, because he's someone who's capable of doing what Madison Bumgarner did last October. We're talking about a guy who's had an ERA in the twos each of the past five seasons, who led his league in strikeouts and innings pitched last year, and who won 20 games last year while finishing second to Clay Kershaw in the NL Cy Young vote last year.

That's a stud.
Zobrist was brought in to help replace Alex Gordon's production (Grantland)
Most teams would have been happy to add Cueto and called it a day, but Kansas City didn't stop there. Two days later, in what was only the third-biggest deal of a wild day that saw Troy Tulowitzki (more on him later) and Jonathan Papelbon change hands, the Royals reeled in Ben Zobrist from the flatlining A's.

Even at 34, Zobrist is still one of the most impactful players in the game today. Like Cueto, he's been criminally underrated despite ranking third among position players in fWAR since 2009, behind a couple of guys named Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen. Also like Cueto, he's going to be a free agent at year's end, meaning he'll likely be playing elsewhere next year.

Even so, two months (hopefully three) of Zobrist and Cueto beats no months of them. Because of Oakland's poor play and a knee injury that limited him to just 14 games through May 25th, Zobrist has flown under the radar even more than usual this year. When healthy, however, he's been his usual self, flashing strong on-base numbers, medium power, and the ability to man multiple positions. A jack of all trades who can hit--think Brock Holt--has real value, not just in the depth charts but on the field everyday. He can fill the void left by Alex Gordon in left field until Gordon returns--possibly by early September--then play wherever Ned Yost needs him.

Royals GM Dayton Moore has made numerous miscalculations during his underwhelming tenure, several of which occurred just this past winter, but it's safe to say trading for Cueto and Zorbist won't join them. On the contrary, this week has to be considered his finest hour. Although his team has the best record in the American League and a cushy lead over a mediocre AL Central, he wasn't content with cruising into the postseason. He knew that his team, as well as they've played, was not going to win the World Series without help, so he went out and got it.

Moore could have just as easily done nothing because hey, if it ain't broke, why fix it? But he looked at his team, saw an aceless rotation and a gaping hole in the lineup, and made the necessary moves to quickly address them. That's his job, sure, but for him to score two huge victories during the busiest week of the baseball year--when everyone and their mother is trying to do something--well, that deserves applause.

I wonder how much of his aggression, if any, can be traced back to Kansas City's Game 7 loss in last year's World Series. To come so close to winning it all and lose, with the tying run on third base, isn't just heartbreaking--it's soul-crushing. How much did that that inspire them to double down, like the Red Sox did after losing Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, in order to get over the hump? The Royals hadn't made the playoffs since 1985 before last year, so they know how rare these opportunities are. They've waited long enough. Their time is now, and they know there's a weak American League out there for the taking. They already had a clear path to the postseason, but now they're better positioned to get back to the World Series, where they'll have another crack at winning their first championship in 30 years.

As seen by this year's All-Star "voting," interest in the Royals has never been higher. Kudos to Moore for trying to capitalize on that by dramatically strengthening his team for the stretch run. Last year won the fans back, and this year's going to keep them there. Sometimes even when you're at the top, you have to reach just a little bit higher.

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