Recently the Kansas City Royals made a huge trade. They traded Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and two other prospects for James Shield and Wade Davis from the Tampa Bay Rays.
The trade has been widely panned by the media and critics. The Royals traded a significant amount of their future for a push to try and make the playoffs. Wil Myers was the #28 2012 Baseball America prospect and Jake Odorizzi was the #68 prospect before 2012. The question is, was it a wise trade?
I can't recall who said it (although I believe it was Billy Beane), but there's a saying that you shouldn't pull off big blockbuster trades and trade top prospects until you are "close" to being a playoff contender. You don't do it when you're far away.
Does Kansas City GM Dayton Moore think he's close to being a playoff contender? In 2012 the Kansas City Royals had a run differential of -70, scoring 676 runs and giving up 746. The Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox were ahead of them at +56 and +72 respectively. It seems like a pretty big gap to make up.
However, it's not impossible. I always recall the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, a team that went from last place to first place in just one year. How did they do it?
The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays scored 774 runs compared to 782 in 2007. So their offense was largely the same. Evan Longoria came onto the scene in 2008 and was brilliant, but it appeared to make up for down years from several other players.
What made them a division winner was their pitching. They gave up 273 FEWER runs in 2008 than 2007 (671 vs 944). This gave the Rays a run differential swing of 265 runs (-162 to +103).
How were they able to make this transition? The short answer is they revamped their bullpen, got Matt Garza, and all their young pitchers started playing better.
In 2007 Andy Sonnanstine had a 5.85 ERA over 130 innings. In 2008 he had a 4.38 ERA over 193 innings. In 2007 Edwin Jackson had an ERA of 5.76 over 161 innings. In 2008 it went down to 4.42 over 183 innings. James Shields and Scott Kazmir performed largely the same, but Matt Garza and his 3.70 ERA was an upgrade over all the remaining starters who had an ERA over 6.00 in 2007.
In the bullpen, Dan Wheeler, Troy Percival, and Trever Miller were brought in and provided better innings out of the bullpen. JP Howell was converted to a reliever and pitched great. Jason Hammel was moved into the bullpen and pitched better as well.
So boom, a better pitching staff lead to a better run differential and a first place finish. The question is, how close are the Kansas City Royals to making the same turnaround?
On offense, the Royals are teeming with young talent. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were highly rated prospects before 2011. Hosmer had a great rookie season but seemed to regress in 2012. Moustakas had an ok sophomore season with 20 home runs. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler will be entering their age 27 seasons and reaching their prime. Alcides Escobar had his best season at age 25. Salvador Perez also had a great sophomore season with a .798 OPS. If the younger hitters can mature and do better, add in a few minor upgrades (I think it's imperative they replace Jeff Francoeur), the offense has a real chance to improve in 2013.
On pitching, James Shields, Wade Davis, and a full season of Jeremy Guthrie should be an upgrade over much of the starting pitching they had in 2011. Luke Hochevar could have a rebound year. He seemed to have been a tad unlucky with a BABIP of .318 last year (despite reaching a career high in strikeouts with 144). Luis Mendoza pitched reliably in 2012. If Ervin Santana can come back to some reasonable form, it's not that bad of a staff. It's not a scary pitching staff, but with a pretty good bullpen from 2012, it's not hard to imagine the pitching staff performing a lot better.
So the pieces of the puzzle appear to be in place for a Kansas City Royals team doing a lot better. Is it in enough to win the division? It doesn't seem like it given how much Detroit is a powerhouse. However, they appear to be in good shape to atleast hit .500, and perhaps make a run at a wild card spot. Like many things in life though, everything must align correctly for the Royals. Much like Tampa Bay in 2008, they require many of their young players to mature and play better. Without that, they won't have much of a chance.
With the Royals making it into the playoffs in 2014 and just winning the wild card, I thought I'd look back at this and see how the Royals did in 2013 and 2014 compared to 2012.
2012 Runs Scored - 676
2013 Runs Scored - 648
2014 Runs Scored - 651
2012 Runs Allowed - 746
2013 Runs Allowed - 601
2014 Runs Allowed - 624
2012 Run Differential - -70
2013 Run Differential - +47
2014 Run Differential - +27
Effectively, the offense didn't change much in 2013 and 2014, but the pitching got a lot better. Not so different from the 2008 Rays. James Shield pitched like an ace as expected. A revived Ervin Santana in 2013, strong performances from Yordano Ventura & Danny Duffy in 2014, solid innings from Jeremy Guthrie in 2013/2014, were a big part of the turnaround.