When your starting pitching staff loses 69 games and posts a 5.01 ERA in a season, you know you have upgrades to make over the winter.
Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore can vouch, and he's been a busy bee ever since the 2012 season came to a close. He's already shored up his club's rotation for 2013 by trading for Ervin Santana and re-signing Jeremy Guthrie, and he's not done yet.
James Shields could be next. Or maybe Jon Lester. It depends on what Moore wants to do with the top prospect at his disposal.
The word from Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star is that Moore wants to add at least one more impact arm to the Royals' rotation, and the best way for him to do that may be to trade top outfield prospect Wil Myers.
This would be the same Wil Myers who was named minor league player of the year by Baseball America. In 134 games between Double-A and Triple-A, Myers hit 37 home runs and compiled a .987 OPS.
Royals fans would probably just as soon see Myers start the season with the big club in 2013, as it's not like anybody would miss Jeff Francoeur out in right field. Myers looks ready, so why trade him now?
Precisely because the team's need for starting pitching really is that dire, and the reality is that it's not every day you can trade a prospect for a top-flight starting pitcher.
As such, the idea of the Royals trading Myers has to be taken seriously. And for the time being, Shields and Lester have to be considered Kansas City's two best (or at least most realistic) trade targets.
Between the two of them, the Royals are much better off trading for Shields.
Now, Shields is a little older than Lester. He'll turn 31 in December, whereas Lester will only be 29 in January. When it comes to pitchers, a two-year age gap is no small deal.
The trade-off is that Shields would be a few million bucks cheaper than Lester. Including the $12 million club option on Shields' contract for 2014, he's due to make $21 million over the next two seasons. Including his $13 million option for 2014, Lester is due to make just under $25 million over the next two seasons.
Furthermore, the numbers say Shields is getting better as a pitcher, whereas Lester may be getting worse.
Shields hit rock bottom when he posted a 5.18 ERA and gave up a league-high 34 home runs in 2010, but he bounced back to post a 2.82 ERA and pitch 11 complete games in 2011. This past year, he had a 3.52 ERA, and he gave the Rays close to 230 innings.
While he wasn't as dominant in 2012 as he was in 2011, the sabermetric stats suggest that Shields himself didn't do anything differently.
Per FanGraphs, Shields' FIP and xFIP—two stats that evaluate pitchers by things only they can control, such as strikeouts and walks—remained steady from where they were in 2011. His regression had much to do with an elevated BABIP, which could have been partly the result of an elevated ground-ball rate, and an elevated ground-ball rate is nothing to complain about.
Lester, on the other hand, has seen his ERA rise each of the last two years. Simultaneously, his strikeout rate has declined.
Fewer strikeouts means more balls in play, and that means more hits. It's therefore no wonder not just that his ERA has risen, but that his FIP and xFIP have risen in the last two years as well. He wasn't as bad in 2012 as his 4.82 ERA suggests he was, but he didn't come anywhere close to the level he was pitching at in 2010, when he won 19 games with a 3.25 ERA.
The Royals are already gambling on the notion that they can fix what ailed Santana in 2012 and that Guthrie will continue to pitch like he did in the latter half of the season rather than the first half. The last thing they want to do is take on another gamble, hence the reason Lester should be a no-go.
If the Royals were to add Shields, he'd take his place as the ace of the staff ahead of Guthrie and Santana. Seeing as how the Royals opened the 2012 season with Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar and Jonathan Sanchez as their top three starters, Moore will have fulfilled his obligation to provide the club's starting rotation with an upgrade.
From the way things are looking right now, a rotation led by Shields, Guthrie and Santana would give the Royals better starting pitching than the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, for whatever that's worth.
The Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, though, would still be in better shape than the Royals. Not many teams can match Detroit's trio of Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer. The White Sox have two aces in Jake Peavy and Chris Sale, and they have an assortment of solid starters lined up behind them.
The bright side for the Royals is that they don't have any catching up to do to be on Chicago's level. The Royals won 12 of the 18 games they played against the White Sox in 2012, outscoring them by 26 runs in the process.
It's the Tigers the Royals have to worry about. They guard the gate to the AL Central title, and they had little trouble with the Royals in 2012. The Tigers won 13 of the 18 games they played against the Royals, in part because their pitchers compiled a 2.79 ERA against Kansas City.
However, Royals hurlers held their own against the Tigers offense, posting a solid 3.84 ERA. If the likes of Chen, Hochevar, Sanchez and who knows who can do that, a rotation with Shields, Guthrie and Santana would do better.
If an improved starting rotation were to help the Royals keep their advantage on the White Sox and bridge the gap between them and the Tigers, the Royals would improve on their 34-38 record in AL Central play from 2012. That alone could mean an overall record in the neighborhood of .500.
But this team's ceiling will be higher than that if they add Shields to a rotation that already features Santana and Guthrie. Improved starting pitching would only be part of the equation, after all.
Assuming all the right pieces stay in the right places, Kansas City's lineup would have the potential to be one of the more potent units in the American League. The Royals managed a .716 OPS in 2012, and that was despite the fact that Eric Hosmer and Jeff Francoeur each posted an OPS well below .700 and Mike Moustakas managed just a .586 OPS in the second half.
Hosmer and Moustakas have the goods to be a dangerous middle-of-the-order duo. Billy Butler already is a dangerous hitter. Alex Gordon can be marked down for an OPS over .800. Salvador Perez could provide an .800 OPS as well.
The Royals offense could easily become one of the top 15 run-producing offenses in baseball in 2013 if things go well. Maybe even top 10.
Don't sleep on the club's bullpen, either. Royals relievers quietly posted the sixth-best ERA in baseball in 2012, as well as an 8.58 K/9 that ranked them just outside the top 10. Greg Holland was lights out after taking over for Jonathan Broxton as the team's closer in August, and he'll have a very strong setup corps supporting him in 2013.
Even if Kansas City's starting pitching were only to improve from "bad" to "decent" in 2013, you can do a lot with decent starting pitching, a strong offense and a strong bullpen. The Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, for example, both made the postseason in 2012 despite ranking towards the bottom of the league in starters' ERA. Coincidentally, both clubs had strong bullpens, and they could hit a little bit.
I don't want to go so far as to guarantee that the Royals would make the playoffs if they were to trade for James Shields. It would be a big move, but it wouldn't be an earth-shaking move along the lines of the recent trade the Toronto Blue Jays pulled off with the Miami Marlins.
A trade for Shields would, however, push the Royals further up the American League totem pole. They're trying desperately to become a clear and present danger in the AL Central, and a trade for Shields would make them just that.
This wouldn't be the case if they were in the AL East or the AL West, mind you. The Royals have the good fortune to be part of the most winnable division in the league, so now is definitely the time for them to be aggressive.
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