The hot stove officially caught fire in early December, sparked by a flurry of trades that saw some of baseball's top prospects changing organizations. Unloading promising, but unproven talent is a gamble many teams take on the verge of competing —yet it is a risk that often fills a temporary hole in the rotation or lineup.
Exhibit A is the Kansas City Royals, who feel their organization is on the brink of being relevant in the American League Central for the first time in decades. Their speculation may have validity, as the Royals have stockpiled a bevy of young talent during the past several seasons through trades and the draft.
Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez and others form a nucleus that appears to be one of the most promising lineups in the A.L. for years to come. But pitching still wins in baseball, which is why Kansas City just couldn't pass on a front-line starting pitcher like James Shields—even if the cost was their top prospect Wil Myers.
What they got in Shields was a proven commodity. Durable, tested, consistent and still with miles left in the tank.
What they lost was what could be one of the best offensive players in the American League for the next decade, a power bat that could live in the middle of the order, supplying 25-30 home runs a season.
It's a classic example of business fundamentals infiltrating the game of baseball, with one team (Tampa Bay) benefiting from a depleted market and a buyer (Kansas City) lacking inventory.
Neither team made a bad business move, but the Rays have a much longer shelf life to evaluate the merits of the trade. Aside from the primary chip Myers, they also got two former first-round pitching prospects from the Royals in Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery, as well as a raw, power-hitting third baseman in Patrick Leonard.
In return, Shields gives the Royals their first bona fide ace in recent memory, as well as a reliable No. 4 starter in Wade Davis.
But with the seemingly endless amount of pitching prospects that never reach their ceiling in the Kansas City organization, a change of scenery could be all Odorizzi and Montgomery need to regain the form that earned them recognition in the draft.
One change in mechanics, one more addition or subtraction of a pitch type, one more mental cue—even the littlest of things could prove monumental in their careers now that they are both in an organization that has a track record of developing good, young pitching.
If Odorizzi and Montgomery pan out, the trade could potentially be a goldmine for the Rays.
While the Royals were willing to spend a large part of the future to address the present, Tampa Bay continues their annual clinic in the Business 101 of baseball, shaving $12 million in salary while restocking their minor league system. The Rays also won't have a gaping hole to fill even with Shields' departure, as the rotation still features David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Chris Archer, with a number of qualified candidates vying for the fifth spot.
Knowing they couldn't afford Shields once he inevitably hit the free-agent market, the deal favors Tampa Bay even more. Kansas City is banking on a short-term turnaround, but if that doesn't happen, they will have their own issues trying to re-sign Shields.
There is little doubt the trade made the Royals a better team in 2013, but the long-term investment made by the Rays may be one that proves brilliant down the road.
Shields helps the Royals finish above .500 and contend in the A.L. Central, but not enough to overtake Detroit's deeper rotation and star-studded lineup. Kansas City falls just short of a wild-card berth, but with Moustakas, Hosmer and Perez entering their prime, the Royals are built to contend for the next several years.
Tampa Bay boasts a top candidate for 2013 Rookie of the Year, as Myers starts in right field and ends the season as one of the Rays' most productive hitters. Odorizzi eventually wins the fifth starter job in the rotation, while Montgomery starts to regain his prospect stock with a new philosophy and scenery.
One year from now, Kansas City is happy with the deal.
Five years from now, Kansas City is kicking themselves as Wil Myers wins his first MVP.