The "window to win" is a concept that drives nearly every move a small-market team makes. Because small-market teams can't afford to buy premium free agents, those teams look to maximize the years that they have their young players under team control at a reasonable cost. As best they can, small-market teams look to build young nucleuses that will be good and affordable together at the big league level for a few seasons, giving that team a window to make a run into the post-season before those players leave via free agency for teams with bigger pockets.
Two of the smallest market teams in all of baseball – the Kansas City Royals and the Tampa Bay Rays – pulled off a blockbuster trade over the weekend. The Rays sent number two starter James Shields and set-up man Wade Davis to the Royals for a package of prospects: outfielder Wil Myers, starters Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard. In both cases, the teams involved in the deal made those moves with their windows to win firmly in mind.
The Royals believe their window to win is now. Since Dayton Moore took over as general manager in Kansas City in 2006, he has focused on rebuilding the organization from the ground up. Through shrewd drafts that included paying over-slot signing bonuses to draft picks that had slid out of the first round and being aggressive on the international market, Moore has built a farm system that is the envy of baseball.
Kansas City has already started to see some of the fruits of that farm system at the major-league level. Thanks to a starting line-up that boasted an impressive nucleus of young position players who were either homegrown (i.e., first baseman Eric Hosmer, DH Billy Butler, catcher Salvador Perez, left-fielder Alex Gordon, third baseman Mike Moustakas, second baseman Johnny Giavotella) or acquired in trades (i.e., centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar), the Royals were a trendy pick to surprise in the AL Central in 2012. However, despite all of that position player talent, the Royals' offense struggled last season, finishing 12th out of 14 American League teams in runs scored. Kansas City's pitching staff wasn't much better, finishing 10th in the league in team ERA, and they committed the second-most errors in the league. All of that resulted in a disappointing 72-90 record and a distant third-place finish in the AL Central.
Of the three divisions in the American League, the AL Central is arguably the easiest for a small-market team to win given the lack of big money clubs such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers in the division. However, the 2012 American League champion Detroit Tigers came from the AL Central and finished 16 games ahead of the Royals in the division despite underachieving for most of the regular season. The Tigers could be better in 2013, as they have added Torii Hunter to what was a mostly punchless outfield last season and are expected to welcome back DH Victor Martinez, who missed the season with a torn ACL.
The Chicago White Sox, who finished 13 games ahead of the Royals, will return a team mostly intact that was strong on pitching and power in 2012.
Given what is in front of them, it may seem odd on the surface that the Royals have picked 2013 as their year to win it all. To make up 16 games on Detroit and 13 on Chicago, the Royals will have to see marked improvement from all of their young position players (with the exception of Butler) and field a significantly better pitching staff. The Oakland A's made up 22 games on the Texas Rangers and 12 games on the Los Angeles Angels from 2011 to 2012, but those one-year jumps are rare.
Yet the Royals see this year as the start of their window to win, in part because their nucleus will only have so many years to stay together. Teams on a limited budget such as the Royals have a difficult time affording their young players once they reach arbitration and certainly when they get to free agency. This will especially be the case for a team like Kansas City that has so many players on the same development path. Moustakas, Hosmer, Escobar and Cain will all become expensive at the same time, and Butler and Gordon will be expensive to retain even earlier than that (both are signed through 2015). Had the Royals kept Myers and Odorizzi, they, too, would likely have hit arbitration and free agency within a year or two of the Moustakas-Hosmer group.
The fear in Kansas City was that their great core of position player talent would develop so far ahead of their pitching core that the position player group would be on the way out just as the pitching finally matched their level of excellence. To avoid that happening, the Royals have focused exclusively this off-season on improving their pitching staff in hopes of having it match the talent level (or at least get close) of their position players starting this season. To that end, the Royals have re-signed free agent Jeremy Guthrie (who had a 3.16 ERA in 13 starts with the Royals after struggling earlier in the year with Colorado), traded for starter Ervin Santana and have now acquired starter James Shields and starter/reliever Wade Davis.
In all likelihood, the Royals' pitching staff will be improved in 2013. Shields has been one of the most reliable and durable frontline starters in the American League over the past several years. Shields has thrown at least 215 innings every season in the big leagues since 2007 and he has 19 complete games during that stretch. Shields has averaged more than seven strike-outs per nine innings and has maintained a better than 3:1 K:BB ratio for that span. Davis, who was a highly regarded pitching prospect as a starter, made the transition to the bullpen in 2012 and struck-out more than 11 batters per nine innings while posting a 2.43 ERA in 70.1 innings. Shields has player options for 2013 and 2014, while Davis is signed to a team-friendly deal through 2014 with options that would take the contract to 2017.
There are questions about both pitchers, however. Shields has been Mr. Reliable throughout his career, but that has come with a price in that he has a lot of mileage on his right arm. Shields, who will be 31 later this month, has also been homer-prone at times during his career, especially away from Tropicana Field. Kauffman Stadium has historically been more homer-friendly than Tropicana Field. There has been speculation that the Royals will move Davis back into the rotation, but he was a much different pitcher as a starter with Tampa than as a reliever. His strike-out rate was half of what it was as a reliever. In addition, Davis has struggled with command throughout his career, a weakness that was made more obvious as a starter when his pitch count would rise early in games.
But the real question for the Royals is this: even if Shields and Davis perform as Kansas City believes they will, are the Royals good enough to compete for a post-season spot in 2013? To believe that they are, one has to believe that Hosmer and Moustakas will realize their tremendous potentials next season. Hosmer had a 663 OPS and a 0.1 oWAR and Moustakas had a 708 OPS and a 1.5 oWAR in 2012. Kansas City will also need to see improvement offensively from Cain (734 OPS) and hope that Perez will be able to catch 120+ games one season after he was limited to 76 games because of a knee injury.
Then one also has to believe that a rotation of Shields, Bruce Chen, Guthrie, Santana and either Davis, Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, Guillermo Moscoso or Will Smith is good enough to stack up in a division that features the Justin Verlander/Doug Fister/Max Scherzer-led rotation in Detroit and the Chris Sale/Jake Peavy-led rotation in Chicago. Kansas City will also be relying on a young bullpen, although the back-end is talented with Greg Holland, Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow leading the way.
It is understandable why the Royals felt they needed to trade for starting pitching in order to compete for the post-season. They tried to develop young pitching in-house the way that other small-market teams such as the Rays and the A's have done with great success. However, those efforts have not netted the Royals great results. A few years ago, prospect watchers drooled over the Royals' minor league starting pitching depth. However, none of those arms have developed the way the Royals hoped they would.
Promising left-hander Danny Duffy reached the big leagues, but he had Tommy John surgery during the 2012 season, while prospect John Lamb had the same surgery in June 2011. Mike Montgomery, who was traded to Tampa in the Shields deal, struggled with mechanics and saw the quality of his stuff fall off dramatically in 2012. Chris Dwyer posted mediocre numbers for Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha this season. Promising right-hander Yordany Ventura could be a factor sometime in 2013 for the Royals, but it is hard to count on a pitcher who has only made six starts above the A-ball level and won't turn 22 until mid-June.
A lot will have to go right for 2013 to be the Royals' season, even with the additions of Shields and Davis, which is why this move is so risky for Kansas City. If the team continues to struggle in 2013, Kansas City will be faced with the same conundrum that they were faced with this off-season of needing to try to win as much as possible while their nucleus is still affordable. However, they won't have the luxury of having Wil Myers around to replace Butler or Gordon if they need to trade either for salary room or Jake Odorizzi around to replace Santana or Guthrie should they cut ties with either pitcher at the end of the year.
The Royals' farm system still boasts a lot of talent, but that talent is mostly in the early stages of development. Most of those players won't be options until the Royals reach the stage when Hosmer, Esocbar and Moustakas become expensive. On the other hand, if Shields has another strong season, the Royals will have a popular trade chip at this year's deadline or next off-season and they may be able to recoup some of the talent they gave up for Shields should the team falter even as he pitches well. Still, they aren't likely to get back a package of talent equal to what they gave up.
In many ways, the Shields deal looks a lot like the deal the Oakland A's made with the Colorado Rockies before the 2009 season when Oakland acquired Matt Holliday for Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street and Greg Smith. Oakland saw an opportunity to make a run at the post-season and paid a hefty price to acquire an offensive talent that they couldn't afford on the open market. What happened to the A's that season is the worst-case scenario for the Royals. Oakland struggled badly out of the gate in 2009 and was well out of post-season contention by the deadline. The A's traded Holliday for a package of talent that wasn't nearly as deep as what they gave up to get him. Gonzalez went on to be a star for Colorado, while Street was a serviceable closer. The A's window closed in a hurry in 2009 and didn't open again until the team made a surprising run in 2012.
The Royals are hoping that their 2013 season tracks more closely with the 2012 Washington Nationals. Like the A's in 2008, the Nationals sensed an opportunity to make a move for the post-season and they paid a big price in terms of talent to acquire a pitcher (Gio Gonzalez) that they felt would put them over the top. They also signed the enigmatic but talented starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, giving the Nationals tremendous depth in their rotation. The strategy paid off handsomely for the Nationals. Gonzalez competed for the Cy Young and Jackson helped the team cruise to the best record in baseball. The Nationals also saw their young position player core gel together in 2012, something the Royals are counting on for 2013.
But Washington had the benefit of already having Stephen Strasburg in their rotation and Bryce Harper on his way to the big leagues. Kansas City doesn't have those kinds of talents in the fold (no one really does), so it remains a risky lead to follow.
From the Rays' perspective, this trade was a no-brainer. Tampa has managed to keep their window for winning wide open since 2008 and this trade will help extend that window another several years.
Despite playing in arguably the most difficult division in baseball and certainly the richest, the Rays have managed to remain relevant because of their ability to develop pitching talent. However, they have struggled over the years to develop hitters, with the exception of Evan Longoria. The Rays finished 11th in the league (one spot ahead of the Royals) in runs scored in 2012 and they have lost two of their top offensive players (Jeff Keppinger and B.J. Upton) via free agency. James Loney, who had a 630 OPS last season, and Yuniel Escobar, who had a 644 OPS while reportedly alienating teammates last season, were the Rays' only position player additions before the trade.
Myers has yet to play a game in the major leagues and is certainly not a slam-dunk to reach his potential. However, he hit .314 with 37 homers in the minor leagues last season and projects to be a perennial 30-homer threat in the big leagues. While it is arguably easier to find above-average corner outfielders than it is to find starting pitchers who regularly top 200 innings with better than league-average ratios, it will be easier for the Rays to find a talented pitcher to replace Shields in their rotation than it will be for them to find a 30-homer hitter they can afford. With Longoria signed to a long-term deal, the Rays potentially have seven years of a fearsome middle-of-the-order combination with Longoria and Myers.
Odorizzi will also be a solid asset for the Rays. He projects as a solid mid-rotation starter, and given the Rays' history of developing pitchers, it is likely Tampa will get the most they can out of his talents. Even without Shields, the Rays' 2013 rotation looks strong with reigning Cy Young award winner David Price, 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, left-hander Matt Moore (who posted a 3.01 ERA and struck-out more than a batter an inning during the second half of his 2012 rookie season), and right-hander Alex Cobb.
Tampa won't need to rush Odorizzi and he will likely compete this spring for a rotation spot with fellow top prospect Chris Archer as well as veteran Jeff Niemman, who missed much of the 2012 season with a leg injury. Losing Davis will hurt the Rays' bullpen, but they have a strong track record of being able to put together low-profile, but highly successful bullpens.
Montgomery is more of a wild card for Tampa. He was very highly regarded a few years ago, but his mechanics have fallen apart over the past year or so. If Tampa can get him back on track, they will have a very talented left-handed arm to add to a staff, either as a starter or as a reliever. Third baseman Patrick Leonard, the fourth player in the deal, is an even bigger wild card, but he will be one to watch in the Rays' system. As a 19-year-old, Leonard hit 14 homers and posted an 833 OPS in the short-season Appalachian League last season. The Texas native was a fifth-round pick of the Royals in 2011.
If Myers fails to hit as he is projected to at the major league level, this trade will be underwhelming for the Rays. However, it is a good risk for them to take given that the strength of their organization allows them to replace Shields and Davis in-house. Since they can't buy 30-homer talent on the free market, they need to use the assets they have to get that talent – in this case established veteran starting pitchers. Much like with Kansas City and the AL Central, a lot will have to break right for the Rays to win the AL East. Like the Royals, the Rays finished third in their division last season. However, they have a lot less ground to make-up than the Royals do. If Moore can pitch like he did during the second-half of the season for a full year and if Longoria can stay healthy, the Rays will be in a good position to compete once again given the strength of their pitching staff. A strong rookie campaign from Myers could be the difference between the Rays making the post-season and staying home.
Small market teams need to take risks in order to compete and this trade represents both sides of that risk. The Royals are banking on the fact that a few veteran arms will be the final pieces to a puzzle they have spent years building, while the Rays are counting on moving a veteran like Shields to extend their window of opportunity a few more years. The success or failure of both strategies will likely hinge on this deal.