The perceived value of prospects has never been higher, so when James Shields was traded to the Kansas City Royals, there was an uproar over the price they paid to get him. Things are not always what they seem, and we often react emotionally in the immediate aftermath of newsworthy events, but it is often difficult to judge these moves without the benefit of hindsight. With only a little over two seasons having passed since this trade happened, we re-examine it to look for lessons from the Shields trade.
“It’s like we’re offering Confederate money.”
– Syd Thrift on the fruitless free agent search of the 2000 Orioles.
A little over two years ago, the Kansas City Royals completed one of the most reviled trades in recent baseball history. You might have heard about it. The Royals, desperate for relevancy for the first time since Bill Clinton’s first term, decided to tap into its vaunted farm system to trade for a number two starter, James Shields, and a pitcher that they hoped could make the transition from bullpen to rotation, Wade Davis. For the privilege of obtaining these two pitchers, the Royals paid a steep price. Wil Myers, the number four prospect in baseball, would be sent to the Tampa Bay Rays, along with right-handed pitcher (and a key piece in the Zack Greinke trade) Jake Odorizzi and two lottery tickets (LHP Mike Montgomery and 3B Patrick Leonard).
When the trade was announced, the internet, to put it mildly, combusted. Reactions ranged from hating the deal for the Royals: “Rays win it with a first round knockout,” said Jim Bowden… to really hating the deal for the Royals: “This is why the last time the Royals won 90 games, Ken Griffey was a rookie,” tweeted Dave Cameron… to really, really hating the deal for the Royals: “If there was a Royals’ Tradebook Page, I would click the “dislike” button at least 10,000 times” wrote Joe Posnanski.
The nearly unanimous verdict across the internet was that the Royals had mortgaged their future and blown up their own rebuilding process in the silliest and most damaging way imaginable, and most writers and fans believed that the trade was little more than a last-ditch attempt by GM Dayton Moore to save his own job.
Now, this article is not meant as an “I told you so” for the writers mentioned above or the outraged masses on Twitter. However, the Royals are undoubtedly fortunate that the success or failure of a trade is not determined by reactions on the internet. In hindsight, it is clear that in the rush to top each other with proclamations of just how much they hated the trade, the denizens of the internet missed a fundamentally important maxim of team building:
Sometimes, a second-division team needs to overpay for dependable veterans to establish credibility for their franchise.
These transactions are never pretty. They do not make sense in a vacuum. Every time they happen, the internet goes into full-on meltdown mode. If the Yankees or Dodgers made such a transaction, the internet would be right to mock them. However, for a team looking to make the jump from punchline to contender, these transactions are often necessary evils that can pay surprising dividends.
The fun part is that no matter how many times this happens, the internet still goes nuts. Does this sound familiar? Where have we seen this movie before? Let’s take a closer look at some other examples of this phenomenon:
2003 to 2006 Detroit Tigers
The 2003 Tigers were historically awful. They set an AL record with 119 losses and only managed to miss tying the ’62 Mets’ record of 120 because they ended the season by sweeping a Royals’ team that had folded up shop for the winter. Their “aces” were Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman, young pitchers who had a chance of someday being #4 starters on a decent team. And the lineup…oh, the lineup; an offense that slashes .240/.300/.375 during the height of the steroid era is a special kind of bad.
Stuck in a massive hole with little talent and few prospects, Detroit was faced with two options: suffer through a few more seasons like 2003 and hope that they might become a contender in 5-7 years through drafting and development, or open the checkbook and start signing whoever would take their money. For the weary fans of a long-terrible franchise, the second option sounds far superior, but there is one small problem – no one wants the money of a 119-loss team.
So how do you convince free agents to start taking your money? The most obvious way is to offer far more of it than any other team. Unfortunately, that is hard to do at the top of the market, where teams like the Yankees operate ‒ if the market value for someone like Alex Rodriguez is a quarter billion dollars, good luck trying to overpay. Instead the Tigers went to the middle of the market and targeted Ivan Rodriguez. Rodriguez was well respected around the league and considered the clubhouse leader of the ’03 Marlins team that won the World Series. He was also slightly damaged goods as he had been on a one-year, make-good deal with the Fish and was already over 30 years old. Taking a chance, the Tigers made him an offer that blew all the other teams out of the water. Four years and $40 million does not seem like a lot in today’s market, but it was twice as many years and twice as much money as any other team was willing to offer.
As overpaid as Rodriguez was, he was the talisman that Detroit needed to convince other players of the Tigers’ respectability. Shortly thereafter, the Tigers signed Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers, traded for Placido Polanco and Carlos Guillen and signed both to four-year extensions. These deals, combined with the rapid progress through the minors of several good players (including a draft and quick promotion of Justin Verlander), catapulted the Tigers into the World Series within three years. The Tigers’ remarkable turnaround from ’03 to ’06 remains one of the most impressive in baseball history.
2009 to 2012 Washington Nationals
In 2009 and 2010, the Nationals were the laughingstock of the league. The Nats were not just awful; they were awful in inventive and comical ways. They turned bunts into triples and unveiled a bullpen system known as the Closer by…Hey, Can Anyone Around Here Close? (featuring Julian Tavarez!). The struggles were not limited to the field alone. The team suffered through misspelled uniforms, All-Star ballots that listed players not in the majors, rain delays that left patrons without food, and a variety of other amusing (for non-Nationals fans) mistakes both on and off the field.
After the 2010 season, the Nationals were in the same sort of credibility hole that had plagued the Tigers in 2003. Attempts to sign free agents were met with silence. The team’s efforts to sign Mark Teixeira were torpedoed by the fact that Teixeira, in his agent’s words, wanted a chance to win a World Series. Frozen by the inability to sign top-tier free agents with a team featuring promising young talent but no veteran leadership, the Nats went out and targeted their own version of Pudge Rodriguez. Jayson Werth was obviously a talented player, but he was a constant injury risk (his 2009 and 2010 seasons were the first two of his career where he spent the entire year on the field) and he was on the wrong side of 30. In other words, he was exactly the sort of free agent that was likely to accept the Nationals’ overly generous offer. For 7 years and $127 million, the Nationals landed a well-respected and entirely overpriced outfielder.
Long story short, the gamble paid off. Before the end of the 2010-2011 offseason, Adam LaRoche would also join the team. Edwin Jackson signed with the club the next year. Trade acquisition Gio Gonzalez was convinced to sign a five-year extension with two club options. Suddenly, Washington had a formidable rotation and a strong veteran presence on a generally young team. In 2012, the Nationals made the playoffs for the first time since 1981, when they were the Montreal Expos. This was partially due to the maturation of young players, but also because of the play of these key acquisitions. Werth and LaRoche hit the tar out of the baseball and Gio Gonzalez pitched like an ace.
After the 2011 season, the Royals were in that same “needing to overpay for respectability” situation as the ’03 Tigers and the ’10 Nationals. Unfortunately, the Royals had two additional problems. They did not have the deep pockets of the Tigers or Nationals. So, they could not afford to throw $150 million at a middling veteran and hope for the best. The other, more serious problem was that good players do not reach free agency as frequently anymore. Revenue sharing allows teams to sign their players to long-term deals before the players reach free agency. Thus, the middle of the free agent market is now just as overpriced as the top. The Royals needed to find a new way to overpay for talent and respectability. Rather than use money to target free agents, they used their prospects to overpay in a trade. Wil Myers was the Future of the Franchise, but he was not going to provide veteran presence or convince free agents to sign in Kansas City, so the Royals sent him off with Jake Odorizzi for James Shields and Wade Davis.
Was the trade an overpay? Absolutely. However, a contending team like the Rays does not blow up its starting rotation for a trade whose return could only be considered “fair,” especially if the guy they are dealing away has a snappy nickname like “Big Game.” More importantly, though, the Royals realized that the point is not to win every transaction; it is to win baseball games. As a result of the trade, the Royals suddenly had their ace. They also had newfound credibility as a free agent destination, which they would leverage by signing mid-level free agents like Omar Infante and Jason Vargas. Even without Myers and Odorizzi, the team still had a wellspring of young prospects. All of these factors came together quickly and the Royals were in the playoffs within two years.
It goes without saying that the acquisition of a respected veteran is not a guarantee of newfound credibility. The Royals tried, unsuccessfully, to follow the same blueprint just four years earlier by signing Gil Meche to a $55 million deal. There is no way to remove risk in any of these transactions. Still, the bottom line is that you have to spend money to make money, and if you do not have money, you have to spend something else, and in baseball, that something else is prospects. Just keep all of this in mind in two years when the Astros send Carlos Correa off for Jeff Samardzija on a short contract and the Internet melts down again.