Before the 2013 season, the Kansas City Royals made waves with their acquisition of Tampa Bay Rays ace James Shields for a package of players built around then-top prospect Wil Myers. With a young core consisting of Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Mike Moustakas, the 2013 Royals were at least somewhat primed to take a step forward.
While many had concerns on the timing of the deal, the Royals needed rotation help, although the cost was steep. After missing the playoffs in 2013, the Royals have struggled during the first part of 2014. Entering play on Sunday, the Royals stood at 30-32 and trailed the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers by five games.
If the Royals can’t right the ship over the next few weeks, with the midpoint of the season and the trade deadline approaching, what options do the Royals, a team without a playoff appearance since 1985, have at their disposal?
Shields has lived up to all expectations. In 2013 he led the league in innings with 228.2 and had a 3.15 ERA. For the 2014 season, their ace is up to more of the same: a 3.68 ERA over his first 13 starts. More than any other player, Shields represents the 2013–2014 push to competitiveness by Royal general manager Dayton Moore. Selling Shields would be an admission that his plan had failed. It would mean that Myers was traded for less than a playoff run.
However, Shields, a free agent after this season, could be a valuable commodity on the trading block. The Toronto Blue Jays, who have stormed to the top of the AL East, are rumored all winter to be interested in pitching help—either in the form of Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez—in their own attempt to return to October baseball. Like the Royals, 2013 didn’t go the Jays’ way, but this year, with health and effectiveness on their side, a trio of Shields, R.A. Dickey, and Mark Buehrle would give the Jays an impressive veteran presence to begin any series, even if Buehrle cools off.
Billy Butler is another name that could be attractive to teams looking to add a somewhat powerful bat, even if he’s mired in a long slump. Rumors about a possible landing spot with the Seattle Mariners could make some sense, especially now that Kendrys Morales has signed with the Minnesota Twins. Morales hit .277/.336/.449 with 23 home runs last season and Butler, a career .296/.361/.451 hitter, could provide a quality source of OBP and potentially a few home runs, should he emerge from his very slow first two months and return to his normal production. Unlike Shields, Butler has a $12.5 million 2015 option which could be exercised by the acquiring club, making him a bit more than a rental.
On June 4, 2013, the Royals were 23-32. Only a few days separated the team from a 4-19 stretch during most of May. Kansas City would win their next six games and 11 of their next 13 overall. On July 31 the team had a 53-51 record and was in the midst of a hot streak that saw them win 17 of 20. If you’re Moore, this is the scenario you imagine playing out in 2014.
Unfortunately for the Royals, there is no one area of weakness that could be addressed via a trade. Hosmer and Butler have struggled at the start of the season, Moustakas spent some time in the minors and is hitting .148 on the season. Shields has pitched well, as has youngster Yordano Ventura, although with an injury scare.
However, the good news is that the Royals players who the team planned to be major parts of the ballclub are all potential rebound candidates. Maybe in concert with new hitting coach Dale Sveum, a few guys can get back on track and turn the fortunes of the entire team with them.
Like the Pittsburgh Pirates of 2013 and the Toronto Blue Jays of 2014, the Royals are trying to end a long playoff drought. Unlike those teams, the Royals are not charging towards history but are, at best, shuffling in the general direction of their goal, with course corrections along the way.
Another run like last year can’t be counted on, but at the same time, this is part of an all-in strategy Kansas City put into place a year and a half ago. For the fans, this was supposed to be the year they saw something more than an above .500 record. This was supposed to be the home-grown core and James Shields leading the team into October.
For Moore, trading Myers for a two-year window was a gamble that could end up judging his tenure at GM. Prospects made it to the big leagues, they performed from time to time, but didn’t take the final steps forward. It’s been a long road for everyone involved with the Royals to travel and it might be time to once again look toward the future.