As we enter the final week before the July 31 trade deadline, it’s a fun diversion to try to figure out who ought to be “sellers” and who ought to be “buyers.” But in the world of two wild cards per league, that’s not as easy a distinction as it used to be. These days, some teams wind up not really belonging in either category.
Still, we can look at the current FanGraphs playoff odds and split baseball pretty evenly in half to get a good idea of who should be doing what.
Fifteen teams have at least a 25 percent chance of making it to the playoffs, or in the case of theNew York Yankees, are within one game of a playoff spot. Everyone else is looking at odds that are less than 15 percent, and while mathematically generated odds don’t automatically rule out a late run, a low probability isn’t exactly a reason to dive into the trade market looking for help.
Most of those bottom-feeding clubs have no uncertainty about where they are, of course. Teams like the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers have known for a while now that 2014 won’t be their year. Others, such as the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Minnesota Twins have begrudgingly accepted that they won’t be playing in October. These teams might not outright be sellers, but they aren’t going to give up the future for this year, either. That is, except for one team, a team that looks increasingly unlikely to make a run but seems hell-bent on making the wrong decision anyway: the Kansas City Royals.
After beating the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday for their second win in six games since the All-Star break — that’s as many wins as team meetings they’ve called — the Royals stand at 50-50. They’ve scored 398 runs and have allowed 397 runs, so the run differential suggests they’re exactly where they ought to be. And not surprisingly, most second-half projections see them ending the season at an even 81-81.
To draw an even clearer picture of just how middling this team is: The Royals are tied for 16th in baseball in runs per game and are scoring exactly the MLB average of 4.0 runs per game.
They’ve landed there in an interesting way, however. Overall, Royals hitters have been well below average, with the 24th-best team wRC+ and the fewest homers in baseball, yet with outstanding value added on the basepaths. This is a hitting group that is not elite in really anything other than baserunning. But since just one team in baseball (the Mariners) has fewer walks than the Royals, it seems the team is not even putting its solid runners in position to be effective.
Only the underrated Alex Gordon and his 122 wRC+ rates even 10 percent above a league-average hitter, while designated hitter Billy Butler and first baseman Eric Hosmer are both being outslugged by Billy Hamilton, of all people. Third baseman Mike Moustakas was so awful that he was briefly sent back to the minors, and though he has been better over the past few weeks, he still has just a .265 OBP. The Royals have been through six hitting coaches in less than two years, but it’s clear that the support staff isn’t the problem. It’s the players.
On the pitching side, their starting rotation is 14th in ERA, 17th in WAR and 25th in FIP, with the run prevention being better than the FIP in part because Kansas City is among the best defenses in baseball. Their bullpen, despite the presence of the fantastic Greg Holland and Wade Davis, is 13th in ERA and 10th in FIP. Again, there’s a lot of “middle of the road” going on here, perhaps with some decline to come: Yordano Ventura, the flame-throwing rookie sensation, struck out 56 batters in 54 2/3 innings prior to a May 26 elbow injury, but has just 29 K’s in 50 1/3 innings since, bottoming out by failing to strike out any of the 26 Red Sox hitters he faced Sunday.
The point here isn’t to toss out endless numbers and rankings, but rather to show just howaverage the Royals are. This isn’t a bad team by any means; it’s just not a team that’s built to win a championship. The baserunning and defense are good, the pitching is acceptable and the offense is mediocre. Put that all together, and it checks in as a distinctly .500 team.
Essentially, this is what they are, and what they are is seven games out in the AL Central behind the Tigers, a team they’ve lost nine of 13 to and face only six more times. The Royals are also behind four other teams in the race for the second wild card.
Doubling down on 2014?
For most teams, that’s a situation that doesn’t call for large improvements to try to win right now. But the Royals are in a tough situation, because GM Dayton Moore, who stuck his neck out by trading Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and others for James Shields and Davis prior to 2013, has been in charge for eight years now, with only a single winning season and no playoff appearances on his record. Shields is set to become a free agent this winter, and is unlikely to re-sign with the Royals.
That’s actually a very good argument for trading Shields now, positioning him as an elite starter who won’t cost as much as David Price, or even Holland, since the shelf life of relievers is so short and the Royals were burned by hanging on to Joakim Soria for too long. Of course, the Royals have been clear they aren’t going to do that. Instead, they have been linked to potential acquisitions such as Alex Rios, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo. Those are just rumors, to be sure, but they certainly indicate the thinking of the team right now. They want to win this year, while Shields is still around, and despite the fact it’s an incredible long shot for them to reach the playoffs, they may be willing to risk letting go of some prospects to do it.
But remember what that means: With the Tigers enjoying a comfortable lead and now having just added Soria, and the A’s or Angels all but certain to take the first wild-card spot, Kansas City’s only hope is to be the second wild card. That allows you to say you “Made the playoffs,” sure, but it also puts you in a situation where you’re headed into Oakland or Anaheim to face one of the two or three best teams in baseball. Since the second wild card generally goes down to the last day, there’s also a high likelihood that Shields wouldn’t be available for that game.
Is it worth it to try to add on to a decent but hardly great team just for the small possibility of having, say, Jeremy Guthrie pitching in a winner-take-all against the A’s or Angels? It hardly seems that way.
But for better or worse, that seems just the route the Royals are preparing to take.
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