It finally happened: The Kansas City Royals, after weeks of trying, managed to trade one of the Top 10-or-so prospects in baseball for a veteran starting pitcher. It was the most common scenario, too—Wil Myers to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields—but that didn't preclude an extended round of reflection and accusation about it once it actually went through. That's one of the weird facts of baseball's distended news cycle: No matter how tired you are of talking about something before it happens, the actual transaction makes all the boring, over-planted old arguments newly compelling.
The most compelling for-case I've heard, or at least the most constant, is that we're overrating Wil Myers. He strikes out a ton, the PCL's league OPS was .775, etc. The short version involves screaming Brandon Wood's name until he appears in your bathroom mirror and tries unsuccessfully to stab you a bunch of times. Other writers have insisted we're underrating James Shields, or the very fact of having James Shields.
It's been interesting, but I don't think it's going to sway a lot of people because this is a trade you like or dislike in broad strokes. To score points for your side of it you can't just slice a few WAR from a player's projection—you have to argue that projections are entirely wrongheaded about his value.
I'm not prepared to do that about either of these guys, despite Myers's strikeouts and Shields's odd rWAR-fWAR gap, and I don't think it matters very much.
You like this trade if you think that the appearance of contention can cultivate future contention—that is, if you believe it's important or at least beneficial to show the city, other free agents, and the rest of the team that you're prepared to contend, because that will facilitate future contention. For a while in the mid-aughts teams attempted this almost exclusively by acquiring Ivan Rodriguez, which Dayton Moore might yet try.
You dislike this trade if you think that the appearance of contention in years—2013 and 2014—when the Royals probably won't contend is not important, especially when the trade negatively impacts years when they might.
I'm sympathetic to the first argument, which seems like a sports version of the broken windows theory. Nobody wants to follow or play for a team that's become a black hole, even if Space America keeps saying this is the year some light will escape it.
But it's the kind of narrative that's built on the back of its own failed half-starts. The 2003 Tigers weren't bad because they lacked credibility; they were bad because the players they'd signed and extended while trying to appear credible weren't very good. They made all the Becoming Credible moves—they signed the faces of the franchise to big extensions, they picked up an All-Star in free agency, they even traded for an established superstar.
The faces of the franchise were Bobby Higginson and Damion Easley, the All-Star free agent was Dean Palmer, and the established superstar was Juan Gonzalez, and even when they were playing well the Tigers were not propelled toward competing by the force of their reputations. In this case they eventually played so badly that the Tigers had one of the worst seasons in baseball history, whereupon they repeated the process.
The Royals aren't pushing themselves toward that kind of season by trading for James Shields, but the move suggests they either believe they've got a two-year window in which they can surprise people by competing—I hope that one is the case—or are trying to build a successful team by building something that looks like a successful team. If you don't have the players, that one doesn't work.
On Twitter yesterday I related this trade to the Mark Mulder deal Walt Jocketty made. I mostly just did it to depress myself, but I think there's something similar at work in both cases. (And not just because they both involve hard-hitting, young-for-his-league ex-catcher prospects.)
Mulder appealed to the Cardinals because he looked like a thing that contending teams had, and those were the terms in which the trade was justified: He's An Ace, a Left-Hander, a Steadying Presence at the front of the rotation. Never mind that the Cardinals were a contending team already, or that Mark Mulder wasn't quite an ace, or that Dan Haren and Daric Barton and Kiko Calero all offered runs that could be cashed into wins at the same rate, even though they all threw right-handed.
James Shields appeals to the Royals because he looks like a thing that contending teams have, and the Royals wish to contend. But the Royals aren't a starter away (1.3 WAR to -1.7 WAR) any more than they are a right fielder away (-2.7 WAR), and their young core won't be any less young or worrisomely underperforming now that they've traded one of them away. They've turned two years that should be an upward path toward contention into must-win seasons, and the rest of the team doesn't look ready to be the team Dayton Moore imagines.
I think these Royals will surprise us, in the way that frivolously under-replacement teams sometimes do. Their utility infielder and right fielder, even if they were still Yuniesky Betancourt and Jeff Francoeur, probably won't combine for -4 WAR again; Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas probably won't hit so badly; their pitching is going to improve from an incredibly low base.
But there's no magic in having James Shields around—there's just the value he provides as a pitcher. The Shields trade isn't bad because of your valuation of Wil Myers or your valuation of James Shields. It's bad because it betrays what looks like a total misunderstanding of what kind of team the Kansas City Royals are, and what kind of team they'll look like as contenders.