With the weekend addition of former Reds ace Johnny Cueto, the Kansas City Royals demonstrated they were not the Royals of our youth (if you're under 35 anyway, if you're in your 50s, then maybe it IS like the Royals of your youth).
Tuesday, KC added another piece to a team that already has the best record in the American League by acquiring 34-year-old ‘super utility' player, Ben Zobrist.
Zobrist has played nearly everywhere in his decade-long career but in 2015 has predominantly manned second base and left field, two positions of need for the Royals. Second base has been a position in dire need of improvement since the start of the season, as the team has rolled Omar Infante out there day after painful day. Second base as a whole has been of negative value to the Royals; the position has been worth -0.4 wins above replacement per FanGraphs.
Omar Infante started 92 games at second while Christian Colon picked up the other 29. Combined, they have one home run, a .256 on base percentage, and a wRC+ 47 percent below league average. As a team, only the White Sox have been worse, though admittedly neither Carlos Sanchez nor Micah Johnson made a run at the All Star Game (thanks fan voting!). Second base has been a pit for KC, but it has not slowed them down in the Central division.
Zobrist has been a credible defensive second baseman for several years (he will never lead the league in defensive runs saved but he won't destroy a team up the middle either). He is currently posting a slight negative value at second, per the Baseball Reference Defensive Runs Saved stat. He has cost the Athletics a few runs at second, but it's not like he's Jose Vidro out there (hey look at that, an Expos player made the post!).
At this point in Zobrist's career, teams pretty much know what they're getting from him offensively. He is a .260/.350/.430ish hitter with some (but not a lot of) pop, which is a significant upgrade over the general awfulness the Royals have tossed up the middle so far in 2015. Due to his solid defensive versatility and offense, Zobrist has been worth at least 5 fWAR each season from 2011-2014. For the first time in his career, he is walking more than he is striking out, a generally rare feat. After a slow start and an injury, Zobrist has become his regular self. He is projected to provide around 1.3 fWAR for the rest of the season, which is pretty much 1.3 fWAR more than the Royals were getting at second base.
...but wait, there's more! Zobrist has played half of his games in left field, which has become a bit unstable since Alex Gordon went out with a groin injury last month. Gordon is a legitimate All Star (weird I have to qualify that...) and will be out recovering from a severe injury until at least September. Having Zobrist's versatility is a plus because it means the Royals will not have to give mid-summer and early-autumn innings to the likes of the aged Alex Rios (0.0 fWAR in 55 games) or the obscure Paulo Orlando (0.6 fWAR in 45 games) every game.
The Royals can roll with Zobrist at second and an outfield of Lorenzo Cain, Alex Rios, and a Jarrod Dyson/Orlando platoon (not the best choice), or they can start Infante up the middle and put Cain, Zobrist, and some combination of Dyson, Rios, and Orlando in the outfield. Either way is an improvement over the status quo. The optimal thing to do is to have Zobrist start at second and give as many outfield innings as possible to Cain and Dyson while switching out Orlando and Rios with each other as needed. Of the outfielders they have, Cain, Zobrist, and Dyson are more valuable and should get as much time as they can. What the Royals actually will do is probably something like have Zobrist in left field, Cain in center, Rios in right, and Infante at second. The projected gain (1-2 wins) from having Zobrist at second over Infante full time changes when Zobrist is taking playing time from an Orlando/Dyson platoon.
Adding Ben Zobrist did actually come with a cost (though from some social media commentary, one would never have guessed that!). The Royals gave up pitching prospect Sean Manaea and pitcher Aaron Brooks; Manaea is the player with the higher ceiling, while Brooks is a bit more "seasoned" and his stuff a bit more "established" (not that it's good, mind you).
Sean Manaea was Kansas City's first round pick in the 2013 draft. In two years on the farm, he has ascended to double-A. Following the 2014 season, Baseball America listed him as the third best prospect in the Royals' system and number 81 on the BA overall top 100 list. Due to health problems he has started only seven games in 2015.
Aaron Brooks has thrown some innings in KC but subsequently ended up back in the minors because those seven total innings were absolutely horrific (20.57 ERA!). Though he is only 25, Brooks could be getting close to being classified as a quad-A player. Perhaps a move to the Athletics bullpen makes the most sense; he lacks the big stuff to be able to strike out hitters at an exciting clip. He may be more of a mop-up reliever than anything special.
Ultimately, the Royals gave the A's two pitching question marks, one with decent upside and questions surrounding his health and one who could be a pen arm or an org player. In exchange, they upgraded two positions of need with one player. Pitching prospects flame out more than hitting prospects, and it is true that every prospect is a suspect until he proves himself at the major league level. The Royals did well with this trade, and the A's really had nothing to lose considering Zobrist's contract is up at the end of the season. The window is wide open for KC, so take a deep breath of some fresh Midwestern winning air.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score and a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.