The Kansas City Royals, winners of five straight and 31 of 51 dating back to May 26, are pushing all-in in what could be their last really good chance to contend for awhile. Several core players will be free agents this winter, and their window appears to be closing.
On Monday night, the Royals acquired right-handed starter Trevor Cahill, righty reliever Brandon Maurer, and lefty reliever Ryan Buchter from the Padres in exchange for southpaws Matt Strahm and Travis Wood along with 18-year-old middle infield prospect Esteury Ruiz.
The Royals presently trail the Indians in the American League Central by just 1.5 games, and they’re in a virtual tie with the Rays for the second Wild Card spot. FanGraphs lists Kansas City’s playoff odds at 40.8 percent.
The Padres, meanwhile, are obvious sellers, as they’re 13 games back in the Wild Card race and 24.5 games back in National League West.
Looking at the haul for the win-now Royals, Trevor Cahill is probably the most interesting of the three pieces. Despite having what has mostly been a mediocre career, Cahill has been something of a revelation this season.
He’s used his curveball more than ever, and his results have improved across the board. Thanks in large part to an outside-the-zone swing rate that’s about eight percentage points better than his career average and a contact rate that’s about nine percentage points better, Cahill currently boasts a career-high 27.4 percent strikeout rate that’s about seven percentage points better than league average.
Among National League starters with a minimum of 60 innings pitched, Cahill’s 70.4 percent contact rate is fourth-best, as is his 56.8 percent ground ball rate, and his 12.8 percent swinging strike rate is ninth-best.
He missed almost two months from May 13 to July 4 with a right shoulder injury, but in 61 innings this year Cahill has an impressive 3.69 ERA/3.40 FIP/3.35 xFIP that looks more or less sustainable and is well above average. Statcast backs up Cahill’s performance, too, pegging him with the 10th-best expected wOBA among starters in baseball at .273.
Kansas City starters have the fourth-worst xFIP in the American League this season, so there was an obvious need for an upgrade. Cahill will slot into their rotation right away as one of their best starters. He’ll become a free agent after season.
Moving on to the relievers being shipped to Kansas City in the deal, Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter were two of San Diego’s better bullpen arms.
Maurer served as San Diego’s closer for most of this season, and he’s pitched better than his 5.72 ERA would indicate. In 39 1⁄3 innings, he boasts a roughly average strikeout rate (23.5 percent) and an above average walk rate (4.9 percent) and HR/9 (0.92). His inflated ERA is mostly the result of terrible luck with runners on base; his strand rate of 54.3 percent is the lowest of his career by nearly 10 points.
Buchter, meanwhile, boasts an impressive 30.7 percent strikeout rate in his career, but he’s struggled with command to the tune of a 12.2 percent career walk rate. He’s allowed a few too many home runs this year, and the result has been a middling 4.56 FIP. His high walk rate brings his xFIP all the way up to 4.42.
Despite those mediocre predictive metrics, opponents have just a .269 wOBA against Buchter in his career (spanning 102 1⁄3 innings), and the league has hit just .173/.280/.332 against him.
Turning to the return for the Padres, Travis Wood hasn’t been able to replicate the impressive numbers he put together in a career year in 2015, when he had a 28.2 percent strikeout rate. Since that time, his contact rate and chase rate have reverted back to a more pedestrian career average, and Wood has just a 6.91 ERA/4.52 FIP/5.54 xFIP in 41 2⁄3 innings this year as a result.
As part of Monday’s trade, the Royals will pay Wood’s salary through the 2018 season, totaling about $7.2 million. The result is that the Padres aren’t taking any financial burden with Wood, and stand to benefit should he regain his 2015 form.
Matt Strahm is an interesting, young power lefty. He will miss the remainder of the 2017 season after undergoing a procedure this month to repair a torn patellar tendon in his left knee.
FanGraphs’ lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen rated Strahm as the 72nd-best prospect in baseball before the season started (and before his knee injury). He projects to have a plus fastball and curveball, and Longenhagen believes in the long-term development of his changeup. Paired with plus command, Strahm could be a quality starter with years of cheap control for several seasons with the Padres.
Finally, the real wild card of the bunch is Esteury Ruiz. The Royals signed Ruiz in 2015 for $100,000 during the international signing period, and according to J.J. Cooper of Baseball America, he “immediately impressed with his ability to make consistent solid contact.” Cooper adds that Ruiz “has the bat speed and strong wrists to generate excellent exit velocities,” and that he “projects as an offensive second baseman.”
In the Arizona League this season, Ruiz hit .419/.440/.779, striking out 22 percent of the time and walking at a 4.4 percent rate. At 18 years old, he’s far from big-league ready, but Ruiz clearly has significant upside and was undoubtedly a major piece of the deal.
Ben Kaspick is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score and RotoGraphs, and the owner-operator of CoveCast, a saber-slanted San Francisco Giants podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @benkaspick or @Cove_Cast.