For the third straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.
In December 2012, the Royals and Rays made one of the most memorable blockbuster trades of my lifetime. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons, though. The Royals sent Wil Myers, one of the best prospects in baseball, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard to Tampa Bay for James Shields, Wade Davis, and Elliot Johnson. It was seen as a huge win for the Rays and a huge blunder by the Royals. Of course, we all know how much the results favored the Royals.
In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. In this particular trade that is especially important.
Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties. It should be noted that a short retrospective was recently covered by Pete Grathoff at the Kansas City Star.
In the heartland, the Royals had not made the playoffs since their World Series win in 1985. General Manager Dayton Moore had done an excellent job building an historically good farm system, but the team really did not look all that close to contending. They were coming off a 72-win season where two of their prized prospects, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, disappointed. They also had multiple holes in the lineup and a poor starting rotation.
Wil Myers was universally seen as one of the best prospects in baseball. He was expected to be the Royals’ star corner outfielder for years to come. He is exactly the kind of player that small market teams need. That is why the Rays acquired him. James Shields was still a good pitcher on a team-friendly contract, but a team like the Rays has to constantly think about the future, even when they are competitive. It is a moot point, actually. The return for Shields and Davis was high enough that any team would have made the deal, regardless of where they were in their competitive window.
Myers, Shields, and Davis were the major players in the deal. The rest were more or less throw-ins. The fact that the Rays were able to get players in addition to Myers is unbelievable.
Both sides were dealing from a position of strength. The Royals had a historically good farm system. The Rays had one of the best starting rotations in baseball. What they needed was some outfield help. Ironically, the Royals needed an outfielder even more than the Rays did, and even more than they needed rotation help, but they traded Myers anyway.
This deal was almost universally panned. FanGraphs Managing Editor Dave Cameron accused the Royals of being desperate and mortgaging their future. He said it was worse than the trade of Eric Bedard for Adam Jones. ESPN’s Keith Law basically said the same thing. Yahoo Sports’ David Brown did not feel as strongly as most, but he still called it a bad trade. Ben Lindbergh, then the editor-in-chief at Baseball Prospectus, was also critical of the deal, but he gave a more interesting, nuanced take.
Rany Jazayerli, one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus and possibly the world’s most famous Royals fan, ripped the trade at Grantland. He compared the trade to the Mark Teixeira deal in 2007. Here at SB Nation, Craig Brown echoed a similar sentiment.
Law and former GM Jim Bowden, then of ESPN, surveyed their many sources in front offices and in the scouting world to gauge the industry’s thoughts on the deal. They reported that their sources loved the deal for the Rays and hated the deal for the Royals. Interestingly enough, Baseball America did something similar. They asked three AL scouts and three AL front office executives for their opinions, and actually saw the trade positively from the Royals’ perspective. Of course, they naturally loved it more for the Rays, regardless of how they viewed it for the Royals.
The general problems with their arguments were that they overrated Shields, overlooked that the Royals came off a season where they won only 72 games, and overlooked the fact that trading away Myers left them with a gaping hole in right field. One executive did not like the trade for the Royals, but his claim that the trade made the team better is highly questionable for reasons that we will get to shortly.
I believe that this is one of the most lopsided trades that I can remember. That being said, it was not completely indefensible. Smart analysts use players’ values to assess trades. However, that is not the only factor that goes into them. As I have pointed out before, market and leverage matter too. Those factors have come more to the forefront as a result of Eric Hosmer’s free agency. Whatever he might be worth based on talent and age, the fact of the matter is that competitive teams do not really require his services, especially when first base is the easiest position to fill.
Yahoo Sports’s Jeff Passan pointed out the importance of market and leverage in the Royals’ defense five years ago. Per his reporting, Moore was having a hard time getting fair value for Myers. He could not even get the A’s to give up Brett Anderson straight up, and even that would have been a poor trade. I can only speculate, but it appears that teams were well aware of Moore’s desperation and used that to their advantage. Why pay fair price when you can negotiate for a lot less?
While lack of leverage and a rich farm system are fair points in the Royals’ defense, they do not go anywhere near far enough to rationalize this trade. It is okay to overpay for that one extra piece you need. The Royals, however, were coming off a 72-win season, so it was reasonable to believe that the first year of that two-year window would go to waste.
The Royals’ rotation had a collective 5.32 RA9 and was one of baseball’s worst in 2012, so obviously that was a big need for them. The thing is that their offense was also bad. Mike Moustakas disappointed at the plate, and Eric Hosmer was even worse. They got no production from their second basemen, which is a problem that found a long term solution only recently with the rise of Whit Merrifield.
The Royals also got no production from right field. In fact, the Royals have gotten little to no production from that position ever since that trade... which is where Wil Myers would have played. The Royals’ former right fielder, Jeff Francoeur, was one of the worst players in baseball in 2012, hitting .235/.287/.378 and being worth -2.5 bWAR. One could reasonably claim that Myers could have added at least as many wins as Shields and Davis. It would also have saved the team tens of millions of dollars and not limit contention to a two-year window. This is why the claim that the trade made the Royals better was, at best, debatable.
James Shields was not the ace that the Royals needed, coming off a season where he had a 4.07 RA9. He did have an excellent 2011, but he was clearly not the same impact player anymore. Wade Davis had shown himself to be a fifth starter. Myers straight up was worth an ace, or at least a couple of number two pitchers. Negotiations with the Rays should have started with David Price and accepted nothing less.
Since it was believed that the Royals would be unlikely to compete for a pennant in 2013, it would have been better for Moore to wait for a better deal to arise, perhaps closer to the trade deadline when sellers have a lot more leverage and contenders and pretenders are fairly well-established.
I tried to find articles that viewed the trade favorably for the Royals, and it was surprisingly difficult to come upon them. The defense of this trade is the same thing you hear whenever there is an uneven trade involving prospects: something along the lines of “prospect hugging,” or overvaluing unproven players, or citing how unpredictable prospects can be.
It is important to take a firm stance on this: those are tired, boring non-sequiturs that add nothing to a conversation. Baseball is hard to predict because it is incredibly random. We all know that, thanks. The fact of the matter is that prospects have value, and that value should be assessed based on what is known at the time to be the most likely outcome for the players involved. It does not make any sense to give executives credit for getting lucky after the fact.
Last week, I covered the J.A. Happ trade, a trade that made perfect sense for both sides and had predictable results. The Wil Myers trade is the complete opposite of that example, and that is precisely what makes it so interesting.
The Royals made a huge improvement in 2013 and just barely missed the playoffs, but it had little to do with the trade. Shields was very good with a 3.23 RA9 and 4.1 bWAR.
Unfortunately, Davis gave back a lot of that value, performing as one of the worst pitchers in baseball that year with a 5.92 RA9 and -2.1 bWAR. Meanwhile, Myers had a great debut in Tampa Bay, hitting .293/.354/.478 in 88 games, and earning the AL Rookie of the Year award. At 1.9 bWAR, Myers was actually roughly equal to the value of Shields and Davis, and at a fraction of the cost. After one year, this trade was looking as bad as everyone anticipated.
Things started to change unexpectedly in 2014. Shields was only slightly worse in 2014, but he was still a good, productive pitcher. Myers’ season, on the other hand, was rather disastrous. He struggled over the first couple months of the season with a line of .227/.313/.354, and then he missed almost three months with a wrist injury. The injury seemed to still affect him when he came back. He hit only .213/.263/.268 the rest of the year. That is a paltry 48 wRC+.
The biggest surprise came from Wade Davis, who had shown quite a bit of talent as a reliever in the past, but really came into his own in 2014. He had a 1.00 RA9, struck out 39 percent of hitters, and gave up zero home runs. It is one of the best seasons a reliever has ever had! What might be even more surprising is that he barely regressed in 2015. His strikeout rate dropped below a third of hitters faced, and he actually gave up a few home runs, but his run average rose to only a 1.07 RA9.
Davis finally came back down to earth in 2016 while struggling with injuries. The Royals traded him to the Cubs in 2017 for Jorge Soler. His health and strikeout rate rebounded to 2014-2015 levels, but his run average rose to a 2.45 RA9. That is still excellent, of course. He recently signed a three-year, $52 million deal with the Rockies, becoming the highest paid reliever ever on a per-year basis.
Davis’ explosion as a reliever is one of the biggest surprises in recent memory. If it were predictable, the Royals would have put him in the bullpen immediately. The difference between his 2013 and 2014 seasons was 5.8 WAR! The Royals only missed the playoffs by one game in 2013, too!
Shields left in free agency after 2014 and signed with the Padres. He had a decent 2015 season but fell off a cliff after that. Myers was surprisingly traded to the Padres after his awful 2014 season. The Rays were apparently high on Steven Souza, so much that they traded Myers for him. It was an evaluation that was met with skepticism among prospect analysts. Souza disappointed in in 2015 and 2016, but he started to justify the Rays’ belief in him in 2017. He hit .239/.351/.459 (a 120 wRC+) and added value defensively and on the base-paths.
When he first arrived in San Diego, Myers tried to play center field. I actually saw one of his first games there at Petco Park. I am not a scout, but he clearly lacked the speed to handle the position; consequently, he has been a full time first baseman since 2016. Unfortunately, Myers has not been the star he was projected to be, but he has been a solid major leaguer. The Padres signed him to a 6-year, $83 million extension about a year ago, in a heavily back-loaded deal that will pay him $20 million a year over the last three years of the contract. Coincidentally, Myers and Shields overlapped for a year and a half in San Diego.
Of the lesser players included in the trade, Jake Odorizzi has been the most interesting. He struggled in his first two years in Tampa Bay, but he was quite good in 2015 and 2016. Those years combined for a 3.66 RA9 and 6.6 bWAR. Unfortunately, his command dipped in 2017 and he was a replacement level player.
Mike Montgomery ended up getting traded to the Mariners before making his major league debut in 2015. He then got traded to the Cubs the following year and has been working mostly in relief. His claim to fame is getting the last out for the Cubs in the 2016 World Series. Patrick Leonard is still in the Rays’ system and has yet to reach the majors.
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We all know what happened with the Royals. They came within one game of a championship in 2014 and won it all in 2015. Narrative not withstanding, Shields obviously had nothing to do with the 2015 win, and Davis’s contributions both years were completely unforeseeable.
In 2014, Shields was the best pitcher in a weak rotation. The Royals’ historically good defense and bullpen were the big reasons why they hosted the Wild Card game that year — one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen, by the way — but Shields played his part. Despite the poor rationale behind the trade, the Royals got great production for the money they spent.
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Myers’ results are brutal. Even had the Rays kept him, his production since the trade has not been overwhelming. He is a productive player, but we were all hoping and projecting he would be more than that. The Royals came out way ahead on the results. It was extraordinarily lucky.
While I will stand by the fact that Moore deserves to be criticized for this deal considering what was known at the time, and regardless of the results, the fact of the matter is that flags fly forever. Perhaps the Royals would have still won a championship with Myers, but we will never know.
Furthermore, it is important to state that this trade should not define Moore as a GM. In other words, he is not a “bad” GM because he executed a poorly thought-out baseball transaction. He has made good transactions too, and he must be credited with overseeing the building of a historically good farm system. That takes a lot of skill and intelligence.
I want to say this trade is a reminder for everyone to remember the importance of process over results, but here’s the thing: I believe that it is very unlikely that we will see a trade this lopsided again anytime soon. Front offices are too smart nowadays. They understand player value. Right now, for example, the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that, among other reasons, “GMs are reluctant to trade prospects and sign free agents, terrified of facing criticism if they make a mistake.” There will still be head-scratching trades, for sure, but nothing like this.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.