The Kansas City Royals are one victory away from the American League Championship Series. This is remarkable, considering the Royals are almost two years removed from a trade mocked as the low point of a franchise all too familiar with baseball purgatory.
On Dec. 9, 2012, the Royals completed a six-player deal with the Tampa Bay Rays that basically came down to its headliners: Outfielder Wil Myers, regarded as the No. 1 prospect in the minor leagues, to the Rays in exchange for right-handed starting pitcher James Shields.
Critics saw it as fiscally irresponsible for the Royals to trade a can’t-miss star, under longtime control of the club, for a future free agent guaranteed $22.5 million through this season. Shields produced decent numbers at Tampa Bay, conventional thinking went, but those numbers were skewed by a home ballpark agreeable to pitchers and his team’s cutting-edge emphasis on defense.
Furthermore, the Royals were wallowing in the mire of a 72-90 record — their eighth consecutive losing season, extending a playoff drought that began in 1986. What sense did it make to sacrifice the future when the present looked so gloomy?
General manager Dayton Moore thought it made plenty of sense. He had built a roster with a surplus of gap-hitting players once hyped as elite prospects — a roster of Wil Myers’ types — but a terrible starting rotation undermined anything the offense was able to accomplish.
Enter Shields, who anchored the rotation during the Royals’ turnaround 2013 season — they finished 86-76 — and has served as the ace for the 2014 AL wild card winners. The crummy-to-competent transformation of Kansas City’s starting staff wasn’t as simple as acquiring Shields, of course, but the Royals aren’t in a driver’s seat position for playoff advancement Sunday if Moore doesn’t risk eternal ridicule by trading the 2011 minor league player of the year.
Which brings us to the Mariners, whose struggles over the last decade have mirrored those of the Royals. And while the specifics are different — Kansas City’s challenge was to prevent runs, Seattle’s challenge was (and remains) to score runs — the dots are connectable.
Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik needs to make a Myers-for-Shields trade, except in reverse. Instead of exchanging a young and heralded position player for a proven pitcher, Zduriencik should exchange a young and heralded pitching prospect for a proven hitter.
By “young and heralded,” you know what I mean. I mean Taijuan Walker, who concluded his up-and-down, injury-stalled season with a complete-game gem at Toronto. While every Mariners starter was either physically or emotionally gassed on the road trip that sabotaged an entire season, Walker stepped up and delivered.
Walker, 22, is a talent on the cusp of greatness. He’s also a trade chip.
So is James Paxton. His season was truncated by a prolonged stay on the disabled list, but when Paxton was good to go, he looked like a pitcher blessed with stuff rare for a 25-year old left-hander: Not only can he throw heat, he’s pretty sure where the heat is going.
The Mariners are in search of a hitter or two — OK, three — to bolster a middle-of-the-lineup attack that begins with Robinson Cano and ends with Kyle Seager. The search wasn’t solved when Zduriencik picked up Kendrys Morales from Minnesota in a so-what, shrug-of-the-shoulders deal that amounted to a salary dump for the Twins, and it wasn’t solved with the deadline-day acquisitions of outfielders Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia.
If Zduriencik’s presumed pursuit of Tigers’ slugger Victor Martinez ends up fruitless, the free-agent market for middle-of-the-lineup impacts is desolate. (Definition of desolate: when the most coveted player out there soon turns 36, and figures to demand a $50 million contract that won’t expire until he’s 40.)
Zduriencik must make a trade, a gutsy trade, a trade with a lot more at stake than obtaining Jackson from Detroit in the three-team deal that cost them middle infielder Nick Franklin.
Taijuan Walker for a hitter? That works. James Paxton for a hitter? That works, too. Both Walker and Paxton for, say, a hitter with the clout of the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton?
Go for it, Jack, and don’t worry about the immediate feedback.
When Kansas City swapped Myers to the Rays for Shields, the esteemed Rany Jazayerli — a co-founder of Baseball Prospectus — offered his typically reasoned take on Grantland.com.
“This is a terrible trade for the Royals, deeply flawed in both theory and execution,” Jazayerli wrote. “And while it might make the Royals marginally more likely to make the playoffs in 2013, it does irreparable damage to their chances of building a perennial winner.”
The terrible trade that did irreparable damage in Kansas City has worked out like this: Myers, the defending AL Rookie of the Year, hit .222 this season for a Rays team that lost 85 games. Shields starts Sunday for a Royals team on the verge of an improbable knockout-punch sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.