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Baseball 2013: Royals’ trade for Shields could be game-changer

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Saturday, March 30, 2013, at 7:32 p.m.

Having coveted starter James Shields, the soul-searching Royals finally got their man after some wheeling and dealing.

It was decision time in early December for the Royals. They had a chance to get the man they coveted, pitcher James Shields, from Tampa Bay.

Shields offered everything the Royals wanted. He was a proven performer with postseason experience and verified leadership skills honed in a small-market operation.

The Royals had been eyeing Shields for more than a year knowing — as everyone in baseball knew — of his escalating salary and the Rays’ payroll limitations.

“I think everybody anticipated that with the abundance of quality pitching that Tampa possessed,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said, “that there might be a pitcher or two available. Shields became available.

“We knew him well based on our scouting and statistical analysis. We knew, obviously, that he would improve our team.”

Further, the Royals knew the Rays saw them as a highly probable trading partner.

“That was clear by early October,” one club official said. “You know what organizations are scouting your team at all levels. Scouts have to sign for tickets, so you know — you know who is in the ballpark.

“The frequency of which Tampa was scouting our organization was probably three or four times more than anybody else.”

Tampa Bay wanted a young power hitter with ceiling, someone at the low end of the salary scale to pair with the Rays’ deep pitching corps. The Royals had outfielder Wil Myers, the consensus minor-league player of the year.

Both teams recognized the ingredients were in place for an impact deal — one the Royals believed could make them measurably better this season and beyond.

• • • 

But could the Royals really trade Myers? He had long been viewed within the organization as the best pure hitter in a wave of prospects that included Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

The general assessment was that Moustakas had the greatest power potential, that Hosmer projected to be the best all-around player, but Myers ... Myers was seen as the best hitter.

Further, Myers seemed poised to validate those assessments after a monster year in which, at age 21, he batted .314 with 37 homers and 109 RBIs at Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha.

To get Shields — or any pitcher truly capable of fronting the rotation for a postseason contender — the Royals realized they must surrender at least one of six players: Myers, Hosmer, Moustakas, Salvy Perez, Alex Gordon or Billy Butler.

“Everyone wanted Perez,” one club official said. “That includes Tampa Bay. That potential, that kind of player and that contract — there might not be anyone that teams want more.

“Some teams might have taken Gordon or Butler, but the money for those guys didn’t work for Tampa. They wanted Myers, Hosmer or Moustakas in the deal. Actually, they wanted one of those guys and more.”

Tampa Bay saw Myers as the best fit. His major-league service clock had not yet started, while Hosmer and Moustakas are each likely to qualify for arbitration prior to the 2014 season.

The Rays set Myers as their baseline price, which forced the Royals into a put-up or shut-up corner. Debate within the organization was intense. Many at the highest levels pushed to walk away from the deal.

“There were people who said we’ve got to go with (Jake) Odorizzi and (Mike) Montgomery,” Moore said. “They said we’ve got to win with those guys. Win with homegrown guys. Go with the guys who we developed.

“OK, we can do that. We’re perfectly capable of doing that. But then we’re hoping. We’re just hoping.

“I mean, you look at Clayton Kershaw, who is a pretty good pitcher. But he was a .500 pitcher (26-23) for the first three years of his career. So, yeah, we can try it with Odorizzi, and we can try it with Montgomery.

“We do that, and we’re going to be right where we are. We’re going to be looking at a kid and saying, ‘That kid has talent and upside.’ OK, but he’s not winning. I mean he’s not winning now.

“Tommy Glavine and John Smoltz, two Hall of Famers, struggled their first two years. So what’s your objective? Our objective is to start winning games and grow a group of players who are talented.

“To do that, you’d better start winning now.”

Moore’s view carried the day, but only to a certain extent. The Royals, at that point, indicated a willingness — but only a willingness — to trade Myers for the right deal.

• • • 

The Royals wanted Shields. So did lots of other teams.

He is one of five pitchers to work at least 200 innings over each of the last six years. Only Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay had more shutouts over the last five years; only Justin Verlander and Kershaw registered more strikeouts over the last two years.

“Look,” a veteran executive from a rival club said, “if James Shields had been a free agent last winter, he would have gotten more money than (Zack) Greinke. Sure, Greinke is younger (29 to 31) and might have better stuff.

“But tell me this: Who would you want to have the ball with your season on the line?”

Greinke got $147 million over six years from the Dodgers. Shields is making $10.5 million this year and projects to make $12 million in 2014 before becoming a free agent.

“Nobody is balking at the Shields contract,” Moore said. “A lot of teams were willing to take that on.

“We understood the attractiveness of James Shields within the industry.”

The Rays shopped Shields hard in search of the maximum return.

“I think we’re narrowing down the potential scenarios in how we construct our roster,” executive vice president Andrew Friedman told the Tampa Bay Times in early December, before the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn.

But the Royals had an edge. They had the guy the Rays wanted: Myers.

“We all knew,” another rival club executive said, “that the only way we get Shields is if Kansas City and Tampa couldn’t come to an agreement. Everyone knew that was a deal that fit what both teams were trying to do.”

• • 

The Royals took the plunge.

They offered Myers straight up for Shields — and pointed out what many who subsequently criticized the Royals pointed out: that it was six-plus years of Myers for what was likely to be two years of Shields.

The Rays said no. They wanted more.

“They should have wanted more,” a veteran scout said. “James Shields is a known commodity. It might be just two years, but check his track record. You know what you’re getting.

“Wil Myers might be good. He might be really good. But he might not be. You just don’t know about a player until he does it in stadiums with an upper deck.”

Negotiations on how much more lurched and stalled. The Rays asked about pitcher Yordano Ventura. The Royals said no, but it soon became clear that any deal would require a larger package from both sides.

“If we were going to give up Wil Myers,” Moore said, “we needed more stuff. And then they needed more stuff.”

The Royals wanted Wade Davis; the Rays asked for Jake Odorizzi. That moved the deal closer. But other clubs, sensing an opportunity, jumped in. Texas and Detroit each made a run at Shields. Arizona tried to orchestrate a three-team deal to acquire Shields.

For the Rays, it kept coming back to one thing: They wanted Myers.

“We tried to keep Wil Myers out of the deal as best we could,” Moore recalled. “We tried to structure it many different ways. At the end of the day, they knew our players too well, and we knew their players too well. It just made sense to try to work a deal out.”

• • 

Talks between the two teams intensified late Dec. 5 and into Dec. 6, the final two days of the winter meetings, as both sides began to add other players to the mix.

Tampa Bay came back with a final offer: Shields and Davis along with utility infielder Elliot Johnson for Myers, Odorizzi, Montgomery and short-season third baseman Patrick Leonard.

The Rays agreed to keep Johnson on their roster until February to aid the Royals’ roster crunch. The trade would be announced as Shields, Davis and a player to be named later.

Moore sensed this was it. Now or never. He pulled his top lieutenants together for a final session in his hotel suite. It was closing in on 2 a.m. on Dec. 6. The winter meetings would formally end in a few hours.

Did the Royals really want to do this? The deal represented an enormous hit on the club’s farm system. It was decision time.

It wasn’t just Myers, either.

Odorizzi was their pitching prospect closest to the majors; Montgomery, at 23, still offered remarkable upside potential; Leonard oozed projectable power with 14 homers in 62 games in his first pro season.

Moore wrote the names of each player on a white board along with the organization’s other top prospects at that position. The system’s much-acclaimed depth quickly came into sharper focus.

Erase Myers, but the Royals still had Bubba Starling and Jorge Bonifacio. OK, Leonard is gone, but Cheslor Cuthbert is 20, and he’s in High-A; Leonard is 21, and he’s in the short-season Appalachian League.

Leonard might be a good player, but Cuthbert has a higher ceiling, is younger and playing at a high level.

Odorizzi was tough to surrender, but club officials agreed Ventura and Kyle Zimmer were better bets to be front-end guys.

Montgomery is a lefty who still possesses considerable upside despite two successive disappointing seasons, but Moore’s board showed considerable depth.

Danny Duffy should return from elbow surgery by midseason; John Lamb was viewed by many as a better prospect than Montgomery prior to his surgery in 2011. He now appears healthy.

And the Royals like Sam Selman, their second-round pick in 2012.

Suddenly, the losses didn’t seem so bad. That feeling solidified throughout the organization over the following 24 hours after everyone returned to Kansas City.

“Would our farm system still be better than it was 2007?” Moore asked. “Absolutely. Better than in 2008? Yep. Better than it was in 2009? Yeah. Better than it was in 2010? No. In 2011? No.

“Would it be better now, with these guys gone, than it was in 2012? No, but it’s still a good farm system.…

“We’ve proven we can build farm systems everywhere we’ve been. Whether it’s Mike Arbuckle in Philadelphia, us in Atlanta, us here in Kansas City … we’ve built farm systems.

“What we’ve got to do is prove we can win at the major-league level. We’ve got to start winning.”

• • • 

Moore and other club officials took one last hard look at their club.

They saw a young collection of high-ceiling position players who combined run-production potential with above-average defense. They saw a deep bullpen loaded with power arms.

The rotation was already improved after getting Ervin Santana in a trade from the Los Angeles Angels and retaining free-agent Jeremy Guthrie. Even so, everyone knew they still needed more.

Shields and Davis, the Royals believed, might be enough to turn the rotation into a strength. Slowly, Moore and his staff began to see the deal in terms of what they were getting rather than what they were giving up.

“If you focus on what you’re giving up, emotionally, you really get involved,” Moore said. “You have to focus on what you’re getting and how it’s helping your team and the future of your organization.”

The Royals saw a rotation of Shields, Santana, Guthrie and Davis. It was too much to resist.

“We agreed,” Moore said. “We finally agreed. We tried to pull certain players out at the last minute, but they were very sure about what they wanted.

“For us, it was just a matter of gaining a comfort level with trading those guys. You try to build a consensus within your organization about what is going to happen. Finally, you just say this is what we’re going to do.”

Similar angst surfaced at Tampa Bay, which had great reluctance in parting with Shields despite the financial realities.

He was the longest-tenured player in franchise history and the staff’s undisputed leader.

“Personally, I think this is the most difficult trade we’ve made to date,” Friedman said.

Two days later, on Dec. 9, the trade became official. It was a day before Myers turned 22.

“It’s been quite a birthday,” he admitted the following day on a conference call. “I just want to go out and try to be an exciting player.”

Shields took the news philosophically.

“I thought I might be able to squeeze in one more year (at Tampa Bay),” he said, “but that was being kind of selfish. I’m excited to go over there, but this is definitely a sad day for me and my family.”

Both teams had what they wanted.

“Wil Myers, from what I understand, is a potential high-impact, middle-of-the-order bat,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “Just like Shields is a high-impact, top-of-the-rotation pitcher.

“It sounds like a good trade for both sides.”

The Royals saw the deal, even at its high price, as a turning point in their transition under Moore from perennial doormat to legitimate contender.

“Three or four years from now,” Moore said, “Wil Myers is going to be doing well, and we’re going to have to have the next-best guy. Hopefully, we’ve got other players coming, and we’re doing well.

“It doesn’t stop here. We’ve got to keep doing it. If we don’t go to the playoffs this year, it’s not a disaster. Most people who are objective will tell you the Royals had a very good offseason, that the Royals improved their team.”

Critics say two years of Shields isn’t enough for what the Royals gave up.

“I believe and it’s my hope,” Moore said, “that it’s going to set us on a different course whether Shields is here in 2015 or not. That’s what I go back to all of the time with that deal.

“We can’t win unless we have consistency in our rotation. And if we don’t start winning, we’re never going to be ready to win.”

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