Once you get beyond how painful the realities have been for all involved, the Ubaldo Jimenez trade stands out as a pretty fascinating case study for all sorts of reasons. Just consider how different the trade looked, depending both on your point of view and your point in time.
Back in July of 2011, some people saw the move as a straight up challenge trade, with the Indians taking two and half years of club control over an established ace while relinquishing twelve years of club control over two potential front-end starters in Alex White and Drew Pomeranz.
Others foresaw a damaged Ubaldo coming to Cleveland, and hated to give up on the potential of two sure-thing starters.
Others still thought the Indians fleeced the Rockies: after all, there is no such thing as a pitching prospect, and team-friendly contracts for number-one starters just don’t exist in today’s MLB.
Of course what ended up happening is that both teams fleeced each other, and neither side got what they thought they were buying. The Indians were left with a durable but mechanically flawed pitcher whose fastball lacked both its former command and velocity. Since becoming an Indian, Jimenez has thrown 242 innings, gone 13-21 and racked up a 5.32 ERA. It’s hard to get much worse than that.
Except the Rockies’ haul is trying to do just that. The duo of Pomeranz and White have combined to go 8-23 over 249.1 innings and a 5.70 ERA. Alex White pitched his way right out of town, packaged with a Class-A pitcher and sent to the Astros a few weeks ago for…..wait for it….a bullpen arm. Pomeranz, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to stick in one of the worst rotations in all of baseball, which is really saying something. When not disturbing the peace in Oxford Mississippi, he’s working on overcoming everything from appendicitis to faulty mechanics.
In other words, if such a thing is even possible, both sides lost the trade. Check out how eerily similar this exchange looks in retrospect:
In a year and a half, that’s a net difference of seven innings and 15 runs. That’s an insanely close deal (not counting, of course, the money). It’s also an insanely bad deal.
So why bring any of this up, 18 months after the fact? I’m surely not telling you anything you didn’t know, at least in general terms. Ubaldo has been bad and so have Alex White and Drew Pomeranz. What once looked like it could be one thing—the opening of a contention window; two stabilizing arms to throw at the front of Colorado’s rotation; a blockbuster challenge trade—has become something entirely different. Which is to say, a punchline.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I bring all this up as an entrée into the Royals-Rays trade that broke late Sunday night and subsequently sent the Twittersphere into an uproar. The Rays sent James Shields and Wade Davis—two good-if-not-quite-great starting pitchers—to the Royals, and in return received a veritable goody-bag of prospects headlined by Wil Myers, who ranks as perhaps the best hitting prospect in all of baseball. In addition, the Rays netted two pitching prospects of varying quality and a raw power hitter who’s not played above short-season A ball.
The story goes, among most at least, that Royals’ GM Dayton Moore was hoodwinked in the deal—that he has yet again demonstrated that he is unfit for his charge and this his prodigal ways and poor player evaluations continue to doom the Royals to last place, same as it ever was.
And to be clear, I’m pretty sure I’d rather be the Rays in this deal. I really like prospects. Not even any prospects in particular; I just like the idea of prospects. I like dreaming on players. I like thinking about how great they might become. I like imagining them taking over the sport, the way Mike Trout did last year in Anaheim. I like thinking about all the things that could be, before the exigencies of reality set in—before a tired shoulder or a hole in the swing or a UCL tear or a pulled hamstring. I like the Platonic ideal of great players, I guess, which is really all a prospect is: a bunch of “tools”. In some circles, that’s called upside, and if there’s one thing that seems clear in this trade, the Rays got more of it than the Royals did.
After all, James Shields is the biggest prize going to Kansas City, and outside of pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field he has a completely pedestrian track record: over 674.2 career innings away from Tampa he has a 4.54 ERA, a losing record and a .772 OPS against. That’s not something you trade the farm for. In fact, that’s almost exactly Josh Tomlin.
The other piece that Kansas City received in the deal, Wade Davis, couldn’t even hang in the Tampa rotation. He was moved to the bullpen in 2011 after posting a career 4.82 ERA, 5.9 K/9 and a 1.82 K/BB (that’s bad). He’s been a good reliever, but again, not great. And Kansas City has already decided to give him first dibs on a rotation spot due to their dearth of viable alternatives.
In other words, it’s pretty easy to see how the Royals side of this deal could go really bad. And it’s easy to see, too, how the Rays could turn all their shiny new prospects into gold. It’s kind of what they do down there.
But if we’ve learned anything from the Ubaldo trade, it’s that we really don’t know anything. Wil Myers might turn out like Mike Trout did. Or he might turn out like Andy Marte did. James Shields might turn out like Ubaldo Jimenez did. Or he might turn out like Cliff Lee did. Multiple years of cheap club control is a great thing, as long as the asset you’re controlling is actually worth something. There’s a non-zero chance the Rays will have just traded two good starting pitchers for a bag of magic beans. I will, for the second time in a single paragraph, cite Andy Marte, to remind you that Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the best prospect in all of baseball in 2005. As Chinua would remind us, things fall apart. Or as Nuke would put it, sometimes it rains.
And so while it hurts to go all-in and miss, Indians fans can attest to the excitement that accompanies the initial decision: we’ve seen prospects flame out and we’ve learned the hard lessons about birds in the hand. When Antonetti decided to pull the trigger on the Ubaldo deal, even the people who disagreed with the particulars of the move were largely encouraged that the team was making a push into its next contention window: the front office was trying to align a group of similarly controlled players to compete over the next few years. It was exciting to have playoff thoughts again, after years of being irrelevant and terrible.
When the Indians consummated the Ubaldo deal, they were three and half years removed from their last playoff appearance. Three and a half years of irrelevance and patience and restocking and patience and losing and patience and cold winters and hopeless springs and then more patience.
Here’s the rub: the Royals have not been in the playoffs in 28 years. The last time the Royals made the playoffs there was no Chunnel. There were no computer viruses. The crew of the Challenger was alive. Apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa, and would be for another decade. Bernie Kosar played in the Fiesta Bowl. It has been an incomprehensibly long drought.
More than anything, that’s what the Royals trade was speaking to, and even though I find the details of the deal to be dubious (at best) from their perspective, I’m also—and I mean this totally unironically—happy for them. I remember the surge of excitement, the dawn of relevance that was cast on the Indians when they made their big move. In retrospect, it meant nothing. Everyone flamed out and we ended up right back where we started. In 2012, the Indians were outscored by a larger margin than in any season during their nominal rebuild. But that moment of going all-in still carried significance for the fanbase: all of a sudden, we mattered. And for now the Royals do too.
It’s completely possible that this move will set the Royals franchise back. In fact, it’s probably likely.
But I’d also argue that they’re now more likely to make the playoffs next season than they were last week. And it feels impolitic for me or anyone else to tell them to shut up, hold their cards and wait five more years for their chance to win. They’ve been waiting five more years for almost three decades now.
Of all people, we should understand the need to push your chips in every once in a while, even when you don’t necessarily have the best hand. It may not be the rational play, but so far as I can tell, irrationality has a fairly sacred place in sports fandom—would rational people really invest as much time and passion as we do into costumed men performing a timed, organized ritual?
So when I see the blogosphere crucifying the Royals for their impatient negligence, their unwillingness to play their hand as it was dealt, their refusal to JUST BE RATIONAL ABOUT ALL OF THIS LOSING, I want to ask them if they’ve ever taken a chance on anything. Isn’t sports occasionally about being thrilled rather than being prudent? When did we all become investment bankers when it comes to our hobbies, anyway? I want Royals fans to feel good about this trade, if only for the hope it should represent for them.
All that said, the rational side of me is a little worried for them. Myers looks like a beast and Jeff Francouer is Kansas City’s de facto right fielder, which is….not so good.
Problem solved: Choo for Hosmer, straight-up. Let’s make it happen.