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Do the Royals have the arms to throw down?

James Shields finally gives the Kansas City rotation an anchor, but there are question marks aplenty behind him.

A lot of people are calling James Shields a reach.
A lot of people are calling James Shields a reach.

The best farm system in the minors turned the Kansas City Royals into monsters in the making, but the inability to produce a single starter kept them in a dormant state. We would know when they were serious when they started to convert their position talent into pitching.

Dayton Moore made quite the statement on Sunday night, when he acquired reliable righty James Shields and bullpen arm Wade Davis from the Tampa Bay Rays for a hefty, hefty price:

  • Wil Myers (top minors slugger)
  • Jake Odorizzi (KC's best pitching prospect)
  • Mike Montgomery (former highly rated lefty who's fallen on hard times)
  • Patrick Leonard (a sleeper third baseman).

Right now, Royals bloggers/fans are at the "monkey demands answers" stage. The commenters at Royals Review are apoplectic, Rany Jazayerli went on a multi-tweet rampage, Rob Neyer called it the "worst trade ever," and there will be more to come.

There's no wonder why. Myers hit .314/.387/.600 between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha as a 21-year-old, which earned him the title of Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year. Mike Trout won that award last year, but Alex Gordon won it in 2006, and it took about five years for him to contribute at an All-Star level. Dayton Moore, whose ass is likely on the line this year, doesn't have that kind of time.

So Moore chose to bank on the Royals making a run over the next two years, going head-to-head with the White Sox's commitments to their veteran-laden core, and the Tigers' top-end talent and deep pockets. He thinks Shields can be the guy to get the Royals there.

You can read everywhere else (FanGraphs, Keith Law, Kansas City Star, for starters; Grantland oughta be interesting later today) to gauge the reaction and worth of the overall trade, which is decidedly anti-Royals. It's easy to see why. They have limited resources, and they just dealt the Minor League Player of the Year and their best pitching prospect for just two years of a very good starter, and several years of a good bullpen guy. Plus, Dayton Moore has done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt over Andrew Friedman.

I'm more interested in the overarching message of the Royals' side of the trade, which declares, "James Shields makes our rotation ready for contention." That's hard to see when you look at the seven pitchers they can use to form a five-man staff:

  1. James Shields
  2. Jeremy Guthrie
  3. Ervin Santana
  4. Luis Mendoza
  5. Wade Davis
  6. Bruce Chen
  7. Luke Hochevar

Shields is good. He may have peaked in 2011, when he posted a 2.82 ERA over 2491/3 innings and threw a league-leading 11 complete games, but his regression to the mean still helped the Rays quite a bit (15-10, 3.52 ERA over 227 2/3 innings).

Moreover, he's as durable as anybody, throwing 200 innings in each of the last six seasons. The Royals haven't had a 200-inning guy since 2010, when Zack Greinke hit that number for a third straight year, so you can see why Shields held special meaning.

But it's hard to see how Shields is special enough to get the Royals over the hump while carrying the guys behind him, unless another move is in store. With the Royals well over their announced break-even point, that seems unlikely.

Guthrie might be better than people give him credit for ... or he might be ordinary at best. It's hard to say. We saw a world-beater who dominated the White Sox four times in four starts over the second half, but, as is often the case with the Royals, he wasn't so special to the rest of the league:

vs. Sox 1-0 0.30 4 29.2 21 5 1 0 2 19 0.78 6.4 5.8
vs. Rest
4-3 4.52 10 61.1 63 32 31 9 17 37 1.30 9.2 5.4

Behind Guthrie is the last of the Royals' locks, Ervin Santana. He's coming off a terrible year (9-13, 5.16 ERA, and a league-leading 39 homers over 178 innings). Two years before, he gave Los Angeles a couple of good third-starter years, with more than 220 innings and a sub-4.00 ERA in both 2010 and 2011. He's a decent rebound candidate, but the Royals have to bank on a pretty big turnaround.

The Royals can mix and match from that point out. Mendoza had a decent year with a good finish in 2012, and seems like a better option than Chen and Hochevar, who each posted 5-plus ERAs, and Hochevar spectacularly so.

Wade Davis is the wild card. He had a great year out of the bullpen for Tampa Bay last year. Problem is, he had two mediocre seasons as a starter before that. The Royals want to use him as a starter, but history says his stuff doesn't play up well enough.

Long story short, here are the last full-season ERAs (and ERA+'s) of the top seven Royals pitchers expected to put together a playoff-caliber rotation next year, compared to what the White Sox and Tigers are bringing back at the moment:

No. 1 3.52 (108) 3.37 (129) 2.64 (160)
No. 2 4.76 (94) 3.05 (142) 3.74 (113)
No. 3 5.16 (73) 4.29 (101) 3.45 (122)
No. 4 4.23 (97) 3.76 (115) 4.59 (92)
No. 5 4.45 (85) 4.66 (93)* 3.99 (106)**
No. 6 5.07 (81)
No. 7 5.73 (71)

*John Danks' 2011-12. It seems fair to let his injury drag down his 2011 numbers, given his uncertain state.
**Drew Smyly's 93 innings.

The Royals have a couple things going for it off this board -- their bullpen will probably be the division's best (especially if they add Davis to it), which will take stress off their starters. They'll also get Danny Duffy back from Tommy John surgery around the All-Star break, and he offers a shot at upside in the second half. The same goes for Felipe Paulino, to a lesser degree.

But the White Sox and Tigers have silver linings of their own. If Danks can recover from shoulder surgery, the Sox are going to be as tough as anybody through their top three spots. Detroit could retain Anibal Sanchez after he flirts with the open market, which would be an upgrade over Smyly or Rick Porcello.

It would make more sense if Shields were younger and/or had a future-friendlier contract than two years and $21 million, because he would give the rotation an anchor as the rest of the lineup grows up. But after 2014, Shields is a free agent and Duffy remains the only projectable starter as the other young Royals begin to cost real money (except Salvador Perez, whose five-year, $7 million contract might be the envy of the division). And that's assuming that Eric Hosmer gets back on track and Mike Moustakas' development accelerates, which may not be a given.

The Royals are undoubtedly more formidable in the short term, but it's hard to imagine they'll play the White Sox tougher than they did in 2012 (it would help if the Sox could take advantage of Jeff Francoeur, whom Myers was supposed to replace). And then you introduce the Tigers, and it's hard to imagine that Shields is enough to drive a turnaround that is supposed to flip a 72-90 record in two years' time. Stranger things have happened (see the 2012 Orioles), but this smells like a forced move by a guy fighting to keep his job. I don't think it's going to cripple their rebuilding effort, but by sacrificing a considerable edge in cheap talent for a short-term pitching fix, the Royals' future isn't what it used to be.