Trading Shields to Royals A Significant Short-Term Risk for the Rays But A Steal of A Trade for the Future
By Robbie Knopf
The Rays pulled off a franchise-defining trade on Sunday night, trading away James Shields and Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals for top outfield prospect Wil Myers, highly-regarded pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi and lefty Mike Montgomery, and third baseman Patrick Leonard, who spent 2012 at Rookie Ball. It was a trade of shocking proportions- even Andrew Friedman himself admitted that at the beginning of the trade talks with Kansas City he never would have thought that he would trade two pitchers, and while the Rays always had their eye on Myers and wanted more than just him, the fact that they got as many three other interesting prospects as well was completely unexpected. But even so, did the Rays get enough value in return to counterbalance the present and future Shields and Davis would have given them?
James Shields gave the Rays certainty like they had never had before. He gave them 200 or more innings six straight years and even flashed dominance for much of the last two years. However, hat was not the only certainty that came with Shields- the money he was owed and that he was just two years from free agency. That being said, the Rays are trading away Shields knowing that they have no pitcher able to easily fill his shoes. This is no Matt Garza trade where the Rays got great prospects and had Jeremy Hellickson ready to replace him without a hitch. Do the Rays really think that Hellickson is going to go 200 innings next season and maintain the type of ERA he has put the last two seasons? The Rays trading Shields requires both a significant return and a trust that their remaining starters will improve significantly to compensate for his departure.
Davis was excellent in relief for the Rays in 2012, but the major issue with him is that the team-friendly contract he signed entering the 2011 season was much less team-friendly considering he was working as a reliever. Davis was excellent in 2012, but his bullpen contribution will not be very hard to replace and the Rays will save money from the 2.8 million dollars he’s owed in 2013 in the process. Davis is getting paid to be a starting pitcher and he had the trade value of a solid starting pitcher, but there was no room for him to start on the Rays unless they traded multiple starters, something they were unlikely to do considering how much they value their pitching depth. Davis is a good pitcher, but between the money he’s owed and the question of how he will perform when converted back into a starting pitcher, it didn’t make sense for the Rays to keep him.
Now to the prospects the Rays acquired in the deal. Myers, 22, was the consensus Minor League Player of the Year in 2012 as he posted a .314/.387/.600 line with 26 doubles, 6 triples, 37 homers, and 109 RBI in 134 games and 591 plate appearances primarily at the Royals’ Triple-A Omaha affiliate. Myers’ major flaw in his season was that he struck out 140 times versus 61 walks, but he shows great bat speed and power, and he had shown great discipline and pitch recognition previously, posting a 181-137 strikeout to walk ratio from 2010 to 2011. Why did Myers’ strikeout to walk ratio deteriorate so significantly? The answer is that Myers made a conscious effort to swing more aggressively and bring out his power, and the results were outstanding as he slammed 37 homers in 2012 compared to just 22 in 957 plate appearances between 2010 and 2011. The question for Myers is whether he can combine his pitch recognition with his increased power and figure out when to swing harder and when to be content to stay patient and go to the opposite field. Since he needs to work on that and also because the Rays would like to manage his service time clock, Myers should begin 2013 back at Triple-A. Defensively, Myers, a former catcher, played primarily centerfield in 2012 while also seeing time at right field and third base, but a corner outfield spot will be his home in the Rays system with Myers not having enough speed to profile in centerfield in the major leagues and Evan Longoria at third base. Speaking of Longoria, Myers has the ability to hit right in front of Longoria as a prototypical three-hole hitter who hits for a good average, gets on base at a nice clip, and slams 35 to 40 home runs. It remains to be seen whether he can reach his potential and how long it will take him to get there, but Myers is as good of a prospect as they come and the Rays had a rare opportunity to acquire such a player in a trade.
The Rays could not possibly trade two starting pitchers without recouping starting pitching depth. They did just that by acquiring Odorizzi and Montgomery, but the two pitchers are as different as night and day. Odorizzi, who will turn 23 in March, had a great season primarily at Omaha in 2012 before finishing the season in the big leagues. In 25 starts and a relief appearance between Double-A and Triple-A, Odorizzi went 15-5 with a 3.03 ERA, an 8.4 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 145.1 innings pitched. Odorizzi, 6’2″ and 185 pounds, throws a fastball in the low-90’s with solid sink, and he throws it for strikes but struggles to command it down in the zone, leading to just a 28.2% groundball rate during his time at Omaha according to Minor League Central, the lowest rate in the entire Pacific Coast League minimum 75 innings. Odorizzi’s struggles with fastball command are exacerbated by the fact that his three secondary pitches are nothing special at this point. His slider shows solid movement but he can’t consistently throw it for strikes, his low-70’s curveball is more of a groundball pitch than a swing-and-miss offering, as is his low-80’s changeup. Odorizzi could likely be a big league 5th starter right now, but the Rays have the luxury of the pitching depth to let him continue working on his fastball command and his offspeed pitches at Trilpe-A. It will be especially interesting to see what happens with his changeup considering that’s an organizational specialty for the Rays, and the Rays may have seen promise in it that try to bring out. Odorizzi has the potential to be a good mid-rotation starter before too long, and we could see him starting games for the Rays in the latter part of 2013.
Odorizzi has room to grow but is a safe bet to be a big league starter. Montgomery is many times more enigmatic. Montgomery was demoted from Triple-A to Double-A over the course of 2012, going just 5-12 with a 6.07 ERA, a 6.7 K/9, a 3.8 BB/9, and a 1.4 HR/9 in 27 starts and 149.2 innings pitched. Montgomery was as good of a prospect as Myers as recently as a year ago but completely fell apart in 2012. Montgomery, 6’4″ and 200 pounds, throws a fastball from the low-to-mid 90’s, but struggled mightily with his command in 2012 and that manifested itself in his incredibly homer rate. The good news was that Montgomery’s best secondary pitch, his changeup, continues to be a plus pitch most of the time with nice arm action and late bottoming-out action, but his third pitch, a slow curveball in the low 70’s, has never become an effective offering for him. The difference between his changeup and curveball led to an extreme reverse split for Montgomery in 2012 as lefties managed a crazy .993 OPS and a 41-27 strikeout to walk ratio compared to a more reasonable .761 OPS and a 70-37 strikeout to walk ratio by righties. Montgomery has a long way to go regaining confidence and harnessing his promising repertoire, and considering the Royals were willing to sell so low on him, they don’t think there’s a good chance he’ll be able to recover. But Montgomery’s upside remains extremely high and the Rays hope they can salvage his career and hopefully get him going back towards his potential to be a frontline starter. The Rays loving working with enigmatic lefty pitchers with electric stuff, with Matt Moore, Alex Torres, and Enny Romero being three recent examples, and Montgomery’s potential is as high as any of them. The risk is him is sky-high, but the potential reward could be enormous.
And the final piece of the deal is Leonard, who turned 20 in October and had a nice season at Rookie-level Burlington in 2012, posting a .251/.340/.494 line with 9 doubles, 14 homers, 46 RBI, 6 of 8 stolen bases, and 55 strikeouts against 30 walks in 62 games and 268 plate appearances. Leonard, who is 6’4″ and 225 pounds, stands out most for great raw power with solid bat speed, and he also showed a patient approach at the plate, albeit without great pitch recognition. Defensively, Leonard showed solid defense with good reflexes and an average arm, but his size may make him end up at first base moving forward. Leonard is lightyears from the big leagues but another interesting prospect.
In this trade, the Rays are trading a great number two starter and a solid number mid-rotation starter or late-inning reliever for a potential superstar outfielder, a solid number three or number four starter, a risky pitcher but one with incredible upside, and another player with promise. At first glance, the Rays are the clear winners in the trade as Shields for Myers looks like a pretty fair trade, Davis to Odorizzi is not much of a drop-off, and the Rays get free shots at Montgomery and Leonard to see what they can do. The complicating factor though, is that both Myers and Odorizzi carry a good amount of risk themselves. However, considering how Shields’ pitching is not as valuable to the Rays given their pitching depth, they can reasonably expect to improve their team moving forward with Myers and Odorizzi compared to Shields and Davis even if Montgomery and Leonard amount to nothing. That becomes even more the case given how many more years Myers and Odorizzi will be under team control compared to Shields and Davis. The Rays are taking a calculated gamble, but the most likely outcome is still clear benefit to their team and they have a chance to derive tremendous value from the players they received if everyone pans out. The Rays are making a relatively safe play with still enormous opportunity for upside, and they received exactly the type of package they were looking for to execute a Shields trade.
The Rays look to be clear winners in this trade for the next several years. But the more interesting risk the Rays are taking is in the short term. Will they be able to replace the void left by Shields next season? The Rays’ rotation of David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and either Jeff Niemann or Chris Archer looks clearly above-average, but can the Rays really rely on Hellickson as a number two starter and Moore as a number three at this stage of their careers? If Hellickson were to take a significant step back (as some sabermetricians say he will) and Moore was enigmatic for another season, the Rays would be in trouble and would almost surely miss the postseason against next year. Hellickson and Moore have to be feeling good about the faith that the Rays are putting in them for next season, but the pressure will be squarely on them. Will they prove the Rays right and take big steps forward next season or will Rays fans find themselves sorely missing Shields?