The Tampa Bay Rays, The Kansas City Royals, and The Margin for Error


On December 9th, 2012, the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals executed one of the most talked-about trades in baseball in a very long time, with the Rays dealing right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City for top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi along with Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard. How did it all go down? Ken Rosenthal talked to Royals GM Dayton Moore about just that the other day, and what he said was quite interesting.

"“Moore, using a dry-erase board, ranked all of the Royals’ top prospects by position. And then, after informing those in the room that the Rays would not waver in their demands for right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis, he started erasing names… ‘But guys, how does this farm system look? Still pretty good.'”"

The Royals understood just how big of a gamble they were making trading away the consensus 2012 Minor League Player of the Year in Myers and three other talented prospects. But at the end of the day, they realized their minor league system would be strong even without them and that with the opportunity to contend for the first time in way too long staring them in the face, they had to do the deal. The funny thing about the “dry-erase board” strategy that Moore used, though, was that the Rays would have never done anything like that.

The Royals are going into “win-now mode” this year as they hope to make the postseason for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. For the Rays, however, there’s no concept of spending heavily in terms of payroll and prospects to take the next step as a team and contend. The Rays gameplan ever since the current ownership led by Stuart Sternberg took over has been to do everything they can to contend in the present while continuously building for the future in an effort to keep their strong performance going even as the names change. The Rays have to prepare for every worst-case scenario that a few poorly-executed signings or trade could cripple them for a long time, so while they’ll always try to make moves to help their team win, they can’t afford to risk it all being overaggressive. They want to win now, but they want to win always, and they understand that something taking a small step back to take two steps forward soon after isn’t selling out but building a foundation for the future. And that is reflected in the way they manage their prospects as well.

The Rays’ basic draft strategy is to go for upside. They understand that the players with the highest potential are quite often the ones the biggest risk, but they also know that they more they have in their system, the more likely one pans out and turns into a superstar. The Rays know their system has a ton of pitching prospects, but they don’t care because you never know what can happen and they have to be ready for anything for each of those prospects and also for sudden developments regarding their major league staff. And while trading away from a surplus like they did with James Shields and Wade Davis can be the right move at times, it hurts them to lose a single piece of the depth knowing that the only way they’ll keep their amazing run of the last five years going is to have contingency plans even for their contingency plans and as many different avenues as possible to provide reinforcements to their major league team.

Another consideration is something that Marc Topkin wrote about last week, how the Rays have more of a holistic focus on their prospects’ all-around games than a team like the Royals. Why is that? Because even when players don’t even come close to living up to their potential, the Rays need to find ways to turn them into useful utility players and platoon guys because they’re never going to be a team with the ability to splurge even on the little cost it would take to find a few veterans for their bench, and even if they could, they’re better off grooming their minor league players to fill such a role so their money can go elsewhere. The Rays obviously don’t expect Wil Myers to become a utility player, but they also can’t afford to bring him up to the major leagues and learn too much on the job because they’re never going to have the luxury of easing him into action and need to begin contributing in all fashions of the game as soon as he comes up even if it takes him some time to adjust to the major leagues.

Dayton Moore and the Royals understand that their margin of error is completely gone. Their fanbase is restless and they had no choice but to double down on the next few years even while putting the long-term future in question. The Royals know that if they fail, their system isn’t completely shot, but they also can’t worry about that right now as they attempt to complete redefine their ballclub by returning to the postseason. The Rays, meanwhile, even as they get set to battle for the AL East title in 2013 without the most dependable pitcher in their history in their Shields, were more than willing to trade him away in order to get the same margin for error that the Royals were willing to overlook. The Royals could very well be making the right move by dealing away Myers and the other prospects to get Shields and Davis, but the Rays know that even if this year falls short of expectations, their long-term prognosis while remain among the most positive in baseball.