Nice, but not enough. Better, but not good. An improvement, but thats a backhanded compliment.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Days after shaking Royals fans with awkwardly worded statements that sounded a whole like a time machine back to 2005, general manager Dayton Moore gave them reason for qualified optimism by acquiring starting pitcher Ervin Santana for the modern-day baseball equivalent of peanuts.
The Royals owe Santana $12 million for 2013 but give up only a 27-year-old minor-league reliever whom they were about to part with anyway for the best starting pitcher theyve had since Zack Greinke. Santana, in oversimplified terms, is better than the kind of free agent the Royals mightve given a three-year deal to.
In other words, it is an upgrade for the immediate future without sacrificing the long-term.
This is the rare move signed off with unanimous approval within the Royals front office, in large part because it doesnt put a brake on the teams ability to chase more (and much needed) upgrades.
A good cheat sheet: Its a decent move now, and becomes a very good one if the Royals improve enough that Santana isnt the opening-day starter.
Santana, who turns 30 in December, was rotten in 2012: 5.16 ERA and a league-high 39 home runs in 178 innings. But he was very good the two years before that: 3.65 ERA with a high strikeout rate and an average of 225 innings.
If you look at advanced metrics, four of Santanas eight big-league seasons are better than anything the Royals have had since Greinke.
Thats a bit of faint praise, of course, but the real promise here is that the Royals can still do more if anything, acquiring Santana helps them make the next move.
Baseball executives like to say there is no such thing as a bad one-year deal, and even if $12 million is a bit more than Santanas worth, its better than paying $27 million or so over three years what one personnel man estimated to be Santanas value on the free-agent market.
A Royals source said the team hopes to add two more starting pitchers. The ideal scenario would be one free agent and one trade. The Royals operate at a disadvantage in the money-first free-agent market but have an advantage in the prospects-driven trade market.
Realistic free-agent targets might be Jeremy Guthrie or Brandon McCarthy. Realistic trade targets might be James Shields or even Jeremy Hellickson.
With Santana serving as something like a high-upside placeholder for the Royals own slower-moving-than-expected prospects, the team can backload a free-agent offer so the big money comes in once Santana is off the books. If the Royals particularly like a trade acquisition, theyre in good position to negotiate an extension.
The Royals are not as far from competing as last seasons disappointment suggests, and in a backward way, that may end up as an obstacle. Rick Porcello, for instance, would be a much better fit in front of the Royals athletic defense than he is in Detroit, but the Tigers are more hesitant to deal with the Royals than they wouldve been a few years ago.
But if Moore agrees to the right relief pitcher (Aaron Crow, for instance), it might be too good a fit for either team to say no.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, the Royals have positioned themselves well. Guthrie might get away through free agency, but the offseason is not even a week old and the Royals have added two starting pitchers.
Santana should slot toward the front end of the Royals rotation, and waiver claim Chris Volstad is a no-risk flier (the Royals will either non-tender him or sign him to a small contract).
So this is a good start. Nothing more, nothing less. Its an upgrade no matter what happens the rest of the offseason, but woefully inadequate if this turns out to be the centerpiece acquisition.
Indications are strong that the Royals can and will make bigger improvements, and thats the best part of the trade.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.