On a Monday last month, Royals general manager Dayton Moore sat inside a hotel suite at Walt Disney World and promised to restock his club’s farm system. He would listen to any deal that would expedite the process, he said. His focus was squarely on the future.
On Thursday, the Royals moved forward with the plan, executing a three-team trade that sent reliever Scott Alexander to the Los Angeles Dodgers and reliever Joakim Soria to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Dodgers prospects Trevor Oaks, a right-handed pitcher, and Erick Mejia, an infielder.
In a move that warmed up baseball’s frozen hot stove, the Dodgers also sent left-handed pitcher Luis Avilan to the White Sox, while Chicago sent minor-league infielder Jake Peter to Los Angeles.
For the Royals, the move represented a cost-cutting maneuver while signaling the impending rebuild. They dumped the final $9 million on Soria's three-year, $25 million contract by sending the reliever to Chicago, picking up his $1 million buyout for 2019 in the process. To make the deal work, they attached a valuable asset in Alexander and acquired two prospects who will help fill a hollowed-out farm system.
“The fact remains there’s an economic component to this,” Moore said on Thursday evening. “We needed to reduce our payroll and also improve our farm system. We like Trevor Oaks. We view him as a major-league starting pitcher. That’s a very deep and rich farm system. We think he’s got a chance to be a very durable major-league starting pitcher.”
The savings on Soria could offer the Royals flexibility to further pursue free agent Eric Hosmer. Yet the club may need to make additional reductions, Moore said. The club is hoping to pare its payroll down to close to the $105 million range. It entered Thursday with obligations of more than $115 million, including possible arbitration cases. That reality — and the desire to gain assets for the future — spurred team officials into action.
Alexander, 28, posted a 2.48 ERA in 69 innings in 2017, transforming himself into a formidable weapon in the Royals’ bullpen. It also made him an attractive trade piece. Once a sixth-round pick from Sonoma State in 2010, and dogged by a battle with diabetes in 2016, Alexander harnessed his potent sinker and turned in the highest ground-ball percentage in the majors during his first full season. Yet it was the combination of his performance and his contract status that turned him into a wanted asset. After debuting in 2015 and appearing in just 79 games across the last three seasons, Alexander will not become a free agent until after the 2022 season. The Royals used the value to rid themselves of Soria and acquire Oaks and Mejia.
Oaks, 24, is positioned to compete for a spot in the Royals’ starting rotation in 2018. Mejia, 23, is a switch-hitting infielder who will likely move to second base as a possible future pairing with shortstop Nicky Lopez, one of the organization’s breakout prospects last year.
Oaks, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-hander, finished 4-3 with a 3.64 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 84 innings for Class AAA Oklahoma City last season. A former seventh-round pick in 2014, he ranked as the 14th best prospect in a deep Dodgers farm system. Yet he was blocked from the major leagues by a deep Dodgers rotation.
“He’s young,” Moore said. “He competes. He’s got extremely good makeup.”
Mejia, meanwhile, spent most of the 2017 season at Class AA Tulsa, batting .289 with 17 doubles, three triples, seven homers and 25 stolen bases in 29 attempts. He did not rank among the Dodgers’ top 30 prospects, according to MLB.com’s Pipeline rankings.
“He’s got a very similar skillset to a Nicky Lopez,” Moore said.
The price for two prospects was Alexander, a solid left-handed reliever who will make the league minimum in 2018. The Royals, however, viewed this offseason as a prime time to dangle Alexander. The club is moving into what could be a three- to four-year rebuilding cycle. It is attempting to gain assets for the future. It also sought relief from Soria’s contract.
Once a star in the Royals’ bullpen, Soria could never regain his old form after signing his $25 million deal after the 2015 season. He posted a 4.05 ERA and recorded seven blown saves during a tumultuous 2016 campaign. He bounced back to some degree in 2017, offering strong outings for stretches, but still logged a 3.70 ERA while blowing another seven saves.
“To move salary,” Moore said, “sometimes you have to attach a young and talented player as the combination.”