Tuesday night, the Royals reach the Promised Land after wandering the desert for the last 29 years, ending the longest postseason drought in North American pro sports. Many decisions made over the last decade have led to this moment, but few were more important — and none was more controversial — than the decision after the 2012 season to trade Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard to Tampa Bay in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis.
Myers was, at that moment, one of the five best prospects in baseball; he had just been named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Odorizzi was also a consensus Top 100 prospect. Montgomery was a former first-round pick. Shields was a very good starting pitcher, but not an ace, and was only two years away from free agency. It was hard to find anyone in baseball — and nearly impossible to find someone from the analytic community — who thought the Royals got the better end of the deal. They gave up too much talent for too little return. The critics howled that the Royals had mortgaged their future without securing their present.
I know, because I was one of those critics. Like most Royals fans, I had patiently waited through one 90-loss season after another while Dayton Moore slowly built the finest farm system in baseball, and then — at the moment when that farm system seemed destined to mature into the best young team in baseball — it was torn apart for an immediate return, like someone selling a prized family heirloom for a quick buck. It seemed like a betrayal of everything the Royals had been building toward for years.
No one is criticizing Moore today.
One of the main concerns of the trade involved Shields himself — not because of anything inherently wrong with him, but because of the inherent risk that comes with any pitcher. Shields came to Kansas City with a reputation for being a workhorse who would give the Royals tons of innings. That’s the same reputation that elite starters like Roy Halladay had three years ago before he broke down and had to retire, or that Justin Verlander had two years ago before his ERA jumped from 2.64 to 3.46 to 4.54. Just because Shields had been a reliable 200-innings starter before the trade was no guarantee that he would be after the trade.
But he was. He led the AL with 456 innings pitched over the last two years. He followed up a 3.15 ERA last season with a 3.21 ERA this year. He wasn’t an ace, but he was the next best thing, a top-of-the-line No. 2 starter who gave the Royals seven innings every time he took the mound. Pitchers are risky by nature, but the Royals bet the farm on Shields’ reliability and he gave them everything they asked for.
The wild card in the trade was Davis, who had been an adequate starting pitcher for the Rays before he had blossomed into an excellent reliever. The Royals understandably tried to maximize his value by returning him to the rotation in 2013, but it was a disaster: his 5.67 ERA as a starter was the highest in the AL for anyone with 24 or more starts. The Royals won 86 games last year, their most wins since 1989, but they also finished five games out of a playoff spot. Meanwhile, Myers was the AL Rookie of the Year.
For the trade to work, the Royals had a two-year window to do something special, and the first year ended the same way the previous 27 years ended. But this year … this year is different. Shields was his normal reliable self, but Davis — who as late as mid-March was still being considered for the rotation again — moved to the bullpen and was the best reliever in baseball.
Not just the best reliever in baseball this year. Not just the best reliever in Royals history. Davis had arguably the best relief season by anyone ever. He became the first pitcher in the 144-year history of major league baseball to throw 60 innings in a season while allowing no more than one run per nine innings.
Myers, meanwhile, suffered through a sophomore slump with Tampa Bay, hitting just .222/.294/.320 and missing two months with a broken wrist. Odorizzi was a bright spot for the Rays, striking out 174 batters in 168 innings with a solid 4.13 ERA as a rookie. The future is still bright for both players. The Rays likely have no regrets about the trade.
But at the moment, neither do the Royals. The Royals not only qualified for the playoffs, but they did so by such a razor-thin margin that it’s almost certain their season would be over had they kept Myers and Odorizzi. Using the statistic Wins Above Replacement, Shields and Davis combined for 7.2 WAR this season. Myers and Odorizzi were worth 0.2 WAR. That’s seven extra wins that the trade brought Kansas City in 2014 — the difference between an 82-80 season and another playoff-free year, and an 89-73 record and the biggest game Kauffman Stadium has seen since breakdancing was still cool.
Seven wins is a lot, but most years it won’t make the difference between making the playoffs and staying home. Prior to this year, the Royals had finished at least seven games out of first place every full season since 1988. But Moore gambled that by 2014, the Royals would be good enough that an extra seven wins would make all the difference in the world. Tuesday night his gamble pays off.
The ultimate legacy of the trade rests in part on what happens Tuesday. The Royals got Big Game James to pitch in exactly this kind of Big Game. Maybe it’s not fair to judge the trade on the results of a single game, but it’s no less fair than having your season hang in the balance of a single game, and those are the rules. If the Royals had beaten the Tigers one more time, they’d be through to the ALDS already. Instead, they have to put their fate in what happens Tuesday.
If they win, if Shields pitches a gem in the most important game the franchise has played in a generation, The Trade will look even more like inspired genius than it does now. If they lose, the Royals will have to reckon with the fact that while The Trade got them to the playoffs, it didn’t keep their season from ending before October. And if Myers and Odorizzi blossom in the years to come, historians might look back and say the Rays won the trade.
But the Royals didn’t make the trade to win or lose it; they made the trade to go to the playoffs. They didn’t make the trade to get rid of Myers and Odorizzi, but to acquire Shields and Davis. Shields and Davis gave the Royals exactly what they wanted, both on the field and in the standings.
Even a former critic like myself has to acknowledge that The Trade has worked exactly the way the Royals expected it to. Dayton Moore was right. I was wrong. I’ll have to console myself this evening from the stands at Kauffman Stadium. There’s a playoff game going on there, you know.
Editor’s note: Rany Jazayerli writes for Baseball Prospectus and Grantland and is the author of the “Rany on the Royals” blog.