The Kansas City Royals Sold at the Trade Deadline—But Not Enough

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The Kansas City Royals are not known for being willing to completely strip down their roster for parts at the MLB trade deadline, but they certainly could’ve done more than what they did, which was trade Danny Duffy to the Los Angeles Dodgers for players to be named later, and ship Jorge Soler to the Atlanta Braves for minor-league right-hander Kasey Kalich.

Yes, that’s better than not doing anything and I wasn’t expecting a terribly active deadline from Dayton Moore and the Royals front office, but with the Royals clearly not going anywhere this season at the deadline, it’s not exactly rocket science that what the Royals had been attempting to do this season isn’t working.

The Royals entered the deadline having won eight of nine, only to turn around and get swept in Toronto (feels weird to type “in Toronto” again, but I digress), falling to 45-59 and nestled firmly in fourth place in the AL Central. So what’s left now that the dust has settled from a crazy trade deadline?

What The Royals Got

Given that only a couple of deals were made, there’s not a lot to talk about here. As mentioned, the Royals will receive multiple players to be named later in the Danny Duffy deal, so there will be no known return until after the end of the season. Most likely those players will be minor leaguers, perhaps those blocked at the big league level that the Dodgers (and their absurd $275-ish million payroll) simply don’t have room for.

As for the Soler deal, the Royals netted a nice arm in Kalich (not to be confused with Omaha left-hander Jake Kalish), a 23-year-old playing in his second pro season after being drafted by Atlanta in the fourth round of the 2019 MLB Draft out of Texas A&M.

He slots in as the Royals #24 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, which is a nice return for a struggling hitter like Soler who’s in his walk year. Kalich profiles as a reliever with a mid-90’s fastball and a slider with cutting action. The results have been good thus far in his pro career, putting up a 2.55 ERA with 10.2 K/9 over 35 outings (including 21 this year), but control has been an issue, as he’s issued 5.1 BB/9 in the pro ranks.

The control concerns carried over into his Royals organization debut at High-A Quad Cities on Sunday, as he walked two in an inning, with only 11 of his 24 pitches going for strikes. Nonetheless, promising lottery tickets are what you look for in lower-end deadline deals, and that’s what the Royals got in Kalich.

What The Royals Should’ve Also Done

Ideally, the Royals would’ve liked to get something for Jarrod Dyson, who has perfected his niche role as a pinch-runner and late-inning defensive wizard, but he’s still in Royal blue. The return would’ve been minimal, but who knows how much the tires were kicked there?

The biggest head-scratcher to me is in the case of Michael A. Taylor. Taylor is the classic case of a player who can be useful to a contender, but only if he’s not required to start regularly. Playing every day this season, Taylor is dragging a .650 OPS (and 78 OPS+) and a strikeout rate north of 30%. However, he has solid speed and is in the top ten in defensive bWAR in the entire major leagues.

Yes, the return wouldn’t have been much better than what you would find for Dyson, but I find it hard to believe that Dayton Moore couldn’t have found a deal out there somewhere for Taylor. Plus, Taylor is playing on a one-year deal, meaning that he’ll be gone in two months for nothing.

More critically, he’ll spend that time standing in the way of Edward Olivares, a promising outfielder who was acquired from San Diego at the 2020 trade deadline. Olivares has put up a .722 OPS in 104 big-league plate appearances since coming over to KC, while this year, he’s absolutely raking in Omaha: a .322 average, 13 homers, 12 steals, and a .967 OPS in just 52 games. He’s earned a long look in center field at Kauffman, and Taylor’s presence is currently preventing that.

The biggest trade chips were Whit Merrifield and Scott Barlow, with Mike Minor and Carlos Santana being other enticing offers. That said, the chances of many of those guys being dealt were slim to start with:

To be fair, it is defensible to keep them all, since all four of those players are under contract through 2022, while Merrifield is under contract until 2023 and Barlow doesn’t hit free agency until 2025. Granted, having those players for multiple years adds value, so there’s a middle ground between cashing out when value is high and betting that those players might help you win during their current contracts.

The Royals are far enough away from contention that holding on to Minor and Santana may not pay many dividends beyond just not needing to replace them, meaning that dealing them now would probably be a better payoff than whatever they contribute in 2022. Santana is a power and on-base guy that probably was the focus of a few phone calls near the deadline. Minor has struggled this year but has been able to stay healthy and eat innings, which would’ve been of use to a team with a thin and/or injury-plagued rotation.

Of course, with Merrifield and Barlow, the question was always going to be whether the Royals would be blown away by whatever offer came their way. The answer is no. There will certainly be opportunities for Merrifield to be dealt, though those may slip away, as he’s already 32 and his production is not at his 2018-19 levels.

Barlow, however, is 28 years old and still has three full seasons left before free agency, so while his value is high, there’s also a chance that he can be a back-end arm closing out playoff wins from Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, and Daniel Lynch by then, though the volatile cycle of relief pitchers makes that far from certain.

What’s Left?

The Royals now venture into the last two months of 2021 looking to establish positive momentum towards 2022, while continuing to look at an increasingly promising prospect group coming up. Despite the presence of the 33-year-old Minor and 35-year-olds Greg Holland and Wade Davis, the Royals pitching staff is the 11th-youngest in the majors, and will get younger as Lynch and Kowar come up to stay, as well as relievers Tyler Zuber and Richard Lovelady establishing themselves.

The loss of Duffy gives the Royals a chance to take a long look at 24-year-old Carlos Hernandez, who rose from Low-A to the majors in 2020 and has shown triple-digits heat, even in a starting role. Olivares and Ryan O’Hearn will make a lineup that is currently the fourth-oldest in baseball a little younger and more athletic. The wild card is of course top prospects like Nick Pratto and Bobby Witt Jr., both of whom are producing early in their Triple-A stints and could debut this season.

In terms of future contention, the Royals face an uphill battle as the Chicago White Sox are running away with the division and did nothing but add more pieces to a legitimate World Series contender. The White Sox are also young, meaning that the path to winning the AL Central is extremely difficult for the Royals in the coming years.

That said, Minnesota appears to be entering a potential rebuild, Cleveland is gradually entering a transitional period, and Detroit still has a little ways to go (not to mention the Miguel Cabrera problem), so a race for second (and possibly a wild card) could be a legitimate goal in the next season or two.

What remains the goal for the next year or two remains to be seen, though that vision may have come into better focus with more decisive action by the Royals at the trade deadline.

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