The Trade Market for Closers Is Insane, and the Royals Would Be Crazy Not to Take Advantage

The Yankees got a great prospect haul for Aroldis Chapman. The Royals, who have holes to fill and a closer worth more to other teams than them, could do even better.

by Steven Goldman
Jul 27 2016, 4:46pm

Photo by John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

In the aftermath of the Chicago Cubs' acquisition of closer/domestic abuse guy/imminent free agent Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees, the Kansas City Royals reportedly told inquiring teams that the package the Yankees received "wouldn't get it done" if they were inclined to move closer Wade Davis. To review, here's what the Yankees got:

  1. Gleyber Torres, a 19-year-old shortstop whom Baseball America placed at No. 27 on their midseason top 100 prospects list. He was also considered the top prospect in the hugely fecund Cubs organization. Prior to the season, BA said, "Torres has four above-average tools, with only power lagging behind—but give him time."
  2. Adam Warren, a 28-year-old veteran swingman who pitched to a 3.39 ERA in four seasons with the Yankees before being traded last December for the risible Starlin Castro and subsequently becoming risible himself. He's eligible for arbitration at the end of the season.
  3. Billy McKinney, a 21-year-old former first-round pick who is better suited to a corner than center field, but to date has hit only .281/.364/.408 in his minor league career. He has time and tools, but he's likely a future member of Fourth Outfielders Anonymous.
  4. Rashad Crawford, a 22-year-old outfielder with speed but not much else. He differs from McKinney in that he's less of a hitter and he's a future member of Fifth Outfielders Intrinsically Anonymous, or FOIA, not to be confused with the Freedom Of Information Act. You can't confuse them, because no one is asking. Most Fourth Outfielders Anonymous meetings are spent talking about what losers the Fifth Outfielders are, and vice versa.

In short, the Yankees got Torres and some lottery tickets for Chapman. That's not good enough for the Royals.

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It's unsurprising the Royals would value their best reliever so highly, given that they went to consecutive World Series behind unspectacular starting rotations redeemed by spectacular bullpens. In last fall's winning effort, Royals relievers allowed just seven runs in 23.2 innings, and even that's deceptive because four of them were allowed by just one pitcher, Franklin Morales, with help from Kelvin Herrera, who let some inherited runners score.

Over the past three years, Wade Davis has been about as good as a relief pitcher can be. From 2014 through Monday, he has a 0.99 ERA in 174 games and 172 innings, allowing an insane 91 hits, or 4.9 per nine, with just 55 walks against 218 strikeouts. Unlike Chapman, who is a short-term rental for the Cubs, Davis won't necessarily be a free agent this winter; he's subject to a $10 million team option with a $2.5 million buyout. Wherever he's playing, he's staying put.

And yet, Davis may be more valuable to the Royals if he were to wear a different uniform for the rest of the year, not because they can't use a terrific reliever like him but because they're not presently pointed at October. With a record of 48-51, they're 9.5 games behind the Cleveland Indians for first place in the American League Central and 7.5 games from a wild-card berth. We've seen more unlikely comebacks, but the odds are heavily against them at this stage of the season.

The origin of the popular expression "shaking hands with the yelling guy." Photo by Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals have had their share of injuries this year, enduring the long-term absences of Mike Moustakas (who is out for the season), Lorenzo Cain, and Alex Gordon. Just as damaging have been some flaws of roster design, many of them the same flaws they were somehow able to overcome last season: there was the failure to follow up their rent-a-player trade for Ben Zobrist with a permanent solution to the problem of Omar Infante at second base and the lack of anything like a plan in right field; there's the fact that, except for Gordon, the team doesn't walk, and it also doesn't have much power. There was the ill-advised attempt to patch the already thin starting rotation with homer-happy free agent Ian Kennedy after another rental, Johnny Cueto, headed West. Add it up and it's fair to say that the Royals won a championship and then abdicated when it was time to reinvest in defending it.

Finally, there is the team's seriously strange Alcides Escobar fetish. OK, yes, Escobar, Kansas City's shortstop/leadoff man, was MVP of last year's American League Championship Series, but mediocre players from Pat Borders to Delmon Young have been postseason MVPs—that didn't mean they weren't dead weight most of the time. Escobar has been a regular for seven seasons and he has failed to post a .300 on-base percentage in five of them. He's not Ozzie Smith with the glove, either, and yet the Royals cling to him with a ferocity that suggests they see him as a secret weapon whose capabilities only they can discern. Frankly, they're trying too hard, like that friend you had in junior high school who was always trying to prove that Rush is better than the Beatles.

The Royals have some prospects coming—they just called up young Raul A. Mondesi to try to jolt second base back to life, ending the Whit Merrifield Era before it had sustained itself long enough to be turned into a movie—but Superman does not appear to be walking through that door, let alone Supermen or Super-Quartet of Starting Pitchers.

If a Davis trade will solve some of these problems, as good as he is, they ought to do it. Because think about it: Davis has never pitched more than 72 innings in relief for the Royals. In terms of wins above replacement, the high-side impact for a reliever pitching 80 or fewer innings is 3.0-5.0 WAR (Baseball-Reference version). Only one pitcher, Jonathan Papelbon in 2006, escaped the low 4.0s. There have been only 71 seasons in which a reliever reached 3.0 WAR in that limited number of innings, including the guys at 2.9 who we rounded up because WAR is imprecise. Only seven repeat on the list:

Mariano Rivera, 7 times
Joe Nathan, 6
Jonathan Papelbon, 3
Troy Percival, 2
Joakim Soria, 2
Craig Kimbrel, 2
Wade Davis, 2

Everyone else—including Aroldis Chapman, who was worth 3.6 WAR in 2012—has gotten there only once. That's not quite 47 one-hit wonders, because many pitchers on the list only once, like Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman, had great careers. That said, Calvin Schiraldi, Carlos Marmol, Chuck McElroy, and Daniel Bard made the list once, too.

When you're in the elite Chuck McElroy Club. Photo by Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

It's just hard to have a huge impact when you're throwing 68.1 innings—the average total for those 71 seasons—out of approximately 1,450 team frames on the season. That's 4.7 percent. To put that in perspective, this column is about 1,500 words long. If I were limited to the same percentage of the total work, I would have stopped at word 71. Tweets are shorter than that, but not much else.

"Ah, yes," you say, "but my tweets are high-leverage tweets."

No, they're not. Shut up.

Pardon me. All innings in which the opposition doesn't score are created equal, except as they're perceived psychologically—a team can lose a game 2-1 by giving up a couple of runs in the first as easily as they can giving them up in the ninth. Having said that, the incentives are different for teams like the Cubs and the Indians, who have, respectively, not won a championship in over a century and in nearly 70 years. The postseason is a different animal than the 162-game grind of April through September, and a key matchup may well swing the whole thing and remove the onus of forever-losing from these teams. A simple formulation:

  1. Teams with good offenses win pennants.
  2. When good offenses put the ball in play, bad things happen to the opposition. Therefore...
  3. The more you can get good offenses to strike out, the better.

Thus Aroldis Chapman, with his 100-mph fastball and career rate of 15.2 strikeouts per nine innings, would be attractive for a team that intends not only to point itself toward October play but to be the last team standing at the end. The Yankees, not being one of those teams, and being so old—the only regulars or semi-regulars under 32 are Didi Gregorius, Rob Refsnyder, Aaron Hicks, and Starlin Castro—don't need to worry about either 4.7 percent of the innings remaining in their season. Assuming they have about 570 left as of Monday, that would have been all of 26.2 more Chapman encounters. They almost certainly won't have to worry about keeping the ball in the yard when Kris Bryant is at bat on a cool October evening at Wrigley Field. They'll all be home by then.

The same thing goes for the Royals. As the high turnover on the list of high-performing relievers suggests, new relievers go up and down the pop charts all the time, because they're not born, they're made, usually out of busted starters—which is exactly how you would describe Wade Davis. And Zach Britton. And Andrew Miller. Dellin Betances was that in the minor leagues. The Philadelphia Phillies may get to flip Jeanmar Gomez, another failed starter, at the deadline for a generous return, and he doesn't even strike anybody out; they just dropped him into the ninth inning for lack of anything better to do and now he's sexy. Brad Ziegler last year? Same deal. You can make more closers. They probably won't be Wade Davis, but they'll be close enough. Trade the one you have and you might be able to get a shiny new right fielder or a middle infield that doesn't make you cry.

Before Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, admittedly hot-taking it in reaction to the "scrappy Royals" storyline being oversold on the television broadcasts, I wrote, "The Royals may yet win the World Series [but] the real test of any leadership is sustainability. Bullpens, no matter how good, often don't repeat from year to year. An offense this light is not the coming trend in baseball, no matter what the pundits tell you.... The Royals still don't know what they're doing." This earned me months of hate-tweets starting exactly a year later, when Royals fans were reminded of its existence in the aftermath of their 2015 World Series win. I was wrong that they wouldn't carry their success over for a second year, but I wasn't that far off overall. A lot of the things wrong with the Royals in 2013, never mind 2014, are still wrong with them now. So what have they really learned?

Again, there have been only 71 seasons in which a reliever capped at Davis's number of innings has reached as many as 3.0 WAR, but 82 major league position players reached that level last year alone. The Royals have had one right fielder get there since 2000. The last second baseman to get there was Mark Grudzielanek. Dealing Davis would represent a chance for the Royals to reload at these positions and start building sustainable success around the things on the roster that do work. Something along the lines of Gleyber Torres and some guys might not fix it, but it could be a start.

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