The Kansas City Royals traded Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis in mid-December. It was a bold stroke and a tipping point for the Royals franchise, at least directionally.
Of course, the deal drew immediate and sharp criticism. Others have done plenty in terms of analyzing that move, and each of the individual players involved. I want to widen the scope and look not simply at the trade, but at the offseason of which that trade is part, and at what the decision to make that trade represents.

Pitching is less predictable than hitting. Not only do pitchers age differently (and less predictably) and benefit or suffer from changes in basic skills more often than batters, but it’s much more difficult to distinguish between a pitcher’s contributions to run prevention and those of his teammates than it is to make the same distinction between the relative contributions of a batter and his teammates.

That unpredictability makes any investment in pitching, particularly over the long term, a risky one. That’s why, whereas Alex Rodriguez has signed two 10-year contracts in his career, CC Sabathia got just one seven- and one five-year deal. It’s why Zack Greinke just set an average annual value record for pitchers by signing with the Dodgers, but will be paid less than Ryan Howard over the next four years. Teams know that pitching is a risky investment.

I wonder, given that premise, why the Royals were so eager to use finite, nonrenewable capital to acquire Shields and Davis.

By that, I mean this: Money is always around in baseball. Maybe the Royals feel like they have a finite budget, but that budget could always grow, and here’s the key thing: If the Royals had signed, say, Ryan Dempster for $45 million over three years, and Dempster had been a bust, they could always sign a different pitcher when Dempster’s deal expired, and his obligations came off their books. No matter what James Shields and Wade Davis do, though, the Royals do not get to trade Wil Myers and the rest again.

It’s not just talent I would resist using for a major pitching investment. High draft picks also have major utility, but you only get to pick one player with each selection. A smart team probably ought to look to trade for or draft star-level position players, whose futures are much more projectable beyond the coming season, and to sign free-agent pitchers as often as possible. Those investments are monetary, and therefore recyclable. They may even net a draft choice down the road. The Chicago Cubs are a perfect model for this approach; they have reconstructed their rotation this winter without dealing at all from their impact minor-league talent. They also selected pitchers with eight of their first nine picks in the June 2012 draft, but not the first. That asset was used to get outfielder Albert Almora.

Kansas City gave up players they can’t easily replace in order to get Shields and Davis. They may or may not get the immediate return they hope for from the two starters, but no matter what, they can’t try this again. A free-agent pitching signing is a high-risk investment, but one made with fluid and less scarce resources. The Royals steered off the road when they decided to take one shot at a two-year window, and to use a rare and irreplaceable asset to maximize their chance in that short term.

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