The Royals have been pretty ambitious lately. They picked up Ervin Santana and the $12 million in obligations that came with him, and they've re-signed Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year, $25 million contract. They've been rumored to be shopping around for another pitcher, and to be "listening" to offers on just about everybody who doesn't pitch, including Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and even top prospect Wil Myers.
Putting aside the wisdom of targeting the individual players the Royals are reportedly targeting, these are not the moves of a 72-90 team that expects to be 72-90 a year from now. If you're going after pitchers who cost real money or top prospects) and are 30 or more years old, you're doing it because you think you can contend right away.
Can the Royals contend right away?
The division-winning Tigers are better than they were a few weeks ago, with Torii Hunter replacing Delmon Young and friends, and seem intent on continuing to get better. Let's say the Royals need at least 90 wins to get into contention. This is one game less than the average number of wins it took to win the AL Central over the last five years, but again, we're talking about being competitive, not necessarily winning.
David Schoenfield did a similar exercise last week, and I don't want to reinvent the wheel. He identifies what I agree are the four biggest candidates for improvement, offensively: luck, first base, third base, and right field. On the first point, as Schoenfield notes, the Pythagorean formula suggests the Royals should have won 74 games rather than 72, and their runs created suggested that had their hits been distributed better, they'd have scored 33 more runs than they actually did. That's a total of five wins for better luck (two from run distribution and three from hit distribution). They've got thirteen wins left to find.
We turn to the infield corners, where Eric Hosmer's sophomore season could scarcely have been worse and Mike Moustakas's could have been better. Hosmer, just 23 and still a monster talent, rated below replacement level on the three major wins above replacement systems, but ignoring his defense (which, in my experience, is generally acceptable to the eyes but revolting by the numbers), his bat was about 12 runs below average at a position where the average player was about eight runs per full season above. If Hosmer can get back on track only so far as to be average, that's two wins right there.
Hosmer certainly has the talent to be more than average, so let's be more aggressive and say that next year he's 13 runs above average with the bat (about what Brandon Belt did in 2012), making for a 2.5-win turnaround from last season. Moustakas (who gets raves for his defense from all corners) was about six runs below average offensively, but showed an ability through the minors to be much better. Let's say he's exactly average in 2013, conveniently adding a half-win. We're at 80 wins, with 10 to go.
The big wins prize is in right field; Jeff Francoeur was the worst player in baseball last year, by statistics both simple (.287 on-base percentage) and advanced (-2.7 WAR). Wil Myers is one of the biggest position-player prospects in the game, and was probably ready to start in the majors by early last summer. Not to put too much on a not-yet 22-year-old's shoulders -- or to assume that the Royals will be able to deal Francoeur or, failing that, consign him to his rightful place on the bench -- but let's just say Myers is an average big-league player, worth a bit more than two wins. That's at least a four-win improvement over Francoeur. Six wins left.
A full season of Sal Perez could well be worth another two wins, and better hitting from Johnny Giavotella could add another (or more). That's 87 wins, and now we're well inside the range within which adding a few solid pitchers makes good sense. Santana could return to 2011 form and close that gap himself (nobody seems to expect him to); Guthrie could certainly get them there, as could any number of other free agents on the market.
What I don't think the Royals can do is consider trades like the ones hinted at in the first paragraph above. As you probably noticed, Hosmer, Moustakas, and Myers are all important to this projection, and Butler is awfully important, too. This is a team with a lot of good young talent that can and should get better, but it's not a team with a lot of young talent to backstop that young talent. Sending off any of those players for the likes of Jeremy Hellickson (see here) would leave a large hole for what seems likely to be a lateral move at best; grabbing a Matt Moore (fantasized about here) would be a potential steal in the long run, but wouldn't be a clear improvement in 2013, and would carry its own huge risks going forward. I'll never get weakening yourself in one area to strengthen another as a strategy a contending team should follow, or any team should follow, if the player being received is anything less than a huge long-term upgrade. The deals that have been posited in the professional and fan press (save perhaps Butler for Moore, which seems utterly implausible) don't reach that level.
It's tough to counsel patience to an organization and fan base that has spent 27 years wandering in the desert, but as much as the Royals might compete in 2013, they still figure to get even better -- much better -- in 2014 and beyond. It's hard to justify doing anything for 2013 that jeopardizes in any way that bright, immediate future.
Personally, I'd probably never have added Santana and I'm a bit wary of Guthrie, but I think the Royals are in a position where the idea of adding a few two- or three-win pitchers for the short term makes great sense. I just wouldn't even think of going about it by dealing a player who currently figures into the 2013 starting lineup, which risks the iceberg-like path of advancing two games while retreating three ... or more.