At this writing (Friday morning) your Kansas City Royals are seven games out of first place in the American League Central. They've been outscored on the season, while the first-place team sports the best run differential in the whole league. Also, the Royals aren't particularly talented.
Add all that up, and the Royals have a whopping ONE PERCENT CHANCE of earning a spot in the playoffs, according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report. Of course, the Odds Report can't predict everything. One wonders where they had the A's, around this time last year. So let's say that figure is wildly off. Let's say it's actually THREE PERCENT.
Should the Royals embrace that three percent, fight like hell, maybe even trade a prospect or three to push that three percent to four or five percent? Or should they instead consider this an opportunity to improve their chances for next season, and beyond?
You probably know what I think: I think the Royals should trade Ervin Santana while the trading's good.
Why stop there, though? I don't expect them to even consider trading James Shields, who's under contract for next year; the Royals simply won't go into full rebuild, not under their current general manager, anyway. He's been around too long to give up on a whole season and keep his job. And unfortunately the Royals don't have any other attractive starting pitchers, or attractive hitters who aren't a big part of the club's future.
Ah, but there are relief pitchers. After years of generally terrible relief pitching, this is the second straight season in which the Royals actually have an outstanding bullpen. It's so refreshing! Their closer pitched in the All-Star Game, and they've got a converted starter with a 1.95 ERA.
There are two very good reasons to trade at least one of those guys.
One, there's an excellent chance they won't be as good next year, or certainly not in two or three years. Earlier this week -- in the subscriber-only newsletter that inspired this column -- Joe Sheehan pointed out just how few top relievers remain top relievers for more than a few seasons:
The burn rate of short relievers is underestimated. Even as we reduce the role of relief pitchers to 15 pitches 70 times a year, we churn through a new set of them year-in and year-out. In the offseason I suggested that the Braves trade Craig Kimbrel, an idea that wasn't particularly popular. It's not because Kimbrel isn't great or even that closers are overrated as a class. It's that Kimbrel was never going to be better than he was in 2013 and the track record of pitchers who do the kinds of things that Kimbrel did last year isn't as impressive as you might think. Kimbrel is the successor to the likes of Rob Dibble and Eric Gagne and Carlos Marmol, who racked up massive strikeout numbers, re-set the bar for strikeout rates, but who had effective peaks of fewer than 300 innings. Kimbrel is, like Holland, in his third year in the league, and his strikeout rate is down from last year, his walk rate is up, he's been more hittable. He's still having a strong year, but as we'll see, it's the fourth and fifth and sixth years where the danger lies.
Here, again per Sheehan, were the top 10 relief pitchers from 2010 through '12:
And as Joe points out, a minority of those guys have been excellent this season. For whatever reasons -- maybe because they work so many days, or because they throw so hard, or because we're making our judgments based on small sample sizes -- the best relievers today probably won't be the best relievers in, say, 2015.
So you trade Greg Holland because he's probably worth more right now than he'll ever be worth again.
But you also trade Greg Holland because you can replace him.
A few years ago, the Royals had one of the game's best closers, in Joakim Soria. At one point, I even wrote that he might be the game's best closer (because I assumed that Mariano Rivera was mortal). The Royals had signed Soria to a relatively team-friendly contract, which made him attractive to other teams. I wrote that they should trade him for prospects. They didn't. He got hurt. They didn't miss him at all, because Greg Holland came out of nowhere.
If they trade Greg Holland, they shouldn't miss him much. Because the Royals do have some big arms in the organization, and one of them might well come out of nowhere. Maybe it's Aaron Crow, or maybe it's Luke Hochevar or some other failed starting pitcher. That arm is out there, though. If anyone should know exactly why Greg Holland should be traded and how he might be replaced, it's the Kansas City Royals.
They won't do it, though. Whether because they don't understand the game, or because their emotions will get in the way. We know what the A's and the Rays would do, though.
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