Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 12/16/12
A week ago, I was one of many who criticized the Royals decision to trade a package of young talent — including Wil Myers, one of the best offensive prospects in the game — for James Shields, even though I’m a big fan of his and I think he’s likely to provide a significant upgrade to Kansas City’s rotation. The argument against making the trade essentially went something like this; the Royals aren’t likely to be a playoff team in 2013 even with Shields, while Myers himself could have served as a valuable upgrade over the ineffective incumbent. Today, it seems likely that the Toronto Blue Jays are about to make a very similar trade. According to Joel Sherman, the current incarnation of the big rumored trade is a seven player deal that would ship R.A. Dickey (and stuff) to Toronto for Travis D’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, and stuff. The deal isn’t done, and we don’t even know the names of the secondary prospects going each direction, but it’s probably safe to assume that the structure of this deal is going to be similar to the just-completed Shields trade. In this case, D’Arnaud is Myers, Syndergaard is Odorizzi, and the rest of the stuff is probably going to be some offsetting combination of near term value versus long term potential. While that trade wasn’t Myers-for-Shields, and this trade won’t be D’Arnaud-for-Dickey, both deals are centered around an elite-prospect-for-front-line starter swap. The 2012 Royals were 72-90 and were outscored by 70 runs. The 2012 Blue Jays were 73-89 and were outscored by 68 runs. The talent exchanges are similar. The cost and team control of the acquired pitchers will be similar, assuming Dickey signs an extension with Toronto, which seems like a pretty strong bet. So, if we ripped the Royals for the Shields trade, how can we not rip the Blue Jays for making a similar trade? In this case, the prior moves make all the difference in the world. Preceding the Shields acquisition, the Royals brought in Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, who both could be roughly league average starters in 2013 if they bounce back from their more recent poor performances. And that’s basically it. They added a couple of pitchers who might add +5 wins between them if you take the most optimistic projections possible, and then added Shields as the final piece. With a roster that produced a lousy team in 2012, the Royals added something between +5 and +10 wins, depending on how you feel about the three pitchers they brought in. Even if you project significant steps forward for those returning from last year’s squad, it’s tough to project the Royals as better than an 80-85 win team for 2013. And so, in my estimation, the team’s odds of making a playoff run didn’t improve enough to justify the long term cost. The Blue Jays, of course, have been much more aggressive before making this push for Dickey. They signed a useful second baseman in Maicer Izturis, then signed Melky Cabrera to fill a spot in the outfield. Both players come with legitimate question marks, but both could also be productive everyday players and fill significant holes on the team. In many ways, Izturis and Cabrera are the Blue Jays version Guthrie and Santana, only they cost half as much. But Toronto didn’t stop there. If they had, I’d be killing them for making this trade too. But, in between adding a couple of stop-gap guys to fill some holes, the Blue Jays traded for every good player on the Marlins not named Giancarlo Stanton. They replaced Yunel Escobar with Jose Reyes. They replaced Henderson Alvarez with Josh Johnson. They replaced Aaron Laffey with Mark Buehrle. They replaced Omar Vizquel with Emilio Bonifacio. Reyes, Johnson, and Buehrle can probably be reasonably projected for something like +10 WAR between them, and Bonifacio could be a pretty nifty bench guy, providing some value at multiple positions in order to keep the team from having to waste at-bats on replacement level scrubs. They’re not replacing entirely unproductive players, so the net upgrade is a little less than that, but it’s still a huge step forward. That trade, coupled with the Cabrera and Izturis signings, pushed the 2013 Blue Jays from also-ran to interesting potential contender. That trade probably made them something like an 85 win team, even with a few problem spots still on the roster. For the Blue Jays, Dickey isn’t the entire off-season. He’s not being positioned as the guy who is going to change everything. Toronto’s plan wasn’t to acquire an ace and wait for their young guys to turn into championship players. Toronto’s plan was to overhaul a bad roster, and they did exactly that before they decided to surrender their best prospect to land a frontline starter. If they complete the deal, Dickey may very well be the piece that turns the Blue Jays from a team on the bubble to AL East favorites. He would be an acquisition at the peak of the team’s win curve. And so, while I’m probably not going to call this a steal for Toronto any time soon, paying this kind of heavy price can be more readily justified. It might not work, of course. Dickey might not age as well as softer throwing knucklers have. D’Arnaud may turn into a franchise catcher for the Mets. The Blue Jays are taking a huge risk here, giving up some potentially bright futures for a short term upgrade. But, the Blue Jays did enough already this winter to make this kind of short term upgrade worth pursuing. They put themselves in a position to turn a bad team into a good one. They went all-in on 2013, and adding Dickey would be the final piece, not the only piece. There is a time and a place to cash in future value in exchange for a better chance to win now. With his pre-Dickey acquisitions, Alex Anthopolous put himself in that place, and gave his new roster a real shot to win the AL East if they could get one more big piece. Now, he’s trying to get that one more piece. This is how you go for broke. This is how you change a losing culture. The price still looks steep. There’s no question that Toronto is giving up some valuable assets in this trade, and will likely regret this move in the long term if they don’t win in 2013. But, by being aggressive in pursuing upgrades before making this kind of future-for-now swap, the Blue Jays have made it more likely that the whole series of moves results in a playoff run. And that’s what makes these kinds of moves worth it.
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