It seems so long ago now that the Royals are World Series champions, but earlier this decade, the only thing they had going for them was their prospect depth. Alex Gordon couldn't drive in or score all the runs by himself, and Zack Greinke couldn't pitch every single game, so future, imagined Royals' teams meant more than the actual product on the field.
These imagined teams had Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas breaking out as mashing corner infielders. Wil Myers was going to be a superstar in the outfield, one who would guide the Royals to success throughout a peak Kansas City controlled nearly all of. They had Salvador Perez as a two-way catcher who could help guide a young pitching staff featuring the likes of Danny Duffy, John Lamb, and Mike Montgomery. When Greinke was traded for a package including pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, he was added to the mix, and Gordon got some promising friends to join him in the bigs in the form of Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. And let's not forget about the raw, exciting talent of Yordano Ventura.
The Royals won, but not because all of these things worked out exactly as planned. Montgomery didn't even debut in the majors until 2015, and it was with the Mariners. Danny Duffy was shifted to the bullpen before the end of the year, because life as a starter just wasn't working out as big-league lineups saw more of him. John Lamb similarly didn't get a chance to pitch in the majors until this year, but with the Reds. Odorizzi has been on the Rays for a couple years now, Hosmer and Moustakas only recently look like the players they were expected to be a few seasons ago, and Ventura is still trying to figure things out even as the talent remains obvious.
The problem with imagining a winner built entirely from the farm is that it just isn't realistic. The Royals realized this, and on multiple occasions, used their vaunted prospect depth to secure the pieces they couldn't produce themselves. They felt comfortable enough with the futures of Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, and Perez to deal Myers and his excellent potential to the Rays for the rotation topper, James Shields, that they couldn't develop on their own. He came with Wade Davis, who had recently become a successful reliever with the Rays. After one more try in the rotation, Kansas City sent him back to the pen, where he finished his transition into a game-changing bullpen option.
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That's the huge trade, the one everyone remembers, and many reviled at the time. But it was the trade that needed to happen: the Royals were absolutely loaded with talented young players, but if they were to have any chance before those players got old and expensive, more pieces were needed. Prospects exist to plug holes, and when there are holes they cannot fill, then teams need to trade them for players who can. Shields plugged a hole. Davis was an attempt at plugging a hole. When Lamb and 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan were traded for Reds' ace Johnny Cueto this July, that was making a necessary upgrade from the Jeremy Guthries of the world. The same goes for dealing Sean Manaea to the A's for Ben Zobrist, who plugged multiple holes in his Zobristian way.
All of these players had real potential at the time they were dealt. That potential could have paid off eventually had the Royals held on to those players, but no one knows that for sure. And it's not like Kansas City abandoned the concept of youth with these deals: they still have Ventura, Perez, Hosmer, Moustakas, all 26 or younger, to go along with Cain, Escobar, and even Davis, none of whom were in their age-30 season in 2015.
This brings us to the Red Sox and their recent hoarding of prospects. The hoarding isn't such a bad thing in and of itself -- it's a necessary defense against some trade demands, really -- but you can't hug them forever: eventually, you need to move some of that depth in order to acquire the players the big-league roster needs. The Red Sox could act similarly to the Royals, identifying the youthful core they want to keep around -- for Boston, it's likely Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Eduardo Rodriguez, and the eldest of the bunch, 23-year-old Blake Swihart -- but moving just about anyone else if it will give that foursome a real chance at a championship.
Many of you have likely already imagined a future where Rafael Devers and Manuel Margot join these players and bring the Red Sox another banner. Maybe you've envisioned Henry Owens or Brian Johnson pitching key innings in the World Series. Maybe you've got the real long view of things going already, and are excited for the days of Michael Kopech and Javier Guerra and Michael Chavis at Fenway. What you've envisioned doesn't matter: if moving any of those players can realistically bring the current Red Sox closer to a World Series title, then they should be moved, just like Jose Iglesias and your dreams for him were dealt to help Boston's chances in 2013.
Those are legitimate prospects, many of them top-100 or even top-50 guys in some cases. But they are still just prospects, just dreams and hopes and wishcasting packaged in a youthful frame. The Red Sox shouldn't go out and trade all of their kids in the minors or anything -- and some, like Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, and Anderson Espinoza either should not be moved or should only be dealt for the most significant of players -- but if a deal is there that brings them an ace, or a legitimate first baseman who also gets Hanley Ramirez and his contract out of the picture, or shores up a bullpen who as of now could realistically ruin Boston's 2016, then they shouldn't be shy about moving some prospects.
Prospect hugging guarantees nothing. The Mets made the World Series with an amazing and young rotation, but their refusal to either spend money or trade even mid-tier prospects is likely going to keep them from experiencing that magical ride again -- hell, the reason they made it this time around is because they got an outstanding healthy season from their primary starters, and that isn't something any team can necessarily bank on a repeat of, as Sox fans are more than aware of. The Blue Jays hung out in limbo for over 20 years, never quite going all-in, and they finally snapped their postseason drought by shipping off kids for major pieces like Troy Tulowitzki and David Price.
Like the Royals, they still kept some key youths around, combining the best of both worlds. The Indians, meanwhile, who were run for over a decade by Mark Shapiro, the man now in charge of the Jays, squeezed their prospects so tightly to their chest to no avail, and the concern with Toronto is that they're now headed back to that distressing world under him.
You can make it to the World Series even as you hoard prospects, but it takes an exceptional hit rate on them for that to occur. Even then, like the Mets or even this year's Cubs, you might still be lacking pieces you need to get the job done. The Royals have a model that's seemingly impossible to replicate, but that won't stop teams from trying. What should be copied from them, though, is their willingness and lack of fear when it came time to move prospects for viable, present-day pieces. The Red Sox could use a little more of that going forward, and with new President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski around, maybe that's just what we'll see.