This week, Dayton Moore received a multi-year extension that keeps him running the Royals through 2014. Not exactly the sort of vote of confidence one expects for the GM of a last-place team.
It’s true, the organization that Moore inherited was in shambles. When he took over three and a half years ago, the Royals were in the middle of a 100-loss season with names like Scott Elarton and Luke Hudson atop the rotation. Beyond a Double-A squad that featured Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Zack Greinke, the minor league system functioned to determine who would become the next Elarton.
While some baseball insiders praise the work Moore has done to bolster KC’s player development, nothing has turned up yet on the field. Four amateur drafts have yielded some promising talent, and if nothing else, the Royals have spent an awful lot of money on amateurs in the last two years.
What’s the timetable?
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter how well your player development system is run, or how much you exceed slot to sign your fifth-rounder. If the Royals haven’t started winning a whole lot more by 2014, the odds are slim Moore will get another extension.
Some folks—inside the organization and out—thought that winning ways might start this year. That inspired a few moves that, at least in hindsight, were clearly misguided. The world doesn’t need another rant about Kyle Farnsworth‘s $9 million deal, so I’ll leave it at that.
Whether it’s a matter of colossal bad luck (as Moore seems to believe) or poor foresight, the Royals are still some distance away from competing in the AL Central. I think it’s safe to toss out 2010 as the target year unless Greinke develops a training regimen that allows him to pitch every third day. So what can Royals fans reasonably hope for?
Despite a sub-.400 winning percentage, KC has a fair bit of talent. First on the list is Greinke, a bona fide ace who is arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Whatever else you think about Dayton Moore so far, his decision to lock up Greinke through 2012 looks to be an inspired one.
Also signed to a team-friendly contract is closer Joakim Soria. Soria missed part of this season to a rotator cuff injury, but if he’s back healthy, the Royals will be well-served to keep him around. The club has options on 2012 ($6 million), 2013 ($8 million), and 2014 ($8.75 million).
The offensive picture is a little less rosy, particularly due to Alex Gordon’s giant steps backward. It’s unclear whether the third baseman will recover and become the building block the organization hoped he would be.
The one solid building block is Billy Butler. In a perfect world, you don’t want to start constructing an offense around a “1B”/DH, but Butler is turning in a solid offensive campaign at age 23. That might not make a lot of noise in some organizations, but it’s a good place for the Royals to start.
Gearing toward 2011-12, those four players give you a nice head start. But if that’s all you’ve got, you’re stuck with something that looks an awful lot like the 2009 Royals. Let’s look at who might join them.
As the Brewers, Rays, and Nationals can tell you, one benefit of losing is the draft picks. Picking early got KC both Gordon and, in the Rule 5 draft, Soria. Since Moore took over, the Royals have taken advantage of their draft position to add starter Luke Hochevar, shortstop Mike Moustakas, slugger Eric Hosmer, and this year, starter Aaron Crow.
In addition, Moore’s crew has aggressively sought out top talent beyond the first round, picking up guys like Chris Dwyer and Wil Myers in 2009 following Mike Montgomery and Tim Melville a year earlier.
Hochevar has already seen plenty of time with the big club but has yet to establish himself as a complement to Greinke at the front of the rotation. His emergence is just as important as Gordon’s if the Royals hope to contend in 2011.
The one thing that sticks out about most of the Royals biggest recent amateur investments is their youth. Crow is the exception, having followed in Hochevar’s footsteps and spent this season pitching for the Fort Worth Cats. If Moore is able to get him signed and he develops quickly, he also could play a part in a successful 2011 campaign.
But Moustakas and Hosmer? Moustakas is still young, but hasn’t established himself as an elite hitting prospect. His defense at short is a plus (especially for a team sending Yuniesky Betancourt out there every night), but he’s hardly a can’t-miss prospect at this point. In 2011, he’ll still be only 22; if he keeps progressing one level per year, he’ll spend that season in Omaha. By the time he lives up to the hype he inspired as a prep prospect, Greinke may be pitching in the AL East.
Hosmer is an even bigger question mark. Burlington and Wilmington hardly constitute a hitter’s paradise, but you generally want a first-round draft pick chosen for his bat to do better .239/.330/.355 in his first full pro season. Like Moustakas, Hosmer is tough to envision as a real contributor before the current core is dispersed.
The story is similar for most of the other high-profile picks. It’s a rare prep prospect that goes from draft pick to big-league contributor in less than four or five years. Moore went for a much more college-heavy mix in this year’s amateur draft, but most of the notable names from 2007 and ’08 were prepsters. That suggests a window of opportunity starting no earlier than 2012.
No team is limited to what they grow from within. The Royals do have some money to work with, and when guys like Crow and Moustakas are ready, they’ll have a lot more of it. Jose Guillen‘s contract ends next year, and Gil Meche will be a free agent after 2011.
The only commitment for 2012 is Greinke’s $13.5 million; Soria’s option would be another $6 million. Guys like Butler and Hochevar will be in line for bigger paydays by then, but that still leaves plenty of room to fill in the gaps on the open market.
That, so far, has not appeared to be Moore’s strong point. While Meche has turned out much better than most fans anticipated, Guillen has been every bit as bad as feared. The aforementioned Farnsworth deal was a clear misstep, and Juan Cruz looks like a mistake as well. Trades haven’t worked out much better; if you follow this site, odds are you’ve already read all you need to read about Mike Jacobs and Yuniesky Betancourt.
In 2011, after some arbitration paydays, the Royals will have another $25-35 million to work with. In 2012, that number could be closer to $40 million, though of course KC is likely to make a few long-term commitments in the meantime.
If everything breaks right, Kansas City could have a hell of a team in 2012. Imagine:
- A starting rotation fronted by Zack Greinke in his prime, with Luke Hochevar and Aaron Crow providing 400 innings of mid-rotation goodness.
- A bullpen anchored by Joakim Soria, with someone like Mike Montgomery or Tim Melville fast-tracked as a setup man along with 2010 or 2011’s top draft pick.
- A starting lineup with Kila Ka’aihue and/or Billy Butler driving in runs behind Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon in the two and three spots. A good place to spend some of that free-agent dough would be one more big hitter at second base or center field.
I can see it…but it takes some doing. Moore looked at the 2009 Royals and saw a .500 team with enough upside to justify (sort of?) going for it. If the pieces of the 2012 club that I’ve described start to fall into place, it’s easy to see a similar effort with a higher upside.
But that requires a lot of luck and a lot of discipline. If Moustakas stagnates or Gordon never recovers, that lineup needs an awful lot of help from outside the organization. If Hochevar never becomes more than a back-rotation guy or Crow gets overworked in 2010 and loses 18 months to Tommy John surgery, the rotation is middling. (Worse yet: Middling at the cost of $12 million per starter.)
And most perhaps most worrisome: Gearing toward a run three years in the future is hard. It means making offseason investments very carefully. When your team has a sub-$80MM payroll, another mistake like Guillen could mean the difference between peaking at 92 wins and a World Series appearance and peaking at 87 wins and a second-place finish.
The Rays and Brewers managed to turn around organizations that looked a lot like the current Royals. Dayton Moore’s detractors are louder than his fans right now, but he might just have the pieces necessary to prove the doubters wrong.