They want Moore?

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?

The core

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.

The prospects

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.

The money

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.

The window

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.

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Comments

  1. lexomatic said...

    Are you sure Moustakas`defense is a plus at short? I seem to recall him being moved permanently off short (and there being issues wiht his defense at third as well.)

  2. Jason Shumate said...

    I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the Royals as I really only keep up with NL for the most part, but I have a few comments.  I think a lot of people in the KC organization just assumed that because Moore worked in Atlanta that he was or would be some kind of Schuerholz-like genius.  That really is not the case.  Meche was a huge gamble that mostly worked out, but he’s had a poor season this year.  You guys in KC might get 2 more years of the Meche you have now rather than the guy he was in 2007 and 2008.

    Things are so bad that longtime fan Bill James is suggesting that only radical thinking outside the box can turn this team around.  You can read it here:
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/joe_posnanski/08/31/bill.james/index.html

    Note that James doesn’t say that a radical approach will work, but he does think that continuing to try to compete on convention means with a very limited budget is doomed to continue to fail.  It’s a case of a new approach at least might work whereas going down this same path almost certainly will continue to fail.

  3. Positively Half St. said...

    I join the great majority of Nationals fans in hoping that KC signs Aaron Crow to a contract worth much less than DC offered him the year before. After that, I wish him a career of pure mediocrity.

  4. glp said...

    @Positively Half St.

    As a Royals fan, gee, thanks a lot.  We’re suffering here too, you know.  I have always felt for the Nationals and their fans.  I’ve rooted for the Nats and rooted for better for the Nats.  But you might get me to rethink my position.

  5. devil_fingers said...

    Jeff:

    Re: Moustakas and TotalZone—are your numbers with Rally’s MLEs applied? I think that’s important to remember, particularly given the bad scouting reports about Moustakas fielding at 3B.

  6. Kevin W. said...

    Royals can be contenders in 2011. And If we Decide to go to the market, 2010. We have some nice prospects in AA as well, like mentioned Mike Montgomery who could be a starter, Bianchi who will be playing for the AZF this year. We also have some power in AAA with Kila, Thorman, and Alridge.

    2011 we can have Meche Greinke Bannister Crow Hochevar for our rotation.

  7. Positively Half St. said...

    glp-

    Sorry ‘bout that. No bad feelings toward the Royals in the least. I just hold a grudge against Crow and his agents. How’s about he just learns his lesson with a smaller contract (helps the Royals), and then has a fine career as a humbler adult?

    +1/2St.

  8. devil_fingers said...

    Mike Moustakas hasn’t played SS since early 2008. He’s now playing 3B, and scouting reports are that… well, he’s Billy Butler without the bat.

  9. Dave said...

    With regard to the Bill James article: it’s pretty clear he’s not specifically having a go at the Royals, but is rather referring to small town teams in general.

    While James’ ladder analogy sounds pretty good, the question is how much room there is for “unconventional” approaches that will bear fruit. Perhaps 20 years ago before sabermetrics kicked in there was a lot more room but there’s less now. How possible is it for the Padres/Royals/Pirates etc to come up with radical unconventional ideas that the Yankees/Red Sox etc with vastly bigger finances won’t have thought of. I’m not saying its not possible, just that James’ comment (which, to give him credit, is just one of many quick observations in a fairly relaxed sounding interview) makes it sound a hell of a lot easier than it is…

  10. Jeff said...

    I actually think there are a lot of “unconventional” approaches to at least try.

    The Royals actually have a great closer.  Why not try to use him “optimally.”  Two innings at a time during tied ballgames.  Get 100IP out of him (maybe this wouldn’t work due to the recent arm troubles).

    Try a 4-man rotation.  Try putting a bigger than usual guy that can hit at second base (turn it into a hitter’s position).  Especially, scour other teams systems for fallen prospects (a la Jack Cust and Carlos Pena). 

    It seems like baseball is a very conservative institution, and you could possibly use that to your advantage.  Of course, once you find something that works, lots of smart teams will emulate.  You’ll have a head start at least.

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