Stakes couldn’t be higher for Dayton Moore
03/30/2014 12:00 AM
03/30/2014 9:47 AM
Dayton Moore is sitting on a metal bench behind a fence. Nearly eight years of his life plays on the other side of that chain-link. And there is symbolism in the divide.
This Royals team is entirely Moore’s vision. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are the only players still around who were in the organization before Moore arrived in June 2006. Both made their major-league debuts on Moore’s OK. Each agreed to long-term contract extensions with Moore.
All of their teammates were drafted or otherwise acquired by Moore, which means that now more than ever they will succeed or fail in his reflection. Moore took over the baseball equivalent of a nuclear wasteland. The Royals had Gordon and Butler in the minor leagues, Zack Greinke just back after quitting and a bunch of bad habits everywhere else.
Slowly, they built. Quietly, at first, with progress measured in small bites — like no longer being the sport’s default punch line — and then genuine compliments from lifelong baseball men about a farm system that went from afterthought to industry model. The Royals won 86 games last year, a fine season for most franchises but historical for this one.
“It was really good to see our fans and employees experience winning,” Moore is saying behind that fence. “That was very rewarding to me. As rewarding as anything I’ve ever felt professionally. I’m really proud of where we are as an organization. The organization is as healthy as it’s been in decades.”
Moore said something stupid after last season — “In a small way, I feel like we’ve won the World Series” — that for a lot of people represented a sort of low-expectations mantra in which not embarrassing yourself is a victory. Maybe he is thinking about that now.
“There’s no sense of security in what I just said,” he says. “We have to continue to push, continue to work hard.”
That’s never been truer than it is today. The Royals have their best team in two decades, at least on paper. If things fall their way, there is enough here to set off a wild celebration back in Kansas City. But these are the Royals, which means pain is always around the corner.
Good or bad, so much of Moore’s reputation will be determined by what happens this year. This team, this season, will reflect more on him than anyone else.
And at this point, hours before the season starts, there’s not much he can do but watch the men on the other side of that fence.
This is Moore’s vision. All of it.
The truth is, when he took the job in Kansas City, he didn’t know just how far the organization had fallen. That the Royals didn’t always bother taking a team photo. That the postseason awards banquet was cancelled. Or that the club once cancelled Negro Leagues appreciation day because it didn’t want to pay for the uniforms. Or that the franchise was still using Lotus computers.
Moore was particular about pretty much everything. Scouts, executives and non-uniform player-development personnel were to wear suits and ties on game days. He hoped that players, agents and everyone around baseball noticed when Gordon debuted on opening day of 2007, instead of waiting a few weeks to potentially steal one more year of club control.
As much as anything, making sure the Royals operated like a major-league organization again was among Moore’s biggest challenges. Things like team photos and postseason banquets were great for in-house morale, but on the field, one of the biggest challenges was to create an identity.
This took a little more time. The Royals made a statement by giving pitcher Gil Meche $55 million in Moore’s first offseason on the job, then took a gamble by giving outfielder José Guillen $36 million in his second.
They started drafting on ability again, instead of signability, but it wasn’t until more recently that you could see a real identity on the field.
Look at the Royals’ opening day lineup, and it’s there. Defense, speed and athleticism. They will start three reigning Gold Glove winners — catcher Sal Perez and first baseman Eric Hosmer were each originally signed by Moore, while left fielder Gordon was nurtured and switched positions under Moore. The Royals never had three Gold Glove winners in the same year before, not even when they won championships on speed and defense.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar is one of the sport’s best, defensively. Advanced metrics had center fielder Lorenzo Cain as the best in the game last year before an injury. Statistically, the Royals were as good defensively as virtually any team this century and improved by trading for right fielder Nori Aoki. They led the league in stolen bases for the first time since 1996.
Buying frontline starting pitchers or middle-of-the order sluggers through free agency or trades is expensive, but the Royals think defense and athleticism is an undervalued commodity.
This, as much as anything, defines the kind of team Moore wants to put together. And this season, more than any other, is an illustration of that vision.
Perez came on faster than anyone expected, the American League’s best defensive catcher and an emerging offensive force. Hosmer took a little more time but seemed to find his groove last year.
In Gordon, Cain and Aoki, the Royals have perhaps the game’s best defensive outfield. Greg Holland — one of three homegrown All-Stars last year — anchors a bullpen stocked full of 95-mph fastballs.
This is Moore’s team, his vision, and there is an inherent understanding that it’s time to validate all these years of building. Moore shook the sport last year with a trade that essentially sent blue-chip prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay in exchange for ace James Shields, who will be a free agent after this season.
The Royals have virtually no chance of re-signing Shields. Moore sees a deeper benefit in having Shields’ steadiness and experience around a group learning to win big-league games, but for most around baseball, the Royals will have to at least make a strong playoff push this year for that trade to be viewed as worthwhile.
Around Shields is a team built almost exclusively from the inside out. Of those who figure to play major roles this season, only pitchers Bruce Chen and Jason Vargas and second baseman Omar Infante signed as free agents.
Yordano Ventura, signed for just $50,000 as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic, is the potential high-end starting pitcher Moore and his lieutenants have been obsessed with but so far unable to develop. Danny Duffy waits in Omaha, which is another sign of progress because he’s the kind of pitcher the Royals used to put at the top of their big-league rotation and hope.
For years, Royals fans have lived on this kind of hope and not much else. Three years ago, when Perez and Hosmer and Myers and Mike Moustakas were first facing big-league pitchers here, the joke among scouts was that the best team in the Cactus League was the 2014 Royals.
“I remember saying that,” a National League scout recalls. “It wasn’t all a joke, either.”
It’s all here, in other words. Another franchise-record payroll finds the Royals ranked around 16th in major-league spending and 27th in revenues (even after revenue sharing). No more talk about development. No more talk about timetables. Not this year.
The Royals had a good 2013. But they’re out of excuses if they don’t follow it up, and Moore knows he’ll be the one to answer for that.
Back on that bench on the slow side of the chain link, Moore is watching the team built on his orders prepare for the biggest season of his life. He sees stories behind every one of these guys.
Successes they’ve celebrated. Struggles they’ve overcome, or are trying to overcome.
Three Royals made the All-Star team last year, the first time that had happened since 1988. Those 86 wins were the club’s most since 1989. The Royals lost Ervin Santana to free agency and Luke Hochevar to season-ending elbow surgery, but added Ventura and filled gaping holes at second base and right field.
Go through the lineup from this year to last year, and either by experience (Perez, Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain), a down year (Gordon and Butler) or replacements (Infante and Aoki), you might expect each spot to produce more in 2014 than 2013.
“Talent-wise, yeah,” Moore says when asked if this is the best team he’s put together in Kansas City.
Opening day approaches, and fast. By now, there are no more major signings to make. No more season-changing trades, at least not until July. The man on whom this season will reflect more than anyone else is out of time and out of options for making big changes.
So mostly, he waits. And watches. And hopes.
Just like a lot of you.
“I love watching these guys play baseball,” Moore says. “They have fun, they care about the game, respect the game. They care about one another. They interact with the fans well. I’d like to think that because of those ingredients, they’ll be rewarded.”
There is a short pause. Moore takes his eyes off the field in front of him, just for a second.
“But they’ve got to go out and perform.”