Royals’ 2014 season will be referendum on Dayton Moore

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03/31/2014 10:24 PM

05/16/2014 12:44 PM

The trade that will largely define the ultimate success or failure of Dayton Moore’s eight years in charge of the Royals is now on the witness stand. No more chances. No more excuses. Just answers.

The Most Talented Royals Team in Two Decades will begin its season here, early Monday afternoon, against the team they are expected to be chasing in the American League Central. Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ $180 million ace, will throw the first pitch. Two days later, reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer will start against the Royals.

They are the types of pitchers the Royals must either draft and develop themselves, or spend large chunks of limited resources in trades or free agent contracts. Inside the organization, there is hope that they’ve finally found a homegrown ace in Yordano Ventura but he is just 22 years old with three career starts so for now, the most important Royals season in a generation begins with hired gun James Shields as one of two (Sal Perez being the other) irreplaceable, no-Plan-B central figures.

And unlike Perez, Shields almost certainly will be gone to the highest bidder as a free agent this winter after coming to Kansas City in exchange for Wil Myers before last season. Which gives the trade that altered the future of Royals 162 games to validate itself.

“People can evaluate that deal however they want to evaluate it,” Moore says. “But I know what it meant to the development of our players, and it will never change my mind. I feel better about that deal today than I did this time last year, because I saw how it transformed our players, and our clubhouse.”

That’s fine for Moore, and fine for now. The Royals’ 86 wins last year are the most since 1989, and jokes about low standards aside, that’s an accomplishment worth recognizing. But the excuses for bigger successes are gone, and time is running out.

The disastrous state of the Royals upon Moore taking over and David Glass’ willingness to go from awful to solid-for-a-small-money-franchise in 2006 have always been conspiring to set Moore up as a hero or dunce in Royals history with not much in between.

Over the last few years, especially, the natural and understandable impatience of Royals fans has been in a constant tug-of-war with the self-serving and ever-changing timelines put out by the front office.

But by any reasonable measure, clear heads on each side understand the situation. Last year cannot be the high-water mark for eight years of Glass investing in the Royals’ farm system infrastructure, as well as four franchise record payrolls in Moore’s time in charge.

Eight general managers have been in their current position longer than Moore. Each of them has guided their team to at least two playoff appearances. Together, they have won 35 division titles, 14 pennants and six World Series. Andrew Friedman took over a similarly rotten situation in Tampa Bay, with a fewer resources and a tougher division, and has led the Rays into the playoffs four times.

This is Moore’s eighth opening day with the Royals. Only four general managers in the last 50 years of major league baseball have made it to nine without at least one playoff appearance. With the extra playoff spot available now (and one of the wild cards coming out of the AL Central last year), there are no more excuses.

If you pay close attention, there are signs that Glass — who has been so quiet publicly and hands-off with his baseball people that many Royals fans assume he doesn’t care — is demanding results.

According to

the Forbes estimates released last week, the Royals lost $6.5 million in 2013. The big league payroll figures to be about $92 million this year, another franchise record, which means they could already be past their break-even point for 2014

. Glass can absorb a few relatively small losses after big profits in the past (not to mention the fortune he’s made in the franchise’s skyrocketing value) but nobody confuses him for an owner willing to lose money year after year with no return.

Glass gave Moore a two-year extension after last season, which was the minimum requirement he could’ve reasonably offered. You can’t let a GM go into the last year of his contract following the team’s most successful season in a generation, but

Glass understandably didn’t go all-in

.

As things sit at the moment, Moore has to feel good at the way his team enters this critical season. Shields has every reason to be at his best. Ventura has come along quickly. Even with Luke Hochevar’s season washed out by elbow surgery, the bullpen is again deep. They led the American League in ERA last year, and the lineup is the best it’s been since at least the Damon-Dye-Beltran-Sweeney years, stocked largely with young players on the good side of the career arc.

No matter what happens this season, the Royals at the moment are a stronger organization than they’ve been at any point since the 1994 strike. Moore is proud of that, and he should be.

But if the biggest return on more than six years of club control over one of the game’s best hitting prospects is finishing five games out of the second wild card in 2013, Moore should have a better explanation the next time he interviews for a GM job.

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