If the Royals want to understand why their fan base is so restless, it boils down to one thing: This is the team Dayton Moore wanted. This is the team Moore promised was the payoff for our patience. The 2014 Royals, the culmination of The Process, have spent most of the season under .500 and are half a game out of last place.
Saturday marked the eight-year anniversary of the day Moore was hired as general manager of the Royals. Moore has now led the Royals for more than two presidential terms, more than enough time to build a winning team no matter how bad a mess he inherited. It couldn’t have been worse than the 2003 Tigers, who lost an American League-record 119 games, and it took Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski only three years to turn that team into the 2006 AL champions.
Since Moore was hired, the Cleveland Indians have rebuilt a sub-.500 club into a playoff team — twice. The Washington Nationals lost more than 100 games in 2008 and 2009 and had the best record in baseball in 2012. The Pittsburgh Pirates lost 105 games in 2010 and went to the playoffs three years later.
Perhaps most damning of all, Andrew Friedman was hired as the GM of the Tampa Bay Rays just seven months before Moore was hired in Kansas City. In 2006 the Rays lost more games than the Royals. Two years later they won the AL pennant, and they’ve been to the postseason four times in the last six years, with a payroll that was lower than the Royals every year but one.
Just three teams besides the Royals have not gone to the playoffs since 2006. All three have changed general managers in that time.
The 2014 Royals are not a disappointment because Moore traded poorly; he got good value for Zack Greinke, and however much the Royals will regret the trade of Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi next year and beyond, James Shields and Wade Davis have been everything they wanted this year. Moore’s free-agent signings like Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas have also lived up to expectations. But the Royals are still under .500 for one simple, unexpected, and devastating reason: They’ve done a terrible job of developing their own talent.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Moore was hired in large part because of his player development bona fides with the Atlanta Braves. Three years ago, the Royals were widely considered by people who rank prospects to have the best farm system since people started ranking prospects.
Instead, it appears that the Royals bought their prospects from the Acme Corporation, because rather than blowing up the competition, their farm system has blown up in their hand.
Nine players were ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects three years ago. Myers and Odorizzi were traded to Tampa Bay. Left-handers Chris Dwyer, John Lamb, and Mike Montgomery (also traded to the Rays) all look like busts. So does Christian Colon. Mike Moustakas is back in Class AAA and at a career crossroads. Only Eric Hosmer and Danny Duffy are on the Royals’ roster, and Hosmer’s home-run power belongs on “CSI: Miami,” because it mysteriously disappeared while he was home in Florida this winter.
This is a capital-P Problem, the kind that should threaten the job security of the entire front office. Three years ago, with the youngest offense in the major leagues, the Royals scored the sixth-most runs in the league.
Today, with the same players at six positions, the Royals are tied for last in runs scored. Hosmer has never had a better season at the plate than when he was a 21-year-old rookie; Moustakas’ best season came when he was a 23-year-old sophomore. Butler is 28 but is suddenly hitting as if he’s 38. That isn’t supposed to happen.
It’s rare for any player in his early 20s to decline as a hitter — for an entire team of hitters in their early 20s, it’s almost unprecedented.
It’s hard not to wonder how much fault lies in the terrible decision to fire hitting coach Kevin Seitzer after the 2012 season. He was fired because the Royals didn’t hit for enough power, which sounds like the setup to one of Aesop’s Fables given what’s happened since: The Royals have plowed through hitting coaches like Spinal Tap drummers. Dale Sveum was hired on Thursday to replace Pedro Grifol, who last July replaced George Brett, who replaced Jack Maloof and Andre David last May.
The Royals had five different hitting coaches in less than a year and haven’t hit for power with any of them — they are dead last in the majors in home runs since the start of last season. Meanwhile, the Toronto Blue Jays, who hired Seitzer to be their hitting coach this offseason, lead the majors in home runs and runs scored, and lead the AL East.
Salvador Perez is literally the only hitting prospect the Royals have developed who has lived up to expectations, so it’s fair to ask whether the Royals know how to teach hitting. Bubba Starling, signed to the largest amateur contract in franchise history ($7.5 million) three years ago, is hitting .194 in Class A ball.
Even worse, when asked by The Star last week about the reasons for his recent success — he went on a 15-game hitting streak — he answered he was “kind of going back to what I did in high school.” Apparently the best thing the Royals’ hitting coaches have done for Starling is to teach him to ignore them.
While Ned Yost deserves his share of the blame — he’s the one who wanted Seitzer fired — the fault with this roster goes over his head.
And while owner David Glass is a convenient punching bag for fans, it’s hard to pinpoint anything he’s done wrong. He’s mostly stayed out of Moore’s way since Moore was hired and has given Moore enough money to fashion a winner. The Royals’ payroll each of the last two years is higher than any in the history of the Rays or Oakland A’s.
For years, the front office has moved the goalposts and offered excuses for the glacial pace of the rebuilding process, but it’s time to hold them accountable. Shields is a free agent after the season; Gordon is eligible for free-agency the year after that. The farm system isn’t nearly as deep as it once was.
This might be the Royals’ best shot with their current group of players. Moore deserves a little more time to turn this season around — if the team goes on a stretch where it wins 15 out of 20, as the Royals did last year, they might lead the wild-card race and quiet their critics.
But that time should be measured in weeks, not years. You can’t argue that eight years isn’t long enough when other teams routinely rebuild themselves in half the time. If after eight years Moore hasn’t been able to fashion a playoff team, it’s only reasonable to conclude that he never will.
Editor’s note: Rany Jazayerli writes for Baseball Prospectus and Grantland and is the author of the “Rany on the Royals” blog.