From his suite on the fourth floor of Kauffman Stadium, Royals general manager Dayton Moore glimpsed his organization’s future. Two summers ago, the Royals could not yet sell the present, so they peddled promise.
The culmination of years of building in the minor leagues occurred on July 8, 2012, at the Futures Game, baseball’s annual showcase of lower-level talent.
As hosts, the Royals flaunted their prospect wealth. Jake Odorizzi started for the U.S. squad. Wil Myers played right field. When the World team took the field, a 21-year-old pitcher from the Dominican Republic received his first moment in the sun. Two years later, assistant general manager J.J. Picollo can still recall Yordano Ventura looking up to Moore’s box and smiling.
Two years later, to measure how far the Royals have traveled as an organization, consider how Moore will spend this Sunday. As the Futures Game begins at Target Field, Moore will be 440 miles south, once more ensconced in his stadium suite.
Watching his prospects duel for an inning in an exhibition was nice, he explained last week. Watching his club compete with the Tigers for their first playoff berth in two decades is far more satisfying.
“No question,” Moore said. “No question.”
For an organization desperate for big-league credibility, the role reversal feels fulfilling. The Royals sent one participant, right-hander Christian Binford, to this year’s Futures Game. A trio of homegrown players — Alex Gordon, Greg Holland and Salvador Perez — return to the All-Star Game for the second consecutive year, the first time the club has sent this many representatives in back-to-back seasons since 1987-88.
“The end goal is to win at the major-league level,” director of player development Scott Sharp said. “Without question, the focus should be there. We’re glad that it is.
“Obviously,” he continued, “you still need your minor leagues to be robust, to be strong.”
Heading into this weekend, The Star surveyed team officials, rival executives and minor-league talent evaluators on the state of the Royals’ farm system. Some requested anonymity in order to speak freely about another organization’s players.
The industry still perceives strength within this system, a collection of intriguing arms and promising position players, even if the hype from 2010 to 2011 has not yet been justified.
Before this season began, Baseball America rated the Royals’ farm system eighth in the majors, and Baseball Prospectus ranked it seventh. Baseball America also listed three Royals prospects among the game’s top 50 in its midseason assessment: shortstop Raul Mondesi (No. 22), pitcher Kyle Zimmer (26) and third baseman Hunter Dozier (39).
Yet, a gap exists between the current crop of farmhands and the big-league club, which has hampered the team on several occasions.
A call to Class AAA Omaha for an emergency starter resulted in Aaron Brooks authoring one of the weakest performances in recent memory. A thirst for corner-outfield help netted a slew of fruitless at-bats from 42-year-old veteran Raul Ibañez. A lack of a suitable alternative forced third baseman Mike Moustakas to languish in the big leagues during a miserable May.
“Between Omaha and their (Class AA) club,” one American League executive said, “there’s nobody that looks like they’re going to jump up soon as a significant piece.”
On this point, team officials cannot disagree. It is a thorn in their side they seek to correct.
“Our goal every year is to have five to seven guys who are ready to help the major-league team when we need help,” Picollo said. “I can’t tell you that we have five to seven. We have a couple.”
On the morning of May 31, as Brooks warmed up in the outfield at Toronto’s Rogers Center, pitching coach Dave Eiland stood nearby with bullpen coach Doug Harvey. Brooks flew into Toronto the night before to fill in for injured starter Ventura.
Watching Brooks play catch, Eiland noticed a mechanical flaw he later said he had already counseled Brooks to correct during spring training. Brooks did not land properly on the follow-through of his delivery, which resulted in inexact command. Facing a ferocious Blue Jays lineup, Eiland sensed a potential disaster brewing.
His foreboding proved accurate. Toronto hounded Brooks, scored seven runs and prevented him from finishing the first inning. The Royals exhausted their bullpen to finish the day. The calamity produced a follow-up: Was this the best the farm system had to offer?
More than two months later, Moore defended the methodology that produced Brooks on that day. The front office projected his sinker as playable in the majors, and felt confident he would throw strikes. Given the evidence, of course, Moore conceded the obvious.
“We didn’t expect that,” Moore said. “If we thought that might happen, we wouldn’t have called him up. We were just wrong that day. We were right in the process. But he got up there, and it didn’t happen.”
The alternatives were also limited. The team’s best pitching prospects, Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte, reside in Class A Wilmington. The upper levels were bereft of enticing options.
Injuries were partly to blame. Kyle Zimmer, the No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft, has missed all of this season because of a strained latissimus dorsi muscle. A recurrence of a thyroid condition sidelined Chris Dwyer. John Lamb is still finding himself after Tommy John surgery.
The paradox is this season has also been the organization’s most successful campaign yet in producing homegrown starting pitchers. In Moore’s first seven seasons at the helm, only four amateur players he drafted or signed in the international market had started in big-league games.
“A year ago, everyone was bantering about how we can’t develop starting pitching,” Picollo said. “And what are we going to say about it? We didn’t have anybody that was developed in our system.”
Now they do. Ventura vacillates between overwhelming opponents and overexerting himself, but he has been a valuable performer. When the team required a minor-leaguer to replace Bruce Chen earlier this season, Danny Duffy answered the call. He remains a fixture in the five-man unit.
“I know guys get tired of hearing about the process, patience, all the clichés,” Picollo said. “They’re clichés. But they’re true.”
Inside a hotel suite in Nashville, Dayton Moore wrote the team’s top prospects on a white board. In the wee hours of the morning on Dec. 6, 2012, he slashed lines through the names of Myers, Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard. This was the price Tampa Bay sought in exchange for James Shields, and Moore asked his brain trust if the organization could sustain this loss.
The answer was affirmative.
The trade for Shields represents a flashpoint in franchise history. No longer would the minor leagues hold sway. To hear team officials tell it, Shields’ arrival also allowed the team to develop their players with more patience. So pitchers such as Lamb or Jason Adam, who has struggled at Class AA, do not need to be rushed.
“Maybe we don’t have the same ceiling that we had a couple of years ago,” Picollo said. “But the depth overall, we feel pretty good about.”
Both Moore and Picollo expressed satisfaction with their draft classes from 2013 and 2014. The previous years have netted little in the majors. Since 2009, the lone consistent performer acquired through the draft has been middle reliever Aaron Crow, the No. 12 pick in 2009.
Other top picks have fizzled. Chosen fourth in 2010, Christian Colon profiles as a backup infielder. Bubba Starling, the No. 5 pick in 2011, was batting .204 through 84 games with Class A Wilmington.
Since lavishing a $7.5 million bonus on Starling, one executive said, “they’ve taken a bunch of high-risk, high-reward guys who just haven’t worked out yet.”
Moore provides staunch defense for his players. He champions Colon as a productive future big-leaguer, one comparable to two-time All-Star Placido Polanco. He has stressed the organization won’t place a big-league timetable on Starling perhaps until after 2015. He often mentions the case of Alex Gordon, who required multiple years of big-league failure before he blossomed.
An assessment of the Royals’ farm system reveals successes and failures, enough of the former to outweigh the latter. No longer does the organization have to peddle the days to come. But they must continue to prepare for them, even as the focus lingers on their major-league unit.
“You’re never where you want to be with the system,” Moore said. “But I feel good about it.”