June of 2006 and one of my first conversations with Dayton Moore he was talking about how little tolerance he had for the kind of losing so common to the organization he had just taken over.
“We won’t finish last,” he said. “And we won’t lose 100 games.”
The Royals did finish last that season, and they lost exactly 100 games, which was actually their best record in three years. You do not need to be reminded just how bad those teams stunk.
But you might need a quick refresher on how valuable those rotten seasons turned out to be. Starting in 2004, the Royals lost 104, 106, 100 and 93 games. They picked no lower than third in the subsequent drafts, and selected Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer. Each had varying degrees of influence on creating the parade.
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This is the most efficient way to build a winning organization in modern baseball.
If you’re not convinced by the local example, try the Houston Astros, who ran their record to 42-16 with a 7-3 win over the Royals on Monday night.
They are on pace for an absurd 117 wins, and to be the first team in more than a decade of professional baseball’s highest level to lead its league in both runs scored and allowed.
Also: three years ago they lost 92 games, which was their best record in four years.
“As a player you want to win games, every game, you always want to win,” said Houston star Jose Altuve, who debuted with the 106-loss Astros of 2011. “But that’s the good thing about that. You don’t want to lose too many games, but you get those draft picks.”
The Astros may have been the first team in modern baseball to embrace losing. Jeff Luhnow took over a team that lost 106 games and immediately traded most anyone other teams were interested in — Carlos Lee, Mark Melancon, J.A. Happ, Wandy Rodriguez, on and on.
Also — and this is notable — Luhnow did not attempt to stop the losing with even second-division free agents.
They lost 107 games in Luhnow’s first season, and 111 more the next year. They finished at least 40 games out of first place in three consecutive seasons.
The big-league team was at once both a joke to some and a fascinating experiment to others. Unintentionally or otherwise, baseball’s now-expired way of determining which teams could spend how much on draft picks and international signings created an incentive not just to lose — but to lose more than anyone else.
In Luhnow’s first draft, he selected Carlos Correa first overall. There was no consensus best prospect that year. The Astros paid Correa less than the first overall pick would normally get. They used the savings to sign Lance McCullers 41st overall — McCullers was widely considered a top prospect, but slid because of bonus demands.
Correa won Rookie of the Year in 2015, and currently leads all American League shortstops in on-base and slugging percentages. Since McCullers’ debut in 2015, only 10 pitchers have more starts with a lower ERA.
That was only the highest-profile move the Astros made in a wider philosophy that can generally be described as Embrace The Suck. According to Baseball America, their farm system went from 26th to ninth to fifth in three years, all while making precious little tangible effort to win big-league games.
“The key is to get it right if you have those high picks,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who took over in 2015. “Those that experienced the losing will never consider it valuable. … It can reap its benefit. But for those who were here, and I wasn’t, it was a painful couple of years to get to this point.”
Like anything else in life, it’s not all this simple. The Astros hit on some lower picks — most notably Dallas Keuchel in the seventh round in 2009, well before Luhnow was hired — and have played in the free-agent market with Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, and others.
But this team is different. They have six more wins than anyone in baseball, and 10 more than anyone in the American League. They are a juggernaut, and even if the current pace is unsustainable, among the favorite for the next world championship.
Baseball, and the Astros, would look different if Luhnow had taken a more traditional approach.
The advantages of full-on tanking have been curbed somewhat in the new CBA, and perhaps the Royals can’t stomach something as extreme as the Astros’ path.
But there is no question their long-term future could be improved with some short-term pain.
Dayton Moore and the men who work for him are facing a decision this summer that will help guide the Royals’ foreseeable future.
The tempting thing — the easy thing — will be to believe a championship core has one more rise in a division that at least at the moment appears wide open.
But barring a run of success before the July 31 trade deadline, the harder thing — and the smarter thing, if we’re honest — will be to sell everyone worth selling to kick-start the next push.
Because it’s not just that the Royals are so far the worst team in the American League, with key players aging away from their prime or toward free agency. The club also has a farm system that industry consensus ranks as one of the worst five or 10 in baseball.
That means some rough years are almost certainly coming, one way or the other. The Royals owe it to their future to prepare as best they can.
I did not talk to Moore for this column. Not specifically, anyway. The draft is next week, and besides, we’ve talked about this topic enough that I know where he stands.
He hasn’t changed much from that first conversation, when he was so defiant about the idea of losing, even in the context of the potential benefits. The tanking strategy, if that’s what it is, bothers him on a raw and personal level.
But he may not have much of a choice, and he certainly knows how a few terrible seasons could help the future.
The Royals began the season trying to please three masters: win now, build for the future, and freeze payroll. It was a fool’s errand from the jump, a plan too ambitious to succeed, but if the losing continues and tradeable players continue to perform the Royals have a chance to limit the damage.
This isn’t a decision they have to make right now, but it’s a decision they absolutely need to be considering.
The Astros are spending most of the week providing an up-close look at how it could all work.