Amid questions about the future, Royals’ Dayton Moore is focused on today

Royals general manager Dayton Moore was reminded by Yordano Ventura’s sudden death in January that “none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.”
Royals general manager Dayton Moore was reminded by Yordano Ventura’s sudden death in January that “none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.” Kansas City Star

Dayton Moore wants to talk about the present. It is a Thursday afternoon in March, the desert sun is shining hard, and Moore is headed to a charity golf outing. The baseball season is just 11 days away.

The Royals’ general manager is talking about a homegrown core that is hungry to contend again; about a city that has smashed local television ratings records and come out in droves over the last three seasons.

Did you know Kansas City had the highest World Series television ratings outside of Chicago and Cleveland last fall? Moore does.

The 2017 Royals? Moore can’t stop thinking about this team.

There are questions about the future, of course. Big questions.

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There are free-agent questions. There are financial questions. There are questions about whether a franchise that has won a World Series and transformed a city can weather change and build a bridge to the future.

But Moore is still thinking about today.

He’s always been wired like this, he says. Sometimes, he’ll become so consumed with what he’s doing that he struggles to remember what he did the day before. This is life in baseball.

When he took the general manager’s job in Kansas City in 2006, he always wanted this philosophy to permeate the Royals organization, always wanted his assistants, coaches and players focused on the next day, the next game, the next moment.

And then, 11 years later, he got a message on an early Sunday morning in January. One of his starting pitchers had died in a car crash.

“None of us are guaranteed tomorrow,” he says.

The death of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura offered sober perspective as the offseason came to a close, a reminder that baseball is just a game. But it also reinforced Moore’s world view. Yes, the Royals have questions. Yes, they are coming on fast. But for the moment, he is focused only on today.

“We’ve haven’t even thrown the first pitch yet,” he says.

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The questions are still there. They are not going away. But every day this spring, it seemed like somebody else was asking Moore about the future of the Royals.

For all the focus on 2017, the Royals remain an organization on the edge of transition. When the 2017 World Series is over, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar are all set to become free agents for the first time. After two American League pennants and a World Series title in the last three years — and the hope for another run this season — the Royals are bracing for inevitable change.

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Moore remains tight-lipped on the subject, other than to point out the Royals’ sterling track record of retaining homegrown talent. Owner David Glass has tempered expectations about re-signing Hosmer, telling The Star’s Sam Mellinger that it will be “difficult.”

For now, a free-agent puzzle awaits. Cain will turn 31 in April, and the Royals have already committed $72 million over four seasons to Alex Gordon, another outfielder aging beyond his early 30s. Hosmer, 27, and Moustakas, 28, are younger than Cain and therefore could command more money on the open market. Their value could be established, in part, by their performances in 2017.

Inside the clubhouse, the Royals know that a sluggish start during the first half could mean a fire sale on pending free agents. In the front office, Moore would prefer if he never has to think about that decision.

“It’s up to us to be successful,” Moore says.

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The looming free-agent questions will hover over the first half of the season. Yet as the Royals forge a path forward, the cupboard is not bare. Gordon is signed through 2019. Catcher Salvador Perez and pitcher Danny Duffy are under contract through 2021. Pitcher Ian Kennedy, if he doesn’t exercise an opt-out after this season, will be in Kansas City through 2020.

That list doesn’t include pitcher Nathan Karns or outfielder Jorge Soler, acquired in the offseason and under club control through 2020. It doesn’t include pitchers Jason Hammel and Travis Wood and outfielder/designated hitter Brandon Moss, who signed two-year deals this offseason.

It also doesn’t include the next generation of talent, players such as Raul Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, Matt Strahm and Josh Staumont. There are more names, of course. And if the Royals wish to sustain the success of this era, it will hinge on the organization’s ability to keep turning out homegrown stars.

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“It’s pretty simple,” Moore says. “You get players that really love to play — that are talented. You build your farm system. You graduate players to the major leagues. You sign a free agent to supplement a core of homegrown players. And that’s what we’ve done, and that’s what we’ll continue to do. The formula is not going to change.”

For the Royals, the process remains intact. The challenges, though, could be new.

In 2008, the Royals selected a first baseman named Eric Hosmer with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft and spent $10.2 million on their first 10 picks. The next year, they shelled out $2 million to a third-round pick named Wil Myers, a record at the time.

For years, the Royals followed the same formula, investing big money in the amateur draft and building the best farm system in the sport.

The Royals were not the only club to see the benefits of draft spending; the Pirates and Red Sox were among the other clubs to hoard top talent with big signing bonuses. It also didn’t hurt that the Royals picked in the top five of the draft every year from 2005 to 2008.

By 2011, the Royals had compiled what was then thought of as one of the best farm systems ever. Four years later, they won a World Series. The formula took years and patience and an organization-wide emphasis on scouting — both amateur and international. But the results were undeniable. All flags fly forever.

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But in the years after the first big push in amateur spending, the game began to change. In 2012, a new collective-bargaining agreement ushered in limits on draft spending and a soft cap on international signings. This past offseason, another new CBA delivered an even stricter cap on international spending.

The rules are the same for all clubs, and in time, big-market teams could have exploited the system in ways small-market teams could only dream. But for the Royals, it did mean a strategy that had worked brilliantly was now gone.

“The game keeps changing,” Moore says. “It’s up to us to adapt to the changing world of baseball.”

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Six years after boasting the best farm system in baseball, the Royals’ system now ranks somewhere in the sport’s bottom third. Yet club officials believe this only tells half the story.

“Is there a dip right now? Obviously, there’s a dip,” says Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo. “Am I ready to say that it’s because of our processes? No. Our processes are what got us the players that helped us win a championship.”

Picollo is talking about players such as Hosmer and Moustakas. But he is also speaking about the collection of young pitching prospects traded away in deals for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist in 2015, two moves that helped push the Royals over the top in the postseason.

To win a championship, the Royals lopped off a talented chunk of their system, leaving the organization thin at the top. They are also waiting on a group of recent first-round picks, including Bubba Starling (2011), Kyle Zimmer (2012) and Hunter Dozier (2013). Starling and Zimmer have been hampered by ineffectiveness and injuries, respectively. Dozier excelled at Class AAA Omaha last season but is currently blocked at his position at the major-league level.

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The Royals remain naturally skeptical of a cottage industry that attempts to rank prospects and farm systems. Even when their system was hailed as a model, publications like Baseball America missed out on players such as Perez, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland. In practice, it’s not unusual for prospect rankings to underrate late-round picks, such as Holland or Strahm, or under-the-radar international signings who bloom later.

“Salvador Perez was never on a prospect list,” Moore says. “He wasn’t even amongst the top prospects in the Carolina League, according to all the publications.

“It’s just very unpredictable. Baseball is like that.”

Still, strong farm systems generally correlate to major-league success. And in some ways, of course, the Royals have become a victim of their own success. Baseball’s system is set up to reward the worst teams with the highest draft picks and the best chance to acquire franchise-changing talent. The Royals are no longer a member of that cohort.

Moore says he would prefer to pick at the end of the first round every year, because it would mean the Royals are winning. But this does mean a greater challenge for the organization’s scouting and player development staffs. The Royals are attempting to rebuild their system while still winning at the major-league level. But was there another choice?

Two years ago, the Royals won the World Series and had a roster filled with established players two seasons away from free agency. In an alternate universe, they could have started stripping away their core at that moment, using their core assets to restock their farm system and turn over their roster. In a practical sense, the gambit would have made some sense.

From an emotional and business perspective, however, the move was a nonstarter. The club won its first World Series in three decades and had a roster capable of getting back to the mountaintop. Why punt on third down?

“The city of Kansas City isn’t going to be happy because we have the best farm system,” Picollo says. “They want to win.”

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So now, the Royals push forward. They have a championship core set to make another run, a city in love with those players, and a front office in no mood to blow it up and rebuild.

In sports, the only thing harder than winning is winning consistently. And there are no easy answers as the future approaches. Baseball is cruel like that. But for now, as opening day approaches, and another season begins, Moore is focused on today.

“That’s the way I’m wired,” he says. “I’ve always been like that.”