He couldn’t give in. Ten days before the trade deadline, his team sat two games below .500, eight games out of first place. For 29 years, a franchise had lived without a playoff appearance. Now a rebuilding process was teetering on the brink.
This was three years ago, the final week of July, the decision to buy, sell or stay just days away. Royals general manager Dayton Moore considered his options. The club had starting pitcher James Shields set to hit free-agency after the season. Same with designated hitter Billy Butler. There were other assets, too.
Moore wouldn’t budge. He believed in a homegrown core. He maintained faith in the plan. He couldn’t quit on a team with a chance.
The decision paid off in a run to the World Series, of course. The story needs little repeating. Yet three years later, the story offers a window into the mind-set of the Royals’ chief architect.
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“In the major leagues,” Moore said one day this season at Kauffman Stadium. “You can never give in.”
On that day in May, Moore was talking about the challenges of playing in the major leagues: the daily mental grind, the constant failure, the millionaire professionals competing on the other side. But the words could be about building a team, too. Three years later, another Royals club is hanging around .500, and little appears to have changed. As the trade deadline sits a month away, as a bulk of a championship core nears free-agency, Moore appears in no hurry to break up the band.
The Royals entered a weekend series with the Minnesota Twins at 38-39, 3 1/2 games behind first-place Cleveland, two games out of the second wild-card spot. Across baseball, the perception remains that the window is closing as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Jason Vargas and others prepare to reach the open market this winter. Yet sitting in the visitors dugout at Comerica Park on Wednesday, Moore sought to push back against the idea that the Royals are seeking to give their core one more chance.
“I don’t know if it’s just one more chance,” Moore said. “I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I suspect that we’ll have the opportunity to compete to bring a lot of our players back. I don’t look at it as, ‘This is the last chance.’ ”
In some ways, of course, the calculus is different than in 2014, or even last year, when the club elected to hold onto assets at the deadline. The Royals face looming free-agent questions, the future more murky. So as recently as June 5, when the club sat eight games under .500, it appeared the front office could be forced to tear down the roster. But then came a 16-9 record in June. The strong performance reinforced a front office’s natural resolve. A wide-open American League has left every team within 6 1/2 games of postseason contention on the final day of June.
And the Royals, still just 20 months removed from a World Series championship, appear determined to let this group of players make another run. Once thought to be sellers, the front office, Moore said, could look for ways to add to the roster in the month before the deadline.
“What I feel is what I feel every year,” Moore said. “At this time of year, as we make honest evaluations of our team, we’ll evaluate what the landscape looks like and opportunities to improve for this year and beyond.”
For now, Moore remains noncommittal about how aggressive the Royals might be in looking for help on the trade market. Like any team, they have corners of the roster that could be upgraded.
The injuries to Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns have thinned the rotation and exposed the unit’s depth. If designated hitter Brandon Moss — and for that matter, outfielder Jorge Soler — continue to struggle at the plate, the club use a veteran bat to bolster the lowest-scoring offense in the league. To become buyers, the Royals would likely need to add to their club-record payroll or part with pieces from an already thin farm system. The former would take belief from owner David Glass. The latter could harm the organization’s future.
“We’ll see what’s available to us,” Moore said. “Who knows what players are going to be available?”
Inside the clubhouse, there is an acknowledgment among players that the best way to remain together is to win. The best hope for an extended window in the future is success in the presence. Hosmer, 27, is still set to reach the open market in the offseason. So, too, are Moustakas, 28, and Cain, 31. The club could also be in danger of losing Vargas, 34, a free-agent-to-be and the team’s best pitcher in the first half.
The situation will test the front office and ownership. The team has never signed a player for more than the four-year, $72 million deal that Alex Gordon collected before the 2016 season, and Hosmer and Moustakas could command more than that on the open market. And yet, Moore remains confident the Royals can compete to re-sign their homegrown talent.
“We have free agents like every other team,” Moore said. “But we have the best opportunity to sign these free agents, because we know them. There’s a comfort level.
“I don’t look at it as guys are gone.”
Moore points to successes on the free-agent market and a track record of re-signing or extending key pieces of the nucleus. Gordon. Salvador Perez. Danny Duffy. Yet the Royals have never faced a situation with so many moving parts.
If the club elects to go for it, it could still recoup value in the offseason under the new collective-bargaining agreement’s draft compensation system. If the Royals lose a slew of free agents, they could receive a collection of extra picks in the draft.
The fine print: To receive a comp pick at the end of the first round, the Royals must give a qualifying offer — which in 2017 was a one-year, $17.2 million deal — and then have that free agent sign elsewhere for more than $50 million. If the player signs for less than $50 million, the compensation pick comes after the second round.
The final decisions will come later. There is still a month until the deadline. Moore is content to be patient and prudent. But in a market with few sellers, the Royals do not appear ready to become one.
“In baseball, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself into the future,” Moore said. “You’ve got to evaluate today and do everything you can to win in 2017, and that’s always been our focus.