Sam Mellinger

Under Dayton Moore, the Royals now have reputation for keeping their best young players

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore. The Kansas City Star

The story has been told over and over, usually in private, the premise remaining the same but the takeaway changing dramatically. Dayton Moore used to tell this story to frame the enormous challenge of making baseball work in Kansas City, and to make clear how he would judge success.

Today, it is more often told as a reminder of how far the Royals have come, from the bottom of the division to the top of the American League. From henchmen in the other team’s highlight to a rise that’s reminded Kansas City how to love baseball again.

Maybe you’ve heard the story. Moore is looking out the window of his office on the fifth floor at Kauffman Stadium one day. This is shortly after he had taken the job as Royals general manager in 2006, a move that friends tried to talk him out of. He is watching fans come into the stadium, and notices that almost nobody is wearing Royals gear. He sees plenty of Derek Jeter T-shirts, or David Ortiz, or some other star from some other better team but almost none from the Royals. What had Moore walked into?

You couldn’t blame those fans, either, and Moore knew this. The Royals stunk, and worse than that, they couldn’t keep the players who might help them stop stinking.

That the scene left such an impression on Moore speaks to how he views his job, that it is about more than merely winning games, and this is where Yordano Ventura comes in.

The 23-year-old with a 100 mph fastball that overshadows a quickly improving change-up and curveball will start the Royals’ season opener on Monday.

His first pitch against the White Sox will come a half hour or so after the ring ceremony for the team’s run to last year’s World Series — and a day after his news conference for a five-year, $23 million contract with two option years that keep him under the Royals’ control through 2021.

There is so much symbolism here, but most importantly this is the Royals maintaining a remarkable track record in keeping their best young players long-term.

It used to be that the only thing surer than the Royals losing games was the Royals losing their best players in or even before free agency. The Carlos Beltran trade is the most obvious and painful example. Mike Sweeney signed a long-term extension, but even that turned to ash when his back gave out.

Look at the Royals now. Ventura will throw that first pitch to Sal Perez, who signed perhaps the most club-friendly contract extension in baseball, a deal that keeps him in the Royals’ control through the 2019 season. The leadoff hitter will be Alcides Escobar, a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop who’s under the Royals’ control through 2017.

Alex Gordon will be in left field, and this may or may not be his last season with the Royals, but it will definitely be his ninth season with the Royals — a lifetime in today’s baseball, thanks to an extension he signed before the 2012 season.

This is what the Royals do now. It started shortly after Moore came to the Royals, and owner David Glass fulfilled his promise to change his cheap and short-signed ways.

Joakim Soria was first, signed in May 2008. Then came Zack Greinke in 2009, and Billy Butler in 2011. Escobar and Perez each signed their deals in 2012.

This has become the playbook for many teams across baseball, players trading a delay in hitting free agency for the security of a guaranteed life-changing payout. Doing business this way is especially important one for teams who don’t have the money to win free agent bidding wars.

There can’t be many who’ve used it as effectively as the Royals. Soria struggled in his last season in Kansas City, but even then, the Royals have not had reason to regret any of these contracts. They were effectively forced into trading Greinke, but the contract gave them enough leverage to get Escobar and Lorenzo Cain.

For the Royals, the importance of locking up their best players long-term comes with an extra advantage. Fans no longer have to view their favorite player’s free agency as some sort of expiration date.

The days of George Brett’s so-called lifetime contract are over, but parents can buy any number of jerseys now and be sure their kids are going to outgrow them before the players leave Kansas City.

A baby in a Perez onesie when that contract was announced could grow into first-grader in a Perez T-shirt. A first-grader will be in junior high before Ventura hits free agency.

The last player worth keeping around who the Royals weren’t able to keep past their initial free agency? Beltran. That trade was more than a decade ago.

The perfect record under Moore likely won’t last forever. Greg Holland is scheduled to be a free agent after next season, and his salary is already high enough that it might not make for a plausible marriage between a small-money club and a closer. Eric Hosmer is scheduled for free agency after the 2017 season and employs Scott Boras as his agent.

But no matter what happens in the next few years, the Royals have shifted the conversation about and consumption of the team in a fundamental way that goes far beyond the restoration of winning records.

Whenever Moore walks away from the job that made him famous, he will be remembered as the general manager of the team that ended the longest playoff drought in sports and made it all the way to the World Series.

That’s a heck of an accomplishment, even as the Royals put out signs both publicly and privately that last year’s American League championship is a point on the journey rather than the destination, but Moore’s greatest trick here is in keeping the best players around long enough for fans to invest.

On Monday, a homegrown star will throw the first pitch of the season opener in front of a sellout crowd. The people in that stadium will already know a little about the skinny man with the blazing fastball. They’ll have up to seven more years to know more, and who could have dreamed of such a thing just a short time ago?

Maybe Moore will stand in front of his office window Monday afternoon as the fans walk in. If he does, he’ll see a lot more jerseys for the home team.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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