Sam Mellinger

The Royal Way back: How Dayton Moore intends to build his second championship team

The man in charge of turning the Royals into winners again knows the arguments against his way. Some of the arguments come from those who work for him. Debate is good, he always says. If everyone agreed on everything, most of them aren't needed.

Dayton Moore's hair was black the first time he led a rebuild. That was a long time ago. Twelve years this summer, he was hired. He's turned 40, and then 50 in the years since. That's a lot of decisions. A lot of stress. A lot of mistakes. A lot of success. A lot of gray.

He is starting over, again, and there are times he's wondered if he has it in him. He looks around and he's surrounded by the same guys as the first time. Depending on how you draw the circle, the nine or 10 most influential men have been here since before Salvador Perez first played in the big leagues.

They have seen this game evolve together. The rules are different now than before, draft loopholes closed that incentivize teams to lose. As many as 10 or more teams have effectively signaled no attempt to win in 2018. The Royals have less reason to hope than many of them, but they refuse the temptations of saving money, playing prospects before they're ready, climbing up the draft order.

They've done this before. They swept the Tigers at the end of the 2006 season, even though they'd already lost 100 games, even though it meant losing the next year's No. 1 pick — which turned out to be David Price.

Squeezing a championship out of what that group inherited was dang near a miracle, and at the moment, there are fewer potential stars in the farm system. Doing it again may be even more difficult, not just with those closed loopholes but the human nature of staying motivated after success working against them.

Moore decided he is up for trying. He turned down the Braves, who have more talent, to do the whole thing over again here. His friends stuck around, too, a combination of comfort and confidence and a bit of cockiness telling them they can find another miracle.

"This is going to work," Moore said. "I believe that. I have to believe that. Same with everyone else."

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Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore talks during a spring training workout on March 3, 2018 in Surprise, Arizona. John Sleezer

Early one weekday morning in the desert and the clubhouse is quiet. Some guys are getting treatment. Others with coaches. A few having breakfast. Danny Duffy is in front of his locker. He thought there might be a team meeting today, so he came early, but the schedule was clear so he's been talking and looking around and talking.

Good time to think. To observe. Hard not to notice how different it feels around here.

"Bro, very, very, very," he said. "I mean, it's still the boys. Just a different era. But time don't stop."

Rebuild is a funny word, and many around here have been using it. Media, for sure, but also players and coaches and executives.

Some bring it up to refute — this isn't a rebuild. Some use it as shorthand — if you want to call it a rebuild, fine. Other times it's a challenge — we're gonna do this rebuild right.

The truth is, the Royals aren't rebuilding. Not yet, anyway. A rebuild implies talent in the system, building up, an organization on the come. The Royals aren't that far along.

They won the AL Wild Card Game and came within a swing of a World Series championship in 2014. Flooded the American League and threw a parade in 2015. Spent the last two years trying to chase that feeling, losing 81 games in 2016 and 82 in 2017, a band playing smaller venues after selling out arenas before a virtual Senior Day at the end of last season.

This is the morning after. The cleanup. A rebuild? That might come soon, with this year's draft class and perhaps higher picks going forward.

But a rebuild is what happens once those pieces are in place. The Royals did that once before, of course. Drafted Mike Moustakas in 2007. Eric Hosmer in 2008. Traded for Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar in 2010. Traded for James Shields and Wade Davis in 2012.

The first fix wasn't about talent. Not in the beginning. The Royals, as an institution, were broken.

Players didn't come here unless they had no other options. Scouts worked here only until they found something else. Shortstops lost popups in the sky because their sunglasses hadn't been ordered. Prospects floundered because they were largely on their own.

This is starting from a more solid foundation, at least. Moore and his lieutenants fixed the culture, and then the talent came, and this is an important point. This is where the confidence comes from. More on this later.

The culture is good here. Some sadness over who is gone, sure, but pride in what was accomplished. Hope for the future. Duffy personifies that more than anyone.

He spent much of the offseason worried, freaked out — "tripping," is how he put it. He'd signed a contract extension the winter before, but the organization's outlook had changed and he was available for trade. Duffy worried. That $65 million deal lacks a no-trade clause. The guy who said Bury Me A Royal wanted to stay.

He popped champagne and wore a bear suit and rode in a parade, but he wants more.

"I want to leave this organization better than when I got here," he said. "Yeah, we hooked that up in '15, but I want another one. I want to go back."

Dave Dombrowski has done what the Royals are trying to do. He's the Red Sox president of baseball operations and has built, won, watched it crumble, then built back up. More than perhaps any other decision maker in baseball, he's lived this life before.

He was general manager as the Marlins went from expansion to the 1997 World Series championship. The owner demanded a fire sale. Dombrowski took the job in Detroit after the 2001 season, but left the nucleus that won the 2003 World Series.

In Detroit, the Tigers lost 119 games in 2003 but won the pennant in 2006. He's now in Boston, where they've made the last two postseasons after consecutive last-place finishes.

Building the second time isn't harder, he said, with one significant caveat: everyone has to be all in.

"It depends on where everybody is individually, and then collectively, with their careers," he said. "You either go all out, or you let somebody else do it. Otherwise, you're not being right to the organization."

Gene Watson has done what the Royals are trying to do. He's the Royals' director of pro scouting and has built, won, watched it crumble, then built back up. This is his fourth ride, actually. He was part of the Padres' push to the 1998 World Series, part of the Marlins' 2003 championship, and part of the Royals' 2015 championship.

He has a Texas swagger, wears Lucchese Full Quill Ostrich boots and speaks of the coming work the way you might a grocery list. He tells you this will work because the system is proven and improved, with men who know each other so well, and respect each other, and challenge each other.

"This is why we do this," he said. "This is why. It's what's next."

Watson loves every bit of this. The uncertainty of not knowing who will be around for the winning, the constant search for the next player. We all tend to think in terms of the draft and free agency and sometimes big trades, but there are so many ways.

Jake Arrieta was an afterthought trade to the Cubs. Chris Davis was part of a trade of two middle relievers. Nelson Cruz was a waiver pickup, and Lorenzo Cain was the second-best prospect in what the Royals thought was the second-best trade they could make for Zack Greinke.

You never know where you might find the next star, is the point, and that's not even the best part of this. Watson thinks the best part is seeing draft prospects or players in other organizations that he believes in, and then hoping and wondering and planning on the chance to acquire them.

That's the best part. What's the worst part?

"There's not really a worst part," he said.

Part of Ned Yost's job is to be the voice of the organization. Nobody talks to reporters more often. Two, three, sometimes four times a day in groups. Even more one on one. He is relentlessly optimistic, confident in the face of long odds, but he can also be honest.

Eight years ago, he took the manager's job because he'd seen enough at camp and in the system to know the Royals were about to be flooded with big-league talent. Hosmer. Moose. Cain. Perez. This here, this isn't that.

"Not yet," Yost said.

But that's also not the point, at least not at the moment. The Royals believe the talent will come. Four picks in the top 40 this summer, some prospects their executives believe in more than most of the industry.

But more than what's coming, the Royals believe in what's already here, and to make the point Yost is talking about what has become known as The Cardinal Way. For years and years, the Cardinals have won with impeccable fundamentals. Their practice, their development, their organization. That's been their edge.

"The Royal Way is, we're all of that, but more importantly it's about the person," Yost said. "It's about the man, first, and the secondary stuff comes on the field. Build players up to be good leaders, and fathers, and husbands and sons. Then build up to a world championship."

This is the whole thing, right here, in the Royals' minds. Scouts are everywhere. Analytics have only made evaluations more precise. In the old days, you could invest time and money and people into scouting and find your edge. To an extent, that was even true when Moore and his guys did this the first time.

No more. Everyone has scouts. Everyone has computers. The differences in evaluations have largely disappeared, so if all teams are able to attract similar levels of talent the Royals believe their edge is in helping maximize that talent.

That's why they talk so much about leadership. About strength. Courage. Moore knows some roll their eyes when they hear it, and that's fine. Maybe he's wrong. Maybe this is too idealistic and naive for a cold business like professional baseball.

But this is the way they've chosen. The path they've built. They did it once, together, and here comes the start of the second dance. They believe in this. For now, they believe that means they have a chance.

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