Twelve years ago this month, the hottest general manager prospect in baseball took a dead-end job that some of his closest friends begged him to run away from.
You know the basics by now, but a one-sentence refresher:
The Royals' big-league team was old, in cruise control toward 100 losses, the farm system was bereft of talent, and the general mood and club self-esteem could best be summed up by a then-recent refusal to take a team picture because who would want photographic proof of being part of such a dump?
Dayton Moore helped turn that dead-end job into two pennants and a parade, so those close friends are no longer chirping. But, well, coming up on the 12-year anniversary of Moore's taking the position, the case can be made that a second rebuild will be even more difficult than the first.
Because you can say the Royals are old and bad, and that's true. But they're also not cheap, which means that a franchise that offered many distinct variances of stink between the 1994 strike and the 2013 resurgence now offers one more:
Dollar for dollar, this is tracking to be the worst team in franchise history.
The Royals are 13-30 entering the weekend series against the Yankees, who have the best record in baseball. The Royals have won just one of 14 series this season, developing a consistent knack for losing in new ways — on Monday, they gave up the winning run on a play in which Jorge Soler's throw from right field beat the runner to the plate by three steps. So, yes. They're bad.
Of the nine position players with 100 or more plate appearances, four are over 30 and just two are younger than 28. Three starters are 29 or older, and just one reliever is younger than 26. The Royals have the 27th-oldest group of hitters and 17th-oldest pitchers, according to Baseball Reference. They are, by a significant margin, the oldest of the 100-loss pace teams. They're old.
The Royals had a $115.5 million payroll on opening day, which ranked 19th, using USA Today's database. Of the eight teams on pace for 100 losses, only three (including the surprisingly awful Dodgers) cost more. So, they're not a bargain, either.
The Royals also have one of the game's worst farm systems. According to Baseball America, none of the game's 100 best prospects are Royals property. The system ranks 29th overall. Four of the other seven 100-loss pace teams rank in the top 10. None are lower than 23rd.
To review: bad, old, overpriced and one of baseball's worst minor-league systems.
But at least the fountains are nice? And the ushers are usually quite helpful?
Particularly now, after the success of 2014 and 2015, we tend to think of the 2000s as a rotten, moldy-but-somewhat charming-in-retrospect part of the Royals existence. Sort of like the baseball version of that dirtball apartment from college, the dump you tolerated then and can smile at now only because you know you'll never go back.
And to be sure, in so many important ways, the Royals are much better than when Moore took over. The scouting department is funded, minor-league teams have proper equipment, and a general reputation of competency exists.
If the Royals were a house, they'd be a definite fixer-upper, but one with good bones. Twelve years ago, they were basically a condemned building with a weird smell coming from the basement.
But purely in terms of talent, cost, age and what's coming for the future, the 2018 Royals may be in worse shape than in 2006. Consider a few things.
The 2006 team was younger among both hitters and pitchers.
The 2006 team had an opening day payroll of $47.3 million, which ranked 26th. What's more, they didn't have the long-term commitments of the 2018 team. Mark Teahen, John Buck, David DeJesus and others had yet to even enter arbitration. Mike Sweeney's contract had just one more year, at $11 million.
Today, the Royals owe Alex Gordon about $39 million through the end of next season and Ian Kennedy about $43 million through 2020. Danny Duffy is owed more than $55 million through 2021, and buyouts or salaries for six players no longer on the team are counted on this year's payroll.
The farm system wasn't great in 2006, but it did hold Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. Zack Greinke had quit baseball when Moore took the job but would come back shortly after. The Royals' system is currently without a single prospect even close to as coveted.
From the bottom to the top in nine full seasons, then back to the bottom after two more, with a thud.
With the notable exceptions of infrastructure and organizational confidence, there is a case to be made that Moore and his assistants face a more difficult challenge now than in 2006. It's one they created for themselves, of course, even if you acknowledge that the current outlook would not be so bleak if not for trades that led directly to the Royals' championship in 2015.
This is not written to mock, and not written to doom. Just to state facts, and provide context for just how rotten the Royals are right now. In many ways, this is the price small-market teams must pay for success, one made worse by the Royals' refusal to fully embrace a rebuild earlier.
This should've been done last offseason, and if not, the organization should've genuinely chased success. Attempting both at the same time meant accomplishing neither objective, and here we are.
The path back is uncertain, except that it will be long and difficult. That the big-league roster's most valuable pieces are generally most valuable in trades is a good indication of the organization's place.
The Royals built their way out of this once. They did it with good drafts and international signings, two franchise-changing trades, a cohesive vision of what they would be, a talented core who believed and loved each other ... and a significant amount of luck.
This next rebuild will be more difficult in specific and tangible ways. Moore inherited Gordon and Greinke. One was the best left fielder in baseball for a time and hit the homer off Mets reliever Jeurys Familia. The other won a Cy Young and brought back Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar in a trade. If there is a prospect in the organization who will be that productive, he has yet to make himself known.
Major League Baseball's current CBA closed a loophole the Royals used to sign prospects like Wil Myers and Jakob Junis, paying bonuses that far exceeded their draft selection. During Moore's first few years in charge, he constantly broadcast a goal of building baseball's best farm system. He did it once. If the Royals are to do it again, they will have to draft better than anyone else and supplement with trades aimed at the future.
These Royals will also have some advantages that the last rebuild lacked. The leadership core is virtually identical — the GM, director of player personnel, international scouting director, assistant GM, baseball administration director, pro scouting director, amateur scouting director and analytics director are among those in the front office with at least seven years in the organization. They've done this before, together.
They will also enjoy an economic advantage they lacked before. Or, more accurately: they will not suffer the same disadvantage. Their television contract — a truly horrendous deal that just gets worse the more you know about it — will expire after next season.
This is a bit of a turbulent time to be negotiating live sports on TV, but the Tampa Bay Rays — in a significantly bigger market, but with a significantly smaller following — are reportedly close to a deal that would pay the organization an average of $82 million over 15 years. A similar deal would more than triple the Royals' current payout.
This is an incredible undertaking. We knew the Royals had a complicated journey back to success anyway, but if the first quarter of this season is indicative the journey is even more difficult than imagined.
They must be shrewd, and in some cases cold. Valuable players must be traded, and next month's draft must be fruitful.
Those who lived through it understand how difficult the first rebuild was. But fewer have an appreciation for just how bad this moment in history is for the club, that in some ways it's even worse than 12 years ago.
This is the challenge facing Moore and his assistants. It's one they faced before, overcame before, and now allowed to reappear.