Vahe Gregorian

Why Royals GM Dayton Moore calls 2018 season ‘the most fun I’ve ever had in baseball’

With his team hurtling toward one of the worst seasons in major-league history during a 5-21 June, Royals general manager Dayton Moore made an appearance at the Jewish Community Center and, yikes, told a few of us that he had thought next year would be the one when the team would really struggle.

Looking back, it came off a little like the scene in “Caddyshack” when Bill Murray/Carl Spackler stands in a deluge and tells Bishop Pickering, “I don’t think the heavy stuff is going to come down for quite awhile.”

Only there was nothing funny about this precipitous plunge for a franchise that went to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015, which was nowhere near as long ago as it suddenly seemed.

A few weeks later, Moore used the word “embarrassed” in an interview with MLB Network on Sirius XM — a term he clarified in his office on Wednesday: The context, he said, was “I’m embarrassed for me … It’s on me. It’s a reflection of me.”

Flash forward to the here and now of a season that will end Sunday against Cleveland. And 100-plus losses notwithstanding, if you’ve been paying attention, the apparent trajectory and state of the union looks substantially different, doesn’t it?

Even accounting for the potential mirage of September performances on a team that is hopelessly out of it, the Royals have been buoyed by a wave of exhilarating talent (Adalberto Mondesi, Ryan O’Hearn, Brad Keller) and a relative late-season surge (20 wins in their last 32 games entering the weekend).

Certainly, the turn has changed the perspective of Moore, who now believes the worst is behind and says: “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in baseball — most fun I’ve ever had.”

If this were anyone else, you might scoff.

But the absolutely sincere Moore is a journey-over-destination man. His celebration of winning the 2015 World Series mostly consisted of sitting across from Ned Yost in the manager’s office at Citi Field, the two of them smiling at each other.

As such, he’s been reinvigorated by … the process. That includes spending much more time out and about with Royals minor-league affiliates, deeper engagement in draft preparation and more immersion in other phases of the operation than ever.

This has energized him. Because on a quest not just to revive the vibe of 2014 and 2015 but to make contending more sustainable, he can see tangible strides in the youth movement:

Mondesi (13 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 72 games entering the weekend) demonstrating why Moore calls him “the most talented player” he’s ever been around; starter Keller (9-6, 3.08 ERA into the weekend) emerging as a potential anchor of the rotation; Hunter Dozier regularly flashing improvement — hitting his 11th home run for the game-winner at Cincinnati on Tuesday and improving “a full grade at third base right before our eyes,” as Moore put it.

Maybe nothing encapsulates the feeling, though, more than seeing moments like this take root:

Moore sat down O’Hearn in his office around the time he was called up in late July and told him, “ ‘Ryan, look, I can’t tell you if you’re going to be the first baseman next year. I can’t tell you if we’re going to bring Lucas Duda back. I don’t know who the first baseman is going to be next year.’

“‘But you’re going to get our support. Go win it. Go make this decision for us.’”

He seemingly has. With 12 homers and 29 RBIs in 41 games heading into the final three games, O’Hearn is part of the reason this team will head into the offseason with, dare we say, a sense of momentum.

Between those developments and moves made targeting more mature players through the draft and trades, the Royals have some traction, more players a year closer to ready and at least a few pieces in place that could well be the core of the future.

Whit Merrifield has had a terrific year, Sal Perez had hit 27 home runs as of Thursday and there is an organizational belief that Jorge Soler had turned an important corner before being injured.

With Danny Duffy coming back — albeit needing to be better, as Moore said — and Jakob Junis enjoying streaks of prosperity and Heath Fillmyer showing promise and inconsistent Jorge Lopez nonetheless able to flirt with perfection, the rotation has a chance to make good on what it’s put together most of the last month.

(As for the volatile bullpen, Moore calls it the club’s most important offseason project but knows some of it will be trial and error: “We didn’t know Greg Holland was Greg Holland until he became Greg Holland.” Stay tuned.)

Shore up the bullpen and it’s enough to offer valid hope the Royals have pushed off bottom toward the next phase of competitiveness — even if the direction of the push-off surely won’t simply be directly up.

Maybe the last few weeks haven’t necessarily been “Operation: Flip The Switch,” as Moore refers to bringing up Eric Hosmer in 2011 in his book “More Than A Season” with Matt Fulks. But they’ve kept the line moving, to borrow a term you might remember, and they’ve reflected the start of what Moore calls “a massive reset of the entire organization.”

Consider the button pushed, at least in the sense Moore no longer wants to use or hear the “R” word.

“We’re not going to talk about rebuilding anymore,” said Moore, who said he expects Yost back next year. “Whatever team we put on the field next year, we’re going to expect that team to win a lot of baseball games. … Major-league players are paid to win baseball games. They’re not paid to play, they’re paid to win.”

This time around, even as reducing payroll remains as much a priority as replenishing the farm system, the idea is to make the winning stand the test of time.

“Most people in baseball will say (small) markets like ours are going to win for four or five years and then they’re going to lose for four or five years,” Moore said. “We’re not going to buy into that logic. We’re going to put us in a position to start winning again, hopefully sooner than later.

“And then once we get in that position, we want to win 10-15 years in a row. Doesn’t mean we’ll make the playoffs every year. Doesn’t mean we’ll ever win another World Series. But we’ve got to be in a position where we’ve got a chance.”

As he considered what might be different this time around if the Royals indeed can make those steps back, Moore pointed first to himself. While noting he and his staff “never stopped pushing” from the time they took over in 2006 through the breakout years, he now believes he was “too narrowly focused” on just the major-league team from 2014 to 2016.

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That said, he’ll never regret trying to make one more push and not trading pillars Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain when they had top value before each became a free agent after last season. In his estimation, it would have been a betrayal of Royals fans.

“Our fan base is not a fan base that just wants to see players come and go, ” he said. “They want to get to know our players and they want to follow their players and live the ups and downs of the major leagues with our players.”

Just the same, Moore doesn’t want to repeat having all the bills come due at once.

So even as they are more cautious in the next few years about spending in the free-agent market, they’ll double down on trying to sign their own young players to long-term contracts.

And despite the urgency to win sooner, the prevailing philosophy will be to win longer. Meaning they won’t necessarily rush anyone to the big leagues and will be conscious, at least to a degree, of staggering timetables.

“You can’t say we rushed Hoz, you can’t say we rushed Moose ...” he said. “If the team was better-positioned (then) and we were in a different spot, maybe we would have given them a little more time in the minor leagues. We’ll probably give this next group a little more time than we did Hoz and Moose, that era.”

So while there are plenty of prospects to keep an eye on, including Royals Class AAA Omaha player of the year Frank Schwindel, Moore mentioned only two when asked who might get in the mix quickly next year: Outfielder Khalil Lee, expected to start in Class AA Northwest Arkansas, and shortstop Nicky Lopez, anticipated to start in Omaha.

The best of the players in Class A-advanced Wilmington and Class A Lexington, he said, are two or three years away “if we do it the right way and make sure they’re ready when they get here.”

In a sense, his broader view now strongly resembles what he more typically has thought about cultivating pitching: move them slow, let them gain confidence in all their pitches, learn to pitch their way out of trouble even if it’s at a lower level than their ability …

“Then, once they’re ready, you can’t stop them,” he said. “They just go.”

As for where the Royals can go from here, and how fast, who’s to say?

Plenty has gone wrong these last few years, and no doubt Moore might like back a few long-term signings.

But he has done what many thought impossible before to earn the benefit of the doubt and, in fact, faith.

And this much we know: With the next generation trickling in, a bubbling, irredeemable embarrassment became an intriguing 2019 to look toward instead of a time to dread worse to come.

Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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