Back in 2008, in the middle of another disappointing big league season, Royals general manager Dayton Moore sat down to talk with Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski when Detroit came to town.
At the time, Dombrowski was riding high, just a little over a year removed from the Tigers’ run to the World Series. But the Tigers’ World Series success came at the end of a streak of 12 straight losing seasons, including a 43-115 record in Dombrowski’s second year as general manager in 2003.
Moore, who could forsee more downtrodden years of 70-win seasons in the future for his Royals, had one main question to ask the veteran GM who had been in his situation.
“I asked, ‘How did you endure it?'” Moore said. “He said ‘Dayton, we were going to do it the right way. And if we ran out of time, we ran out of time.’ ”
Winning silenced any doubters in Detroit. But it wasn’t until Dombrowski’s fifth season in town that the team went from cellar dwellers to AL champs. As Moore enters his fifth full season in Kansas City, fans are still waiting to find out if he’s doing it the right way, and if he’ll run out of time.
On one hand, skeptics can point to a string of woebegone seasons at the big league level as an indictment of Moore’s tenure. And there is almost no chance that the 2011 Royals will end Kansas City’s nearly two decade run of futility. But Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers and others have ensured that Moore has earned more patience than most GMs in his situation. After all, can an ill-run front office build a farm system worthy of envy?
A Farm System Like Few Others
Moore’s argument for continued employment and for a Royals’ turnaround rests almost entirely with the farm system the Royals have assembled. They’ve been lauded as the best prospect class in the game and one of the best prospects classes anyone has ever seen. Nine of them have been named to the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list (a record for the 22 years of the list).
But before some of the best prospects in baseball could step into the Royals spring training clubhouse, they had to take an etiquette class.
During the Royals’ pre-spring training career development seminar, an intense series of training sessions and lectures for some of the team’s top prospects, plenty of time was spent discussing how young rookies can fit in off the field.
“It’s about having respect for established big league players,” assistant general manager for scouting and player development J.J. Picollo said. “You’re really not to be heard, just be seen. Don’t draw negative attention to yourself. If you get your work in and work hard then not much will go wrong.”
The Royals hadn’t spent much time working on clubhouse etiquitte with the prospects in previous years, largely because there wasn’t much need. Kila Ka’aihue was the only homegrown rookie to log significant time with the Royals in 2010. In 2009, reliever Dusty Hughes was the only homegrown addition to get more than a cup of coffee.
And in previous spring trainings, Kansas City did not stack the clubhouse with prospects—the majority of this group was kept back on the minor league fields.
Interstate 29 from Omaha to Kansas City is about to get a lot busier. The prospects should start arriving in Kansas City this year. And while the Royals organization can work on ensuring they integrate well with their new teammates, it can’t deflect the pressure that will await them.
Either these prospects will succeed, and the Royals will end their never-ending run of futility, or the next general manager will start over. For Kansas City there is no other way.
“It’s pass or fail. Either you’re in the playoffs competing to win a World Series or you’re sitting at home,” Moore said. “We have to put ourselves in a position to win a World Championship.”
The Transition Time
With most of the prospects still a half year to a year from big league jobs, the 2011 Royals’ Opening Day roster will have the feel of a house awaiting the drywall. Homegrown first baseman Billy Butler has just signed a new four-year contract extension (with a club option for 2015) and reasonable club options have closer Joakim Soria under contract through 2014. But everyone else on the current big league roster is either still only arbitration eligible or playing on the final year of their free agent contract.
There are plenty of roster spots available in 2012. That’s by design.
In the first several years of Moore’s tenure, the Royals were significant players in the free agent market. They signed Jose Guillen to a long-term deal that quickly blew up in their face. Gil Meche’s five-year, $55 million contract started out reasonably well, but a shoulder injury in 2009 effectively ended his career.
Since then, Kansas City has been more circumspect in its free agent moves. Free agents are largely rentals who may be traded quickly.
“That’s what we’ve tried to do each year with the free agents we’ve signed—hopefully move them at the deadline to bring back a player or two,” Moore said.
The free agents moving out after the all-star break will probably coincide with the arrival of some of the team’s top prospects. But Moore and the Royals seem content to take it slow with their big league callups.
“Bill Lajoie always said when you think a player is ready for the majors, give him another month,” Moore said. “It’s insurance that the player will be ready.”
Deciding when to bring Mike Moustakas, Mike Montgomery, Eric Hosmer and the rest of this first wave of prospects may be Moore and his staff’s biggest upcoming decision.
“It’s perhaps the biggest step. Our goal is to win a world championship. We recognize that we have a small window of opportunity. It’s a huge transition to be successful at the major league level. For lots of players it ‘s taken between two to four years to establish themselves to be successful performers. So the window is small,” Moore said. “Why not just let them learn together in the big leagues? I understand that. But when they arrive in the big leagues we need them to be productive on Day One.”
But that doesn’t mean that the organization isn’t feeling a sense of urgency. Patience only lasts so long.
“I feel like April-May-June are as important a three-month span as there has been in recent Kansas City baseball history,” Picollo said. “It’s not just if they make the big league team. If they are in the minors, the Royals can’t afford for them to get off to slow starts. If they get off to good starts at Double-A/Triple-A levels, then the timetables get quicker. That’s where these three months are a defining three months for us. If they get off to slow starts, the timetable gets pushed back.”
Changing The Attitude
While the Royals’ front office has been attempting to rebuild the farm system, they’ve also been trying to rebuild the team’s reputation. When Moore’s staff first arrived, they found that some of the best amateur players from around the Kansas City area made it clear to Royals scouts that they didn’t want to be drafted by the hometown club. When pitching prospects Daniel Cortes and Danny Gutierrez were traded away, they both publicly expressed their relief to no longer be Royals.
Winning at the big league level can turn around the perception of a team quickly. But when you’re winning 65-75 games a year in the majors, it’s a tougher task to build the pride in an organization from the bottom up.
“It’s my job to create a great working environment for our people,” Moore said. “You have to carry the weight of expectations of the big league club.You want to motivate the scout to drive those extra miles. You want your minor league hitting instructor to be passionate about telling that young hitter something for the one-hundredth time. Sometimes you have to lie to yourself a little and say everything will be OK. And then that filters down.”
Success at the minor league level has started to change some minds. Many of these Royals prospects played on the 2008 low Class A Midwest League champs in Burlington. They then moved up to lose in the high Class A Carolina League championship series in 2009, and followed that up by winning a Double-A Texas League title in 2010.
“The culture has been changed. Now the minor leaguers watching our big league players—there are some guys who arguably could be in the big league camp and they want to be there. They are hungry,” Picollo said. “Families want their kids to be part of our organization.”
It’s not limited to the prospects in the system. Last year, the Royals convinced righthander Jason Adam, a fifth-round pick from Kansas City, to forgo a Missouri scholarship in part because he wanted to be a Royal. Adam, who signed for $800,000, is considered one of the system’s most promising young righthanders.
The Next Wave
In the end, it may be a player like Adam, Cheslor Cuthbert, Yordano Ventura or Jake Odorizzi—with Odorizzi the only one who has played full-season ball—who determine the Royals’ ultimate success. Even if many of the Royals’ top prospects graduate successfully to the big leagues in the next two years, there will have to be reinforcements to fill in holes or serve as trade pieces to bring in additional big league help.
Thanks to a willingness to spend in the draft, a renewed emphasis on international signings and a continued influx of talent in trades, Kansas City has plenty of candidates to follow up on its first wave of prospects. While Kansas City’s top pitching prospects will likely start out in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, the Royals will likely field an all-prospect rotation in high Class A Wilmington as well with Tim Melville, Tyler Sample, Elisaul Pimentel, Justin Marks and Odorizzi. Adam, Ventura and Robinson Yambati give Kansas City another wave of pitchers coming up behind that group.
That is the kind of pitching depth that few teams can come close to matching, but Moore says it’s not enough.
“We’re still not there. Our goal is to have a pitching prospect in the rotation every night at every level. We’re still not where we need to be. We want a shortstop prospect at every level. Catching prospects at every level. We’re not even close to being there,” he said.
Kansas City also has the fifth pick in what is expected to be a very deep 2011 draft. And they are expected to spend significantly on the international talent market as well. It is possible that the Royals farm system will be deeper in 2012 than it is right now.
“If we let up from the atmosphere we’ve created, just because we have the No. 1 ranked system, then we are going to fail,” Picollo said. “We are not going to allow that to happen.
“Really and truly we haven’t done anything yet.”