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May 26, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Royal Pains

by Eric Seidman

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To say that expectations were high when Dayton Moore took over as general manager of the Kansas City Royals in the summer of 2006 would be an understatement. Moore, who had spent over a decade in the Atlanta Braves' organization, was effectively the Jason Heyward of general manager prospects. Having served as a scout he had developed a keen eye for talent and seen what it takes to build consistent winners first-hand while working under John Schuerholz. On top of everything, Moore was a self-professed Royals fan and had grown up in Wichita, Kansas. It would also be an understatement, however, to say that the job he undertook was one of the least desirable in sports.

Since going 64-51 in the strike-shortened 1994 season, the Royals had finished over .500 just once, when Tony Pena led them to an improbable 83-79 mark in 2003. Including that season, the Royals average record from 1995-2005 was 69-93, and the years leading up to Moore’s hiring were even bleaker with records of 58-104 and 56-106. The Royals were bad beyond their won-lost records, as the talent on the major-league roster left much to be desired, there were maybe a Mordecai Brown-handful of minor leaguers with big-league value, and the farm not only lacked talent but depth. Essentially, Moore took over a team that needed a complete rebuild in every sense of the term. He could not come in and trade away veterans for a number of prospects, and could not stock the team full of major-league ready players. The road to turning the Royals into a team that could compete was understood to be long and arduous, but Moore savored the challenge.

Fast forward to the present day and it takes plenty of due diligence in search engines to find articles praising the work Moore has done. For one reason or another, Moore is constantly lampooned and regarded in many circles as the worst GM in the sport. Last year, I purposely took the contrarian view to this commonly held belief in an attempt to decipher from where these opinions were derived. Simply put, Moore values major leaguers solely using outdated methods and is willing to pay a premium for the services of said players, even though most other teams would not even look in their general direction.

To borrow an analogy, Moore is like a vegetarian walking into a burger joint, spotting a $9 tofu burger and not thinking twice about ponying up the dough, even though nobody else in the room would even think once about making the same purchase. To the hypothetical consumer, his willingness to pay that relatively high price isn’t based upon the market but rather the perception of how valuable the item is to his benefit. It isn’t that Moore hates statistics, but that his baseball life was spent in an organization that thrived on doing things a certain way, which undeniably worked, leading him to believe that similar methods should yield similar results. Unfortunately, these methods have led to the acquisitions of way too many players with sub-.330 on-base percentages that specialize in the intangibles that are usually laughed out of the arena on sites like these. However, it isn’t that he is actively pursuing players with .322 OBPs, but rather that he overvalues what these players do well, like making contact, posting higher batting averages and avoiding errors, while not penalizing them for mistakes.

Intangibles do matter to some extent in baseball, but what most people tend to miss amidst the mockery of Moore’s work is that what drives them batty all involves roster construction at the major-league level. Now, while taking over a nightmare of a franchise isn’t a free pass to muck up the major-league team or an excuse for trading away a solid pitcher for a replacement-level infielder, Moore really needs to be evaluated on how he is drafting and developing young talent more than anything. For a team in such dire straits when he took over, the players being aggregated to serve as the potential core of a winner in the future are more important than those being signed at the major-league level.

From the standpoint of where the farm system is now compared to when he took over, he has done a very, very good job. The problems arise when it is realized that, even though 70 percent of his job should be evaluated on youngster development, he has proven himself so inept in the other 30 percent that it detracts from what he does well. In other words, Moore is like a good hitter with a dreadful platoon split, posting a .302 TAv against right-handers but a .164 TAv against lefties. What makes matters worse is that his moves at the major-league level suggest that he might not know how to properly build around his young core when they make it to the bigs, which would be the worst scenario imaginable, as it could set the franchise back for an even longer period of time.

Moore didn’t officially start his duties until after the 2006 amateur draft, so he has been involved in three drafts since the hiring. The system that held little aside from Luke Hochevar, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler when he took over now boasts five of Kevin Goldstein’s pre-season Top 101 prospects—Mike Montgomery, Aaron Crow, Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers, and Tim Melville—and Eric Hosmer, who cracked Keith Law’s Top 50 list. This isn’t even to mention fan favorite Kila Ka’aihue, or youngsters like Zack Greinke, Joakim Soria, and Butler already in the majors.

Entering the 2009 season, Goldstein ranked the Royals farm as the 16th best in the major leagues, up significantly from the No. 22 spot a year before, reasoning that:

“We haven't seen what Eric Hosmer is capable of in a full season; Kila Ka'aihue's tremendous 2008 campaign was for real; young arms like those of Tim Melville, Daniel Gutierrez, and Mike Montgomery provide plenty of cause for optimism. The Royals don't have a top three pick for the first time in five years, but even the 12th overall pick should net them a significant talent; they have so many young players with room for growth that it's hard to see them moving anywhere but up next year.”

Entering this season, the Royals continued to move up the charts to the 10th spot. Quoth the expert:

“…because they know how to draft, at least after the first round. Some might even classify them as trailblazers when it comes to small-market teams spending big money in the later rounds, as it's still the best bargain in baseball. The Royals have tons of impressive young pitchers, most of them with true starter profiles.”

No matter where one goes to read about the Royals farm system, positivity is bound to follow, because scouting young talent has always been Moore’s strong suit. At the major-league level, a recap of all the poor moves is not necessary, because it isn’t 100 percent of the “who” that proves bothersome, but the rationale behind the acquisitions. For example, it is very likely that, even though the most beneficial course for the Royals would be to focus all of their efforts on developing a young core and giving playing time to those moving along the developmental path, it stands to reason that ownership may have placed some weight on putting butts in the seats. That is fine and dandy, and the natural reaction would be to sign major-league talent capable of increasing interest in the team. Moore operated with that idea in mind but executed poorly, signing Jose Guillen and Gil Meche to big contracts as what was perceived as statements.

The goal of those signings was to show that the team wasn’t afraid to spend money while simultaneously buying a few extra wins that would lead to more tickets being sold. Unfortunately, Guillen is not a popular player, and most fans probably could not pick him out in a lineup. Few fans called their friends and family members with overly excited overtones upon hearing that news. Likewise, Meche may be a solid second or third starter, but committing five years to someone who had yet to achieve his potential made little sense, even if dollar valuations suggest he has been “worth” the money. Going for gritty players to serve as mentors is fine, but did the team really need Jason Kendall and Willie Bloomquist and Scott Podsednik, when players like Mitch Maier are freely available with the potential to be equally as effective?

Part of the development of a young player involves, you know, playing those young players, and sending Alex Gordon to the minors while seemingly refusing to promote Ka'aihue or give Maier an extended shot makes even less sense than signing Meche or Guillen. As the immortal Joe Posnanski suggested, the one area in which the Royals have an advantage over other teams is time, because nobody expects anything from the team. Instead of using this advantage to their benefit, former league-wide fill-ins are recast in more prominent roles on the team. Add everything together and, while one could likely empathize with his situations or conjure up justifications, the fact of the matter is that Moore has excelled in one area and performed below the replacement-level players he loves in the other.

So what does this mean? Does it mean Moore should be fired? After all, he has proven himself to have a knack for scouting young players and is really doing wonders for the farm system. On the other hand, he does not seem like the proper executive to build a team around the guys he has drafted. The ideal scenario would involve Moore serving as a scouting director or in a capacity where his best skills could be put to use in their fullest form, while hiding his faults. Of course, this scenario will never come to fruition with the Royals, meaning that, in all likelihood Moore will stick around to continue drafting and developing youngsters, but will be dismissed before these players begin to impact the majors.

And when they do reach the majors and reach their potential, the work he put in will not be remembered given the weight placed on the major-league transactions. In other words, Moore currently holds the definition of a thankless job. He hasn’t helped himself out with the lack of transparency of “the process” or the supposed fetish for unproductive major leaguers, but the drafting and development of youngsters deserves to be weighted much heavier than anything else. In that regard, he hasn’t done as poor a job as some of my hyperbolic brethren would claim. He might not be an executive I rush to extend for five years, but he certainly isn’t someone I would consider laying off in the next week given the context of the situation.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  Royals Prospects,  Royals,  The Who,  Dayton Moore

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