The Royals have come to the World Series out of nowhere. As recently as July 22nd, they were a sub-.500 team. Also, the Royals have been planning on making exactly this type of postseason conquest for the better part of a decade.
As the butt of jokes as recently as—well, probably as recently as July 22nd, the Royals’ most admirable and/or confounding trait as an organization has been their ability to tune out the pessimistic noise while sticking to their original blueprint.
Although peripheral indicators identify the 2014 Royals as a pretty good but not elite team, the Royals are perhaps the only major-league team that had been identified as a World Series contender by a mainstream sporting publication three-and-a-half years before today's Game One.
In ESPN the Magazine’s 2011 season preview, writer Tim Keown was dispatched to write an article called “Get Your Jokes In Now,” which proclaimed that the Royals’ then-top-rated farm system was destined for major big-league impact. Keown quasi-predicted that the Royals would be a contending team by 2013 (which, indeed, has come to pass) and a World Series champion in 2015 (which is, at the moment, deliriously close to being too conservative).
In The Keown Piece, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Danny Duffy are identified as foundational parts of a successful Royals team—as are John Lamb and Chris Dwyer, and since-departed Wil Myers and Mike Montgomery. Yordano Ventura, Sal Perez, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland had been in the Royals’ system for years at that point, but none is mentioned. Poor Alcides Escobar is brought up so that his uninspiring OBP may be slammed down. Funny how one piece can be so eerily close to nailing a general truth, while futzing quite a few key details.
And still, The Keown Piece is well ahead of the field in accepting Dayton Moore’s glacially paced Process. Here is a brief history of the wheelings and dealings that got the Royals to this unlikely stage, and some of that noise they chose to ignore:
MLB Record: 62-100
Notable Moves: On May 31st, the Royals fired Allard Baird as general manager, immediately replacing him in the interim with a man delightfully named Muzzy Jackson. After the draft on June 6th, the Royals installed Dayton Moore on a permanent basis. Hectic times, for sure.
There are two major league players from this draft who are still with the Royals. One of those players is no. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar, a mediocre starter turned dominant reliever in 2013. Tommy John surgery kept Hochevar out for the entire 2014 season—although the injury might have made it easier for the Royals to keep Wade Davis in the bullpen. The other draftee still with the Royals is the no. 1,475 pick, Jarrod Dyson.
The following offseason is best remembered for the ill-fated signing of free agent Gil Meche. Quietly, Moore hired an abundance of minor league coaches and trainers, many of whom remain with the organization today. Kelvin Herrera signed as a free agent in December.
Tentative Punditry Optimism – Baseball Prospectus, September 15:
There is no question that the Royals under Moore have put a better baseball team on the field. Without any grand gestures, Moore has made the small changes that have upgraded the defense, improved the bullpen, stabilized the rotation and made the lineup more dangerous. We're still in the silk purse/sow's ear stage of things, so expecting this to be a linear process—wild card in 2007!—is a mistake. However, this team, this organization, is no longer a joke or a three-day speed bump on the way to Arlington.
Moore on Message – Around the Horn in KC, July 6:
Our first objective is to evaluate our staff throughout the organization. It’s important that we have leaders in place that are among the very best in the game. We are going to be adding additional staff, developing our own staff and looking to acquire some of the top evaluators and player development individuals in the game.
MLB Record: 69-93
Notable Moves: Current Royals Mike Moustakas (no. 2 overall), Danny Duffy (no. 96), and Greg Holland (no. 306) are drafted. There is almost no activity at the trade deadline; free agent Jose Guillen is signed to a three-year deal in the offseason.
Tentative Punditry Optimism – ESPN, November 10:
Moore made a huge move by signing Meche last winter and might have another big one in him this time around. He has Sweeney's salary to spend and the improvements at Kauffman Stadium could spark some aggressiveness from ownership. This is an interesting team starting to get better.
Moore on Message – Hawai’i Winter Baseball, March 14:
We need to develop from within, and need to build one of the very best scouting and player-development structures in all of baseball. […] We've added a team at the lower level of our farm system, so we'll have three [minor league teams] in total. That's going to give us more of an opportunity to sign and develop younger players, and create more competition at the full-season level. […] Winter Leagues are very important for the development of players and getting guys the chance to have more at-bats, and most importantly, compete. What we like about the Hawaii winter league is that it provides a great alternative for a lot of players who aren't ready to go and play [in other leagues like] the Caribbean Federation to develop their skills and be in a competitive league that they enjoy. But the bottom line is that it helps develop them as players.
MLB Record: 75-87
Notable Moves: Eric Hosmer (no. 3) is drafted. Yordano Ventura is signed, with a $28,000 signing bonus. Trade deadline and offseason are again quiet. The only multi-year deals given in free agency are to Kyle Farnsworth and Willie Bloomquist.
Haters Typin’ Hate – ESPN Insider, September 3:
But this is not the foundation of a contending team. The farm system is mostly empty, and even if Dayton Moore has drafted particularly well last year and this year — there's no real evidence that he has — it wouldn't really show up in the majors until 2011 or '12, at the earliest. […] Even after more than two years, it's too early to pass judgment on Dayton Moore. But it shouldn't take more than three years to start seeing some progress, somewhere.
Moore on Message – MLB.com chat, December 2:
Absolutely, we are very encouraged by where we are today as an organization in all aspects of our organization. Not only in improving our Major League talent on the field but in our front office talent and the direction of our Minor League team. […] I listen to our fans and respect what they have to say, but I have to make my decisions based on the input and recommendations and evaluations of our leadership team at the Major League, scouting and player-development levels.
MLB Record: 65-97
Notable Moves: Current relievers Aaron Crow (no. 12) and Louis Coleman (no.152) are drafted, as is Wil Myers (no. 91). (Mike Morin (no. 1,202) ends up with the Angels and is steamrolled by Kansas City in the 2014 ALDS.) Before the season, Zack Greinke is signed to a heavily backloaded four-year extension that the Royals probably had no intention of ever paying in full. Trade deadline and offseason are again quiet, the most significant signing being our old friend Jason Kendall.
Haters Typin’ Hate – Royals Review, October 7:
Draft better. Draft better and make better trades. Actually adhering to your supposed process would be nice. The next time you want to trade away arms for old, expensive, bad players, don't do it. Getting a fat budget and drafting completely predictable players in the early rounds is not exactly brilliance. Its a good strategy, but stop parading your process so much when, and this might hurt, a dude with a Baseball America subscription could have done the same thing. Bring us some late-round guys that emerge. Prove to us how smart you are. The Royal system, which has been overhauled since 2006, is still weak. There have been hits and there have been misses, but three drafts in, there's still a lot of uncertainty.
Moore on Message – MLB.com Chat, September 8:
Pitching, defense and speed are very important to the success of our team. The types of players that we are trying to sign through the Draft and internationally will reflect pitching, speed and defense. In fact, the Los Angeles Angels are a model of player-profiling for what we are trying to do here.
MLB Record: 67-95
Notable Moves: Christian Colon (no. 4) is drafted. Ned Yost is hired as an advisor in January, installed as manager in May, and has his contract extended in July. After signing more low-impact, short-term free agents at the start of the winter (i.e.: Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera), the Royals trade Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt (and cash) to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Jake Odorizzi, Jeremy Jeffress, and two eventual World Series starters in Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar.
Haters Typin’ Hate – Baseball Prospectus, May 26:
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 on Message – MLB.com, May 20:
Our goal by 2013, 2014 is to have the majority of our 25-man roster be homegrown players. That's what we're shooting for, that's been the long-term plan all along. We were brought in here to build a farm system, build an international program and be aggressive in the Draft, and that's what we're continuing to do.
MLB Record: 71-91
Notable Moves: October base-stealer Terrance Gore (no. 606) is drafted. Trade deadline is quiet, following offseason is quiet. Payroll takes a huge dive, with Soria being the team’s highest-paid player at $4M. Over half of the Royals’ 2014 lineup now starting (Hosmer, Moustakas, Escobar, Butler, Gordon).
Haters Typin’ Hate: Captured by Keown, in that same 2011 piece:
Some cynics—“cynic” and “Royals fan” have practically become synonymous—will concede that Moore can develop a farm system, but they ask, can he build a major-league contender? The acquisitions he's made at the top level—some, admittedly, simply as placeholders until the boy band arrives—have been less than inspiring. What happens when he has to fill in around the prospects?
Moore on Message – Minor League Ball, February 28:
We recognize that the fan base is frustrated. "The Process" means that we focus on scouting and player development. Now, the thing is that the organization has been saying that for a long time, and the fans are tired of hearing it. We recognize that. We sympathize with that. I've tried to be honest about it. When I got here, the farm system was almost empty, so we were starting from scratch. But even if you have a perfect draft, even if you are 100% right about a player, it can still take him three or four years to get to the majors, then another two to four years before he becomes a consistent performer. The 2007 through 2009 drafts have given us a really great farm system, and the early returns for 2010 look good too. But it takes time for that talent to flow to the majors. We want players to be reaching the majors in waves, two or three new guys per year, who have played together and know how to win together. And we are just starting to see the first results of that.
MLB Record: 72-90
Notable Moves: Jeremy Guthrie is acquired from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Jonathan Sanchez at the trade deadline. In the offseason, Guthrie is extended for three years, Ervin Santana is traded for, and The Big Ol’ Myers Trade goes down.
Ned Yost on Message – Baseball Prospectus, June 14:
Look, I know our fans want us to win now, wanted to win yesterday, and I wish we would be able to do that for them because we want to win now, too. We're as tired of losing as anybody, but the one thing I know is you can't cut corners when you're building a winning organization. You have to let the young players experience the ups and downs of the game for themselves and allow them to benefit from the experience. I know it is going to pay off in the long term because I've seen it happen, and we've got the type of talent that can win.
Haters Typin’ Hate – Grantland, December 10:
This is a terrible trade for the Royals, deeply flawed in both its theory and execution, and while it might make the Royals marginally more likely to make the playoffs in 2013, it does irreparable damage to their chances of building a perennial winner. […] Prior to this trade, the Royals were well set up to win 85-90 games in 2014, when a wave of pitching talent in their farm system was expected to catch up with the hitters who have already arrived. They seemed poised to be competitive through the rest of the decade.
MLB Record: 86-76
Notable Moves: Only role players come and go during the season (Justin Maxwell, Jamey Carroll). The offseason sees the Royals make their first major free agent commitments since Meche and Guillen, signing Jason Vargas and Omar Infante to four-year deals. Norichika Aoki is acquired via trade with the Brewers.
Haters Typin’ Hate – Royals Review, August 27:
We are ahead of schedule! It makes me wonder what the schedule was. Was it a 75 win season? That makes sense. If you have a chance to trade your best prospect for a pitcher that can help lead you to 75 wins, you HAVE to take it. And we're ahead of schedule! We may win 77, 79, dare we dream? EIGHTY-ONE victories. Dayton Moore, you sly fox!
Moore on Message – Fox Sports Kansas City, August 27:
I really feel that based on how we decided to build this team, we're ahead of schedule. You know, every baseball team that is constructed gets exposed. We know we have probably seen that, and certainly realize that we have things we need to improve upon. But I am very encouraged with the group of players we have. There's not one player on this current roster that is on the downside of his career. They all have upside. So, it's our job to stay with the group of players and add talent to it.
MLB Record: 89-73
Notable Moves: Brandon Finnegan (no. 17) is drafted. A number of players are acquired at the trade deadline, all of them well over 30 years old: Raul Ibanez, Josh Willingham, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, and Erik Kratz. They replace prospects or pre-free agency players who are not yet ready or useful for a postseason push: Maxwell, Casey Coleman, Michael Mariot, Pedro Ciriaco, Liam Hendriks, Jimmy Paredes, Brett Hayes. If there is a replacement-level player on this team, now he is a veteran.
Haters Typin’ Hate – Royals Review, January 29:
It's too late, Dayton. You've had enough time. Your player development fell short, so you made some aggressive moves to push your team closer to contention. This is where we now stand. The upcoming season has promise, but it also has pressure. The 2014 Royals team must not only compete, they must make the postseason. Players must improve (yes, I know), new prospects like Yordano Ventura (and possibly Kyle Zimmer) must arrive and be productive, and your owner needs to green light the money for another starting pitcher. It may not seem fair, but that's the pressure on the shoulders of the general manager. You focused everything on 2014. You positioned your team. Now they must win.
Dayton Moore sat on his hands and did nothing to improve the Royals either this year or for the future. Even though he states that he will be active on the waiver trade front, is it really likely that an impact player will be acquired in such a trade? It is highly doubtful. By doing nothing, and hoping that the team [would] miraculously improve, Dayton Moore failed the Royals at the deadline. Moore needed to do something, one way or the other. Instead, he is hoping for a miracle that likely will never come.
Moore on Message – Kansas City Star, July 31:
We felt like we’ve made some nice additions to our bullpen here this season already with some veteran guys. So I think we’ve improved upon our team and it’s — as I’ve said before — it’s important that our current group of players produce, and we believe they will.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see the unbroken, linear growth from the 2011 Royals team to the one that is about to take the field tonight. Their win total (and total payroll) increased in each successive year as their prized prospects gained more big-league experience, while the front office surrounded them with a complement of ever-savvier veterans. The Royals have not taken any steps backward in the last four seasons—it’s just been continuous improvement, improvement, improvement. The organization has been in such tight sync lately that they’ve even made the crafty step of promoting some of the minor-league coaches who tutored these players as prospects (Mike Jirschele, Rusty Kuntz, Doug Henry) to become major-league coaches. This year, the Royals made it to the World Series on the league’s 19th-largest payroll while maintaining a farm system considered to be in the Top 10 even after promotions and the Shields trade. For the moment, this is at least one version of a model franchise—indeed, it looks an awful lot like what Theo and Jed are doing in Chicago, developing high-ceiling hitting prospects while adding established veteran pitching as a final step.
But there are still those puzzling dead years to account for—especially 2008-10, that long and arduous three-year window between when Moore’s honeymoon ended and when the prospects arrived to the big leagues in earnest. Although so many relevant things were happening deep down in the organization during that time, all fans got to see above the surface was Betancourt, Bloomquist, Francoeur.
Moore used those years to develop his players—Process—but it came at a cost: heightened expectations. If this World Series ends with another exultant Buster Posey leap into his pitcher’s arms, will Royals fans still savor this magical eight-game run? How many weeks into the 2015 season would we go—the Royals dipping into that first inevitable stretch of sub-optimal performance—before dissatisfaction with Moore is again audible? What if it’s the apex of Moore’s sometimes-brutal eight-year run?
A condition of being a partisan sports fan is that we want our teams to exceed the lofty expectations that we’ve laid out for them, and in both the short term and the long. The Royals have skyrocketed past our short-term expectations, sure, but the deflated expectations of all those previous years still lurk so perilously close to this month’s manic joy. The expectations we had of the Royals ballooned up so dramatically during all of those dead years that a perennial contender, if not an outright dynasty, must be inaugurated in order to fully heal the widespread disease of R.F.N. (Royals’ Fan Neurosis). And if the Royals slide back to average or something next year, well…there will be anger! Boooo!
It’s a pretty exhausting way to think. Barring that magical future year when all teams finish 81-81 (and we are titillated with a month of pre-playoff tiebreakers), most teams, wherever they end up on the standings, will find a way to sink below our expectations, since our expectations are so stiff and all. The Royals sank below our expectations for quite a while, and I find it pretty interesting to see, now, that Moore was actually doing some pretty useful things with all that time. What I want to say is, “Hey, can we really expect a general manager to do anything more than that?” But then, of course, I didn’t really pay attention to the Yuniesky Betancourt years, did I?