Like there was ever any doubt.
There’s little to say about Dayton Moore that hasn’t been said before, and probably said by me before. But nearly two years after he was hired, it is undeniable that the day the Royals hit rock bottom was the day before they hired Moore. (True story: there was a rumor going around shortly before Moore was hired that the Royals were prepared to offer the GM position to…Steve Phillips. For about 48 hours I was contemplating switching my allegiances to a less star-crossed ballclub. Like, say, the Cubs.)
Allard Baird was not, in the grand summation of things, a terrible GM. He made some terrible moves, to be sure. Some were of his own volition (Johnny Damon and Mark Ellis for Angel Berroa and Roberto Hernandez.) Some were forced upon him (Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez.) But he also made some moves that were truly inspired. Baird traded Carlos Beltran for Mark Teahen, John Buck, and Mike Wood, a trade which has at various times over the years looked terrible, brilliant, and terrible again, but from where I’m standing today looks like an excellent trade given the circumstances. (Especially when you consider that a lot of analysts thought the Royals would have been better off going after the Angels’ star third base prospect, Dallas McPherson.)
When Baird became disenchanted with his options on which to use the #1 pick in the 2005 Rule 5 draft, he found an eager buyer for the pick in the Texas Rangers and extracted Esteban German from them. Joe Posnanski wrote a column the following day detailing his epic quest to figure out who the Royals were trading for – Baird had given him a few clues – and his disappointment when he finally solved the puzzle:“You know,” I tell [Baird], “I spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out your mystery second baseman. I didn’t think I would end up with some guy I never heard of, Esteban German, who had four at-bats in the majors last year. I’m not sure that was worth it.”
It was worth it. A total of 89 players have batted 700 or more times in a Royals uniform, and German ranks 2nd with a .381 OBP, just ahead of Kevin Seitzer’s .380 mark. (I’ll let you guys use the comments to speculate over who ranks first, with a .385 OBP.)
My favorite Baird trade, though, was probably the time he suckered the Pirates – a few days after they had dumped Jason Kendall’s salary to Oakland – on the need for a veteran backup catcher. Benito Santiago played in six games for the Pirates before his career ended. In exchange the Pirates took on half his salary (a cool $1 million)…and Leo Nunez.
On the whole, Baird was a mediocre GM. He was absolutely hamstrung by ownership at times, but that can’t excuse the Damon trade, or picking up Matt Diaz but then designating him for assignment after he had hit .371 in Omaha, after hitting .332 and .354 in Tampa Bay’s farm system the two previous years. And it absolutely can’t excuse the 2001 draft, one of the most disastrous drafts executed by any team in history. Remember, David Glass opened up his pocketbook to sign both Colt Griffin and Roscoe Crosby. It wasn’t the owner who argued in favor of Bust One and Bust Two, it was his front office. (The sidenote to that draft was that the Royals’ third-rounder, Matt Ferrara, who played shortstop at Alex Rodriguez’s alma mater, wasn’t even listed in Baseball America’s draft preview as a potential Top-15 round pick. Ferrara hit .220/.301/.350 in his career, never escaped rookie ball, and was finished at age 21.)
Even some of Baird’s best moves, as they appeared at the time, lost their luster quickly. He traded Jason Grimsley for Denny Bautista, which at the time looked like the heist of the year. He traded Jose Bautista for Justin Huber. The Royals were supposed to get an above-average starter and a middle-of-the-lineup hitter out of those deals; instead they ended up with a lot of heartburn.
But it’s the team’s failures in drafting and player development that stung the most. There’s only so much talent you can acquire by swindling other GMs. When you’re a small-market team and you’re limited in how much talent you can buy, the only remaining option is to be an industry leader in the talent you develop. Under Baird, the Royals were always lagging behind others in that regard.
So in evaluating Moore, we have to keep in mind that it will take years before we can truly evaluate the most important part of his job, his ability to lead an organization that identifies, signs, and develops amateur players better than anyone else. Moore was hired a week before the 2006 draft, but Atlanta sensibly denied him the opportunity to assist the Royals in the war room, given that he had been preparing for that draft as a member of the Braves all spring. (Not surprisingly, that was a rather disjointed draft for the Royals. Hochevar emerged as a compromise pick at #1 overall, and second-round pick Jason Taylor was suspended for all of last season for off-field issues. Third-rounder Blake Wood looks awfully good, though.) It will be years before we can evaluate the 2007 draft and the players signed out of Latin America in the last two signing periods.
We can’t evaluate the results, but we can evaluate the process. The Royals added a third short-season minor league affiliate last season, and are one of only two franchises with that set-up. More teams means more playing time, more playing time means more players with an opportunity, and the more players with an opportunity to develop, the more likely you are to get lucky and find a diamond in the rough. Now that MLB has eliminated the draft-and-follow process, teams can no longer draft 50 guys, sign 20 of them, and then watch the other 30 play in junior college. If your 27th-round pick suddenly adds 5 mph to his fastball when he returns to campus, well, you’re out of luck. But if you signed that pick because you have a third affiliate to place him at, you’re prepared to reap those rewards.
The Twins, to pick an AL Central rival with a well-regarded player-development crew, signed only 22 of their draft picks from last season. The Indians signed 26, the White Sox 24, the Tigers 29.
The Royals? They signed 35.
Then there’s the fact that Moore has gotten Glass to open up the pursestrings for amateur talent in a way that Baird, for whatever reason, never could. The Royals signed five different players out of Latin America to six-figure signing bonuses, which is more Latin players signed to six-figure bonuses in the previous decade combined. (I’m almost certain on that, although the lack of data on bonuses to foreign players makes it impossible to check.) None of those players are likely to surface in the majors until 2011 at the earliest, but the focus on the long term is exactly the sort of thing the Royals have been lacking for the last 15-20 years, ever since Ewing Kauffman’s health started to fail and the Royals started making short-term moves to win him one more title.
The focus on player development ought to have a huge impact on the organization in a few years. In the meantime, Moore has done what many thought was near-impossible before he was hired: he has made the rest of baseball respect the Kansas City Royals again.
Moore was highly respected himself throughout baseball well before he became a GM. Baseball America named him the top GM candidate in baseball back in 2004, and the Red Sox had offered him their GM position when Theo Epstein briefly left the team the following year. But there was concern that the Royals would infect him with their stench of hopelessness. Instead, it’s been the other way around – Moore’s confidence, preparedness, and baseball intellect has rubbed off on the rest of the organization.
I knew things had changed in Kansas City when I was speaking to a scout right after the Royals signed Gil Meche. It wasn’t that the scout liked the Meche signing; like virtually everyone else in baseball, he thought the Royals overpaid. It was that the mere fact that Dayton Moore signed him made him reconsider. “He looks like a good #4 starter to me,” he said, “but if Dayton wanted him that badly…now I’m not so sure.”
That, my friends, is respect. And that’s respect that Moore had earned before he had done anything as a general manager. Eighteen months later, after the Meche signing – and many other moves – worked out better than almost anyone outside the organization had expected, that respect has only grown. Throughout baseball, throughout the Royals fan base, and certainly throughout this blog.
I’ll stop here, but hopefully I’ll be back later with an analysis of every significant move that Moore has made since the day he was hired. No doubt there have been some clunkers. It’s just that you have to sift through some real gems in order to find them.