The genesis of this story began nearly three months ago, when I read this fine column by Tim Marchman at SI.com. Marchman is a fantastic writer, one of the best of the new breed of baseball writers (I loosely define “new breed” as “anyone younger than me”) who combine traditional command of the English language with an understanding of statistical analysis that comes with growing up in a post-Jamesian era.
(Speaking of Bill James, for those of you who missed it, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing him on my radio show last Thursday for nearly half an hour. You can check out the podcast here, under “Additional Programming” at the bottom.)
I will admit to a visceral thrill when I came to Marchman’s conclusion, that Dayton Moore ranked dead last among the game’s 30 general managers. It felt good to see Moore bring up the rear of an objective analysis of GMs published in a national news source.
But after the thrill wore off, I had to admit that something didn’t sit right with me. I looked at that list again, and there at #29, one slot above Dayton Moore, was Astros’ GM Ed Wade.
This is the same Ed Wade who never met a middle reliever he didn’t like or wouldn’t overpay for, a fetish most eloquently expressed by the time he once traded Placido Polanco straight up for Ugueth Urbina. (Polanco, mind you, was the only player of any worth that Wade got for trading Scott Rolen (who was just 27 at the time) to the Cardinals.) The same Ed Wade who, despite being handed players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard by his farm system, couldn’t make the playoffs once in his eight years with the Phillies before he was fired after the 2005 season.
And the same Ed Wade who was hired by the Astros at the end of the 2007 season, and for the last two-and-a-half seasons has been either unwilling or unable to convince ownership that a once-proud Astros franchise needs to be completely torn apart and rebuilt, with the result that the Astros right now have the worst record in the National League and one of the shallowest farm systems in baseball.
Moore probably cinched his place at the bottom of the list this off-season when he signed Jason Kendall to a two-year contract for more guaranteed money than his two incumbent catchers, Miguel Olivo and John Buck, combined to receive. The Kendall signing was widely regarded as the second-worst free-agent contract handed out this off-season. The worst? Wade’s inexplicable decision to guarantee Brandon Lyon a 3-year, $15 million contract.
Yet somehow, Moore was ranked behind Wade. I don’t think Marchman’s opinion was in the minority, either – most baseball analysts I know would likely have ranked them in that order prior to the season.
It was at that point that I began to wonder if maybe the perception of Dayton Moore had crossed a tipping point, and that precisely because so many baseball analysts cover the Royals, and because the mistakes he has made have been so well-publicized, Moore was getting a raw deal. I mean, it’s not just Ed Wade who in my estimation is a worse GM than Moore.
Looking at the other names at the bottom of the list, Brian Sabean (#28) drives me completely nuts as a baseball writer, and the fact that Tim Lincecum fell into his lap with the 10th pick in the draft a few days ago does not make up for the horrible decisions he’s made. Moore signed Jose Guillen? Sabean will cover, and raise with Barry Zito. Don’t like the way the Royals have handled Kila Ka’aihue? The Giants brought Buster Posey up in September last season and gave him all of 17 at-bats, then re-signed Bengie Molina so they could send Posey back to Triple-A another year. Posey was finally, grudgingly called up yesterday, and so far is 6-for-9.
Ned Colletti (#27)? The smartest thing Colletti seems to have done as GM of the Dodgers is to take credit for all the great players scouting director Logan White has given him – that is, when he’s not trading them for marginal veterans. Dayton Moore in his entire career has never done anything as stupid as trading Carlos Santana for two months of Casey Blake’s career.
Omar Minaya (#26)? Do I even have to make a case? One thing you can’t deny about Moore – he has made the Royals a much more professional organization. The Mets are a circus. I’d say more, but I’m afraid Tony Bernazard might take off his shirt and challenge me to a fight.
Granted, if you go up the list from there, the case for Moore becomes harder and harder to make. I’m comfortable ranking Moore no lower than #26, then, but that’s hardly cause for celebration. Still, I try to be as fair as possible when critiquing the Royals, and I think that the argument that Moore is the worst GM in the game is completely unsupported by the evidence.
If that were the end of my argument – Moore’s not the worst GM in baseball, he’s only the fifth-worst GM! – this would be a rather pointless article. But it’s not. Moore may rank only #26 at the moment, but I strongly feel that it is simply too soon to properly rank him. And I feel that his upside on this list is considerably more than his downside.
What finally spurred me to write this article is the recent attention given to Moore’s statement about how long it takes to rebuild a franchise. Here’s the story:
On the day after changing managers, Moore ignited a minor cloud burst in a comment on the Royals’ flagship radio station in Kansas City that was “an 8-to-10 process to get an organization turned around and on the winning track.”
Apparently, listeners grumbled that it seemed like a long time to wait. Moore's rejoinder to them and the media: Do your research.
“Look what Colorado did, look what Minnesota did, look what the New York Yankees did,” Moore said. “It took the Yankees seven years. They committed to it in ‘89, and finally in ‘96 they won with homegrown guys. I’m not talking about getting to .500, I'm talking about winning the World Series when I say eight to 10 years.
“To get your team in the playoffs, that’s how long it takes. Terry Ryan and the Minnesota Twins had a well-built farm system, and they started in ‘94 when Terry took over, and for seven straight years they had 87 to 97 losses. In year eight, they were above .500, and in year nine they were in the playoffs. That’s all I said. It just amazes me that guys don't do their own research.”
In a city where Carl Peterson’s five-year plan became famous, I can understand why Dayton Moore’s comments about an eight-to-ten-year process might became infamous, something they are well on their way to doing.
Having said that, I’m going to do something I don’t do very often: I’m going to cut Moore some slack.
For one thing, what Moore said is technically accurate, if perhaps phrased awkwardly. I’m not prepared to comment on whether the Yankees or Twins needed seven years to truly rebuild their organizations without doing a ton of research. (Don’t put it past me at some point.) But think of it this way: if a new GM focuses on drafting high school talent – which Moore generally does – then he’s generally drafting guys who are 18 years old. Players typically peak between the ages of 26 and 28. That’s eight-to-ten years after they were drafted.
So yes, in a strictly technical sense what Moore is trying to accomplish will take eight to ten years to reach full maturity. That doesn’t mean it will take eight to ten years to be able to adequately judge his performance as a GM, mind you. But it’s true that if Moore was hired with the express purpose of rebuilding the Royals’ organization – not just the major league team, but the pipeline of talent which extends from the draft and the Dominican to the majors – that’s a process that simply can’t be done in three or four or even six years.
Moore was hired four years ago today, and in terms of major league performance, the Royals’ improvement can only be measured with calipers and a micrometer. The Royals went 118-156 (.431) from the day Moore was hired through the end of the 2007 season. From Opening Day 2008 until today, they are 161-214 (.429). This is not progress. This is why Royals’ fans have a legitimate beef with Moore: THE TEAM IS NOT GETTING BETTER.
Meanwhile, in Seattle Jack Zduriencik is hired as the GM after the 2008 season, and in the span of one winter improves his team so dramatically that the Mariners, losers of 101 games in 2008, improved by 24 wins to an 85-77 record in 2009.
What Jack Z did with the Mariners last year, immediately upgrading his team by pruning the dead weight and making shrewd trades for players like Franklin Gutierrez, we’ll call the “Seattle Way”. Moore has shown no ability to build a team the Seattle Way. But just because he has been a complete failure at the Seattle Way, it does not necessarily follow that he will be a failure at building a team the Minnesota Way, or what I prefer to call the Tampa Bay Way.
Tampa Bay has the best record in baseball at 34-17, and virtually their entire roster consists of players who were either drafted by the team, or who were traded for before they had established themselves in the majors. Their only contributors who were signed as free agents were Carlos Pena (who was nearly 29 and had passed through four other organizations before the Rays signed him); the recently-released Pat Burrell; and bullpen reclamation sensation Joaquin Benoit. Four of their five starters and six of their nine hitters most days have never played for another major-league team.
But here’s the thing about the Rays – they had to suck for a long time to get to where they are now. They had to suck for a long time because their previous GM, Chuck LaMar, was only adequate at drafting talent and was a disaster at every other component of his job, which is why he was fired by new ownership after the 2005 season – after eight seasons on the job. The Rays drafted a fair amount of talent under his tenure, though nothing impressive given their perennially-high draft positions: Aubrey Huff in the 5th round in 1998, Carl Crawford in the 2nd round in 1999, James Shields in the 16th round in 2000, B.J. Upton with the #2 pick in 2002. In 2004 the Rays’ first three picks were Jeff Niemann, Reid Brignac, and Wade Davis. And he made arguably the most lopsided trade of the decade when he turned Victor Zambrano into Scott Kazmir.
But it took a new GM in Andrew Friedman to shape that talent into a winning team. He did that in part by trading some of the talent that Lamar left him in a stunning series of shrewd moves: Huff for a minor-leaguer named Ben Zobrist; Seth McClung for Grant Balfour; and the celebrated trade of former #1 overall pick Delmon Young, along with Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie, to Minnesota in exchange for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. (And yes, Royals fans, he also traded Joey Gathright for J.P. Howell.)
And then Friedman also struck gold in his first few drafts. His very first draft pick was Evan Longoria, taken with the #3 overall pick in 2006; in 2007, with the first pick in the draft, the Rays selected David Price.
My point – which I think I’m doing a poor job of conveying here – is that the Rays didn’t go from being the laughingstock of baseball to a World Series appearance overnight, even though a glance at their win-loss records would have you think exactly that. The Rays were building towards their 2008 AL pennant for a decade, in fits and starts. There were more fits than starts under LaMar, which is why he was fired, but he left at least the framework for the player development machine that Friedman and friends perfected. Today, the Rays don’t just have the best record in baseball. More importantly, in my estimation they have wrested from the Minnesota Twins the title once proudly claimed by the Royals 30 years ago: the title of Baseball’s Model Franchise.
The Tampa Bay Way, by its very nature, takes much, much longer to see to fruition than the Seattle Way. It is a much more ambitious goal. But if a GM of a small-market team has to commit to only one path, the choice is clear. The Tampa Bay Way is the road less-travelled. That is the path Dayton Moore is on, and while I have no idea if he’ll get there, I can’t overstate how happy I am with his choice. The Seattle Way got us the 2003 season. I’m looking for something a little more substantial and long-lasting than that.
After all, while the Mariners went 85-77 last season, as I write this they have a worse record (19-30) in 2010 than the Royals (21-30) do. They have a worse record despite a payroll that is $26 million higher than the Royals’. And most importantly of all, they have a farm system in much worse shape than the Royals do.
None of this is to disparage the job done by Zduriencik, who has been on the job barely 18 months. But that’s just the point: rebuilding an organization for the long haul takes time. And at this moment in time, if the Royals and Mariners had the opportunity to swap all the talent in their organization – every player, in the majors and in the minors, with their existing contract situation – only one GM would jump at that chance. And it wouldn’t be Dayton Moore.
The rebuttal to this is that while it’s great that Moore is going the Tampa Bay route and trying to build a team through his farm system, there’s no law that precludes him from doing both – there’s no reason why he can’t do what Zduriencik has done while waiting for his draft picks to finish cooking. And this is absolutely true. Moore’s attempt at stopgap measures has led to a whole lot of Jose Guillens and Jason Kendalls and even Horacio Ramirezes.
My point is simply that we can not define Moore’s tenure solely by his free agent mistakes. His trading record is actually better than you might think; while he has given up Howell, Leo Nunez, and Ramon Ramirez for almost nothing, those three trades combined are neutralized by swapping Billy Buckner for Alberto Callaspo. Kyle Davies is maddening, but he sure beats having Octavio Dotel for another eight innings. Toss in the Ambiorix Burgos-for-Brian Bannister trade, and I’d argue that Moore’s trading ledger, on the whole, is in the black. The Yuniesky Betancourt trade drives me nuts as much for what it represents as for what it did to the team, but while the trade cost the Royals plenty in money and opportunity, with Dan Cortes struggling to a 4.82 ERA in Double-A this year, it may not have cost them much in the way of prospects.
So I’m going to take the somewhat unpopular stance of defending Dayton Moore, and arguing that he deserves to keep his job at least through the end of next season. Four years after he was hired, the major league team may not have improved one bit – but the minor league system has improved dramatically. The last two months, in particular, have been the most exciting two months I’ve ever had covering the Royals’ farm system.
Moore strikes me as the general managerial equivalent of one of the tools-laden prospects he is so enamored with drafting: he has one top-of-the-line tool in his ability to evaluate amateur talent and build a farm system, but a couple of gaping weaknesses in the guise of an outdated understanding of the mechanics of building an offense, and a fetish for veteran dependability over actual talent.
So here are the unanswerable questions: will he be able to convert those tools into skills, and will he be able to minimize the holes in his game over time? In other words, is he the GM equivalent of Derrick Robinson, or of Yuniesky Betancourt? With prospects, the biggest determinant of their ability to improve is their age, but there’s no substitute for an aptitude to learn. The same with general managers. Moore is still young enough in GM years to improve, but first he has to show a willingness to do so. He's done a much better job at developing prospects than LaMar did at the same stage in his tenure. But if he doesn't show an ability to learn from his mistakes, then he'll meet the same fate.
So here’s the deal I’ll cut with Moore: I’ll continue to defend him as a GM despite the millions he’s spent on useless free agents, and despite his panic trade for Betancourt, and despite – the worst move of his career, even if he was not directly responsible – letting his manager ruin the arm of his second-best (and most-expensive) pitcher in Gil Meche. I’ll continue to make the point that all the free agent signings and trades are just window dressing for his real job, which is to draft and develop players better than his peers, get those players to the majors, and start to kick ass.
But in return Moore has to promise me this: if you want to tell us fans to “trust the process”, then dammit, you need to TRUST THE PROCESS. David Glass didn’t hire you to slap a $3 million-a-year band-aid named Jason Kendall behind the plate and call it progress. He hired you to develop more home-grown talent than anyone else, and then put that talent on the field.
The talent you’ve drafted since you were hired has not arrived yet, and that’s completely understandable. We knew when Mike Moustakas was drafted in 2007 that it would take at least three years before he would be ready. It’s been almost three years, and he’s almost ready.
But where Moore has deviated the most from The Process of building from within is that he doesn’t seem willing to win with talent drafted by the Royals – only with talent acquired by him. Players he inherited from Allard Baird might as well have been wearing Indians uniforms. I’m not talking about the blue-chip first-rounders like Zack Greinke and Billy Butler, although Alex Gordon certainly has been handled poorly. But if you’re a second-tier holdover from the Baird years – good luck.
Leo Nunez was one of Baird’s shrewdest acquistions – pilfered from the Pirates for the last six games of Benito Santiago’s career. He was traded to the Marlins to get Mike Jacobs. Kila Ka’aihue is now enjoying his third year in Omaha. Mike Aviles needed a historic performance by Tony Pena Jr. to get a chance to play – and after hitting .325 as a rookie, underwent Tommy John surgery and came back only to find his job taken by Betancourt. John Buck hit a quietly impressive .247/.299/.487 last season, but was let go because the Royals wanted to give the job to Kendall. Buck signed with the Blue Jays for less money than Kendall got, and is hitting .267/.315/.533 so far.
Maybe it’s just coincidence that almost every young player that wasn’t acquired by Moore has had to play twice as well to get an opportunity. It’s rapidly becoming a moot point, because if and when Ka’aihue gets a chance to play, with Carlos Rosa exiled to Arizona the only legitimate prospect I can think of that predates Moore in the organization is Jeff Bianchi.
What Moore needs to realize is that Royals fans aren’t stupid, and we’re not nearly as impatient as he thinks. We understand that young players are going to take their lumps, and some of them might even be busts, but it’s worth playing them anyway because it’s the only chance we've got to win. Moore thinks Royals fans want to watch Rick Ankiel because he’s a big name, when the reality is that we’d much rather watch Mitch Maier – incidentally, a Baird signing – who if nothing else is cheap, has a very patient approach at the plate, and gives 100% effort all the time. We’d like Maier even if he wasn’t hitting .272/.357/.376, but since he is, we love him, and we’re all dreading the day that he has to go back to riding the pine because it’s time to show off your one-trick pony again.
The Royals may be 21-30 right now, but the saddest part of their record is who’ve they achieved it with. Just nine of the 25 players on the roster are home-grown: four hitters (Butler, DeJesus, Maier, Aviles) and five pitchers (Greinke, Hochevar, Soria, Dusty Hughes, Blake Wood). (I’m not counting Victor Marte, whose stay with the Royals is likely to be brief and unhelpful.) If you include players who were acquired very early in their major-league careers, you can add Callaspo and Bannister to make 11. That’s still too few.
In the same article I linked to above, Moore says, “Our goal by 2013, 2014 is to have the majority of our 25-man roster be homegrown players.” I’ll go further than that: there’s no reason why a majority of our 25-man roster can’t be homegrown players by next year. Dayton, you’re sitting on as much minor league talent as I’ve ever seen in the organization, and you deserve a tremendous amount of credit for it. (And I can’t wait to write about it in my next column.) But if you go out next winter and sign this year’s version of Scott Podsednik because you’re afraid Derrick Robinson isn’t ready or you don’t think a David Lough/Jordan Parraz platoon will work or you just think the Royals need another infusion of buzzwords like experience and veteran presence, I’m going to have an aneurysm.
You might be right, and it might take eight to ten years to build a perennial World Series contender. But we’re not asking you to build a contender. We’re just asking you to play the kids. Stop putting up roadblocks for your young players, Dayton, and Trust The Process. And then maybe we’ll trust you.