“[Eric Hosmer] is just a small part of why the Royals have the best minor-league system in the game.”
- Kevin Goldstein, July 5th.
As closely as I have followed the minor league system this year, and as magical as this season has been for Royals prospects, I never really thought that the Royals had the best farm system in the game. Top five, certainly, maybe top three. But the Rays have Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings just waiting for a chance, and a bunch of high-profile arms behind them. The Rangers always seem to be loaded with prospects. The Braves are a player-development machine. The Red Sox are probably the most aggressive team in baseball in the draft, and it shows. Surely some team out there has a better, deeper system.
“You'd never know it by the big league club, but no organization is having a better year in the minor leagues than the Kansas City Royals.”
- J.J. Cooper, Baseball America Prospects Blog, July 19th.
I mean sure, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer would both be candidates for Minor League Comeback Player of the Year if there was such a thing. And Mike Montgomery might have been the best left-handed pitcher in the minors before he went on the DL – and that crown might now be worn by John Lamb. But really – the #1 farm system in baseball?
“Ben (Leland Grove): Better overall farm system - Braves or Royals?
Jim Callis: Royals. I haven't sat down and tried to compare all the systems to each other, but the Royals might be No. 1.”
- Baseball America Chat, July 21st.
I mean, going into the season the Royals looked like they had a nice collection of talent, but there wasn’t even a consensus that they had an above-average farm system. Keith Law ranked the Royals’ farm system #9 overall, and Kevin Goldstein ranked them #10, but Baseball America ranked the Royals #16 out of 30 teams.
“Ben (Leland Grove): If you had to pick one team's farm system as the most impressive overall at present, who would it be and why?
Matthew Eddy: I'm really coming around on the Royals. I liked Moustakas, Hosmer, Myers and Lamb perhaps more than most coming into the year, and they certainly have done nothing to extinguish that flame this year. The Braves and Phillies would also have to be in the discussion, but what separates the Royals is the two elite hitters at the upper levels.”
- Baseball America Chat, July 23rd.
Certainly, I appreciated the success of the guys mentioned above, and breakout seasons for Chris Dwyer and Derrick Robinson, and a bounceback season from Kila Ka’aihue, and the addition of Christian Colon, and the solid progression of a dozen other guys. I thought that it all added up to one of the best farm systems in baseball. But to say that the Royals, who going into the 2008 season had one of the 10 worst farm systems in baseball, have the best collection of minor league talent in baseball? I may be a fan, but I’m not a fanboy. Only a Royals’ fan with blinders on would say such a thing. Only Ben from Leland Grove would even dare to ask the question.
Or…maybe some of the most respected minor league experts in the country would all independently agree that the Royals’ farm system is in a class of its own.
As I write this, the Royals have just lost three consecutive games by the score of 12-6, 19-1, and 11-2. The 19-1 loss ties the record for the biggest blowout in franchise history. The 42 runs and 53 hits allowed are both the most the Royals have ever surrendered in a three-game span. And I hardly care.
I’m more interested to see what happened in Wilmington last night, where Danny Duffy continued to pitch like he never left, striking out 7 in 5 innings. Eric Hosmer’s clutch go-ahead three-run homer in the 8th last night is as exciting as any home run the Royals might hit. I’m more concerned about when Moustakas will start hitting in Omaha than whether Yuniesky Betancourt ever will in Kansas City. Ka’aihue’s 22nd and 23rd homers of the season the last two nights mean more to me than whether Jason Kendall will ever hit his first.
Being a Royals fan, for as long as I can remember, has always been more about substituting the dreams of the future for the reality of the present. And for nearly 20 years we’ve been fed the same line, that the Royals are 2 or 3 years away from contention, but that Johnny Damon and Michael Tucker/Carlos Beltran and Carlos Febles/Runelvys Hernandez and Jeremy Affeldt/Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are going to lead the Royals back to the playoffs. And I’ll admit, after 20 years it’s easy to think that they’re just crying wolf again. We’ve been lied to before.
After the 1994 season, the Royals were named Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. After the season, in the Bill James Player Ratings Book 1995, Bill James himself wrote, “As a Royals fan, I am more excited about this organization now than I have been in a decade.” What James did not know – what none of us knew – was that the Royals, who had been bobbing in a pool of mediocrity since they won the World Series a decade before, were about to drown.
So it’s easy to be cynical regarding all the growing hype about the system. It’s easy to be distrustful about whether Dayton Moore and the front office is really capable of molding a contending team after all these years. But I’ve decided to jump on board the bandwagon anyway. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, guys. And this time, it really does feel different.
The Royals have had potential stars in their farm system in the past. Baseball America has all their Top 100 Prospects lists going back to 1990 archived online, and using that data, here are the years when the Royals had more than one prospect among the Top 40.
1993: Johnny Damon (#22), Jim Pittsley (#32), Michael Tucker (#40).
1994: Jeff Granger (#19), Michael Tucker (#25), Johnny Damon (#31).
1995: Johnny Damon (#9), Michael Tucker (#32), Jim Pittsley (#39).
1999: Carlos Beltran (#14), Carlos Febles (#30).
2000: Dee Brown (#11), Chris George (#40).
2006: Alex Gordon (#13), Billy Butler (#29).
2007: Alex Gordon (#2), Billy Butler (#25), Luke Hochevar (#32).
2009: Mike Moustakas (#13), Eric Hosmer (#24).
2010: Mike Montgomery (#39), Aaron Crow (#40).
From that list, you can see how the farm system crested a little following the Royals’ fantastic 1992 draft, from which they got Damon, Pittsley, and Tucker with their first three picks. You can see how they got a little bump again at the turn of the millennium, and then went into another drought until recent years. And you can also see how, with the exceptions of Damon, Beltran, and Butler, not one other player on the list really lived up to expectations.
But at this moment, the Royals don’t have 2 or 3 of the top 40 prospects in baseball. They have, by general consensus, 5 of them.
Baseball America recently did their mid-season Top 25 prospect rankings, and Moustakas, Hosmer, and Montgomery (sore arm and all) made the list. In a chat session later, John Manuel acknowledged that Wil Myers was #26, and John Lamb was listed as an honorable mention. In his own list of the top 10 prospects left in the minors, Kevin Goldstein listed only Moustakas, but had Hosmer, Montgomery, Myers, and Lamb all listed from #11 to #20.
And it’s important to note that none of those guys are listed simply because they were drafted very high last season, as someone like Jeff Granger was above. All five guys have earned their place based on their performance as a pro, not on their pedigree.
It’s not just that the Royals have roughly twice as many Grade A prospects as they’ve had in the last 20 years. It’s that behind those guys are something like a dozen Grade B prospects. Those prospects run the gamut from the disappointing (Aaron Crow) to the brand-new (Christian Colon) to the guy who’s been ready for the major leagues for two years (Kila Ka’aihue) to the breakout toolsy guy (Derrick Robinson) to the live arm that’s starting to figure things out (Tyler Sample). The Royals’ farm system isn’t just loaded at the top. It’s loaded, period.
So one last time, I feel it’s necessary to once again make the case that Dayton Moore, for all his mistakes, has not received nearly enough credit for what he has done with the farm system. He was hired with a mandate to focus on one thing – build a player development machine in Kansas City – and he has done so in the span of about three drafts.
Moore took over as GM right after the 2006 draft. Going into the 2007 season, the Royals had three premium prospects – Butler, Gordon, and Hochevar. Butler was a very nice mid-first-round find in a weak draft, but the other two had just been taken #2 and #1 overall in the previous two drafts, which is to say it didn’t take a whole lot of scouting acumen to identify their talents.
You know who was the #4 prospect in the system according to Baseball America? Chris Lubanski. Tyler Lumsden – who Moore acquired for Mike MacDougal, then later traded for Jordan Parraz – was #5. Mitch Maier was #6, and Brian Bannister – who Moore acquired for Ambiorix Burgos – was #7. Joakim Soria, just plucked in the Rule 5 draft, was #13. The only other players in the Top 30 worth mentioning are Billy Buckner (#9) – and only because he would be traded straight-up for Alberto Callaspo – Jeff Bianchi (#11), Blake Wood (#14), Carlos Rosa (#19), and Derrick Robinson (#21). After the top three, the farm system was incredibly weak, and would have been even weaker had Moore not already made a series of savvy trades.
Three years later, the Royals have the best farm system in baseball. When Moore was hired, I compared him (with my usual optimism) to Dave Dombrowski, who had engineered one of the most impressive turnarounds in baseball history in Detroit, taking a team from 43-119 to the AL pennant in three years. Moore hasn’t done anything of the sort at the major-league level, but in the minors, the Royals’ turnaround is nearly as impressive.
And I want to ask a question, and I hope it’s a rhetorical question: Can you really call Dayton Moore the worst GM in baseball, or even one of the worst GMs in baseball, when he’s built the #1 farm system in the game in three years?
One of the core principles of baseball analysis is that talent beats preparation. A team that gets on base and hits for power is going to beat a team that moves the runner over and executes the suicide squeeze well. In a sense, baseball analysis exists to remind teams not to sweat the details too much. Yes, it’s important to run the bases well and make productive outs and all that. But when teams get too focused on the details, they run the risk of thinking that effort and fundamentals can somehow substitute for having good players. They can’t.
By the same token, though, I think that when you evaluate Dayton Moore’s tenure with the Royals, there’s a risk of sweating the details too much and missing the big picture. There’s a lot of small stuff that looks terrible, to be certain. Trading for Yuniesky Betancourt; signing Jason Kendall and letting John Buck go; spending millions on Juan Cruz and Horacio Ramirez and Willie Bloomquist; falling in love with Roman Colon.
And there are certainly some not-so-small stuff to be upset about. Trading Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs was a dumb move from the moment it was made. Giving Jose Guillen 3 years and $36 million was a pure panic move from a GM that should have known better.
The worst move of the Dayton Moore era, as I’ve written before, is that the Royals callously and inexplicably allowed Gil Meche’s shoulder to blow out, a decision that we were reminded of once again yesterday when we learned that Meche would have to undergo exploratory surgery. Actually, we all learned that months ago – it just took until now for the Royals to learn it.
But let me turn this around a little and ask: in the four years that Moore has been the GM of the Royals, who is the best player that he’s given away? As best as I can tell, your choices are between Leo Nunez and J.P. Howell – a pair of fine relievers, but they’re just that, relievers. (You could also argue for John Buck, even though he had just one season left before free agency.) In Texas, Jon Daniels once gave up Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka, which is a trade 10 times worse than any that Moore has made. In San Francisco, Brian Sabean made perhaps the worst trade of the last decade when he gave up Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser, and Francisco Liriano for A.J. Pierzynski – who was so odious in San Francisco that he was released after one season.
Both Daniels and Sabean have pretty good job security at the moment, and they should – because the Rangers are in first place, and the Giants hold the lead on the wild card. Even good GMs (and I’m not saying Sabean is a good GM) make bad decisions, but one or two bad decisions will not cripple a franchise.
What will cripple a franchise is having a farm system that doesn’t produce good ballplayers for the better part of two decades. That is why the Royals are where they are, not because Moore made a dumb trade for Mike Jacobs.
Here’s the big picture: Dayton Moore was hired because of his track record in player development. He was hired with a mandate to use that track record to build a perennial contender in Kansas City in the only way possible: by building a farm system that would produce cheap major league talent year after year. From his first draft, Moore made it clear he was taking the long-term approach, favoring high school players over college guys. In his first two drafts, the Royals had 15 picks in the first 7 rounds, and used 13 of those picks on high school players.
The long-term road has a few speed bumps along the way, and this time last year it looked like the Royals erred greatly in selecting Moustakas and Hosmer. Today, it’s hard to fault the Royals for either pick. In fact, if you look at every pick the Royals have made in the first five rounds since 2007, there are only three picks that the Royals might want back: their second and fourth-rounders in 2007 (Sam Runion and Mitch Hodge), and possibly their first-round pick of Aaron Crow last year. (And the jury is still out on that one.)
I’m not arguing that Moore is one of the top five, or even the top ten, GMs in the game today. But I think that the coverage of his moves has become a caricature of itself. When David DeJesus ran into a wall and tore up his thumb last week, the blogosphere and Twitter was alight with people mocking Moore for not trading DeJesus when he had the chance – as if Moore should have known that DeJesus was about to suffer a traumatic injury. Meanwhile, when Ben Sheets went on the DL with a sore elbow a few days later (and an elbow injury to Sheets is a hell of a lot more predictable than what happened to David), there wasn’t a peep about how Billy Beane screwed up.
This weekend, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Royals and Mets were having trade discussions, and the names that were thrown out included Gil Meche, Kyle Farnsworth, and Jose Guillen from the Royals – and Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, and Jeff Francoeur from the Mets. It was the perfect trade vortex of suck, and it gave a lot of people an opportunity to once again have fun ripping on Moore as one of the worst GMs in the game.
Never mind that the rumors almost certainly came from the Mets, who had incentive to make it sound like the Royals had more interest than they did. Never mind that the Royals need Luis Castillo like a fish needs a bicycle. And never mind that the Royals privately laughed at the rumors. It’s so easy to connect Moore with Francoeur – hey, I’ve done it – that no one stopped to think that Francoeur was the best player the Royals would acquire.
I’m not trying to be a Moore apologist, although I will certainly be accused of such. I’m trying to be a Moore realist. Warts and all, but not all warts. Moore might find a way to screw this up, in which case I’ll be at the front of the line demanding that he be fired. But right now, I think he’s earned the opportunity to see this rebuild through. The house hasn’t been built yet, but the foundation is something to behold.
Look for my list of the Top 25 prospects in the system tonight or tomorrow.