Every year my motivation to write about the Royals dwindles with the remaining games on the schedule, and this year is no different. No matter how optimistic I might be about the future, there’s only so much I can write about the present club before I lose my will to go on.
I’ve got a number of half-finished articles waiting to be finished in Word, and hopefully I’ll get them out to you over the next few days. But yesterday, something happened that made me passionate enough to bang out an article, so here it is.
Last year, you may recall that I snapped at the end of the season, and walked away from writing for a couple of months. The straw that broke my back was the Royals’ decision to leave Kila Ka’aihue down on the farm in September. Ka’aihue spent all of this September in the Royals’ starting lineup, so that’s something.
But my first step on the path that brought me back to the Royals, and brought me back to the belief that Dayton Moore was salvageable, actually had nothing to do with the Royals. My road back began watching, with some manner of disbelief, the way the Giants handled Buster Posey last September.
Posey, after nearly going #1 overall in the 2008 draft, was taken by the Giants with the #5 pick, and signed too late to get into more than 10 minor leagues that summer (though he did hit .351/.467/.622). He started 2009 in the California League and was probably the best hitter in the circuit, with a .326/.428/.540 line in 80 games before he was promoted all the way to Triple-A. There, he hit .321/.391/.511 in 47 games. Despite a reputation as a raw defensive player, he threw out 46% of potential basestealers between the two stops. He was clearly one of the best prospects in baseball – ranked #7 overall before this season by Baseball America.
The Giants’ starting catcher in 2009 was Bengie Molina, who actually had a decent season, at least by his standards. Molina hit .265/.285/.442, with solid defense and his usual glacial speed. Their backup catcher was Eli Whiteside, a 29-year-old rookie who hit .228/.268/.339 on the season. With perhaps the best catching prospect in baseball ripping through Triple-A, you would think the Giants would have given Posey some playing time in September.
You would think so particularly because the Giants entered September in the thick of the wild-card race. When the sun came up on September 1st, the Giants were 72-59, six games behind the Dodgers in the NL West – but tied with the Colorado Rockies for the wild-card lead. I don’t know about you, but if my backup catcher is struggling to keep his OPS above .600, and I’ve got the best catcher in the minors destroying Triple-A, I’d find a way to get my catching prospect some playing time.
The Giants, on the other hand, did everything in their power to block Posey’s path. He didn’t make his major league debut until the 11th, at which point the Giants had already fallen 4.5 games behind the Rockies. He entered the game in the eighth inning of a 10-3 loss and struck out. He didn’t play again until eight days later, on September 19th, by which point the Giants had closed the gap on Colorado to 2.5 games. Posey came into the game in the seventh inning, with the Dodgers leading 9-1; he would go 1-for-2 at the plate. Three days later, with the Giants down 10-5, Posey would enter as a defensive replacement in the eighth after both Molina and Whiteside were removed.
Only on September 25th, with the Giants four games back with 10 to play, did Posey make his first major-league start. He would start two games in a row, then two games in the final weekend of the season after the Giants were eliminated. From September 1st to the 24th, as the Giants slid out of contention with Posey on the bench, Whiteside started behind the plate six times, going 2-for-24 at the plate.
I’m trying to think of a comparable situation for the Royals. Imagine if, next season, Christian Colon came out of the gate batting like Honus Wagner, crushing everything in sight, moving to Triple-A at mid-season and not missing a beat, becoming generally accepted as the best shortstop in the minors. Imagine if Yuniesky Betancourt was playing sub-par defense and struggling to get his OBP to .300. (Granted, one of these things is easier to imagine than the other.) And imagine if once a week the Royals were starting, I dunno, Tony Pena Jr. at shortstop for his defense.
Then imagine that the Royals entered September tied for the wild-card race. Omaha’s season ended, Colon was promoted to the majors, and…and…he sat on the bench for the next three weeks while Betancourt continued his display of mediocrity. Imagine if, down the stretch, Tony Pena Jr. started six times at shortstop while the best shortstop prospect in baseball watched from the dugout.
How would you respond? What vile, unprintable things would you have to say about Dayton Moore? They would likely be the same vile, unprintable things Giants fans were saying about Brian Sabean.
Watching this unfold last September was the first step I needed to rehabilitate my impression of Dayton Moore. It reminded me that, while it’s okay to criticize Moore for every mistake he makes, it’s unrealistic of me to compare his actions in a vacuum. I have to compare him to his peers, and some of his peers make decisions that are a lot dumber than anything Dayton Moore has done. And some of those peers win anyway.
Like Brian Sabean.
Brian Sabean has been the General Manager of the San Francisco Giants since 1997. He is – I’m writing these words and don’t believe them myself – the longest-tenured GM in baseball. In that time the Giants have had a good deal of success – they’ve now been to the playoffs five times in those 14 years, including a World Series berth. But I remain reluctant to apportion much of the credit for that to the man running the front office.
For one thing, this is the first time in Sabean’s tenure that the Giants have qualified for the postseason without Barry Bonds. Say whatever you want about the methods Bonds may or may not have used, but he was a force of nature unlike anything you or I have ever seen in baseball. He broke the game. With Bonds at his peak, the Giants never finished lower than second from 1997 through 2004. Bonds missed most of 2005, and the Giants finished under .500 for the first time in nine years. Without Bonds’ reflected glory, Dusty Baker isn’t a genius in San Francisco, and Sabean doesn’t survive 14 years.
A quick look at Sabean’s track record explains why most analysts have trouble taking him seriously as a GM. This is the man who traded Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser, and Francisco Liriano to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski – almost certainly the worst trade of the last decade. This is the man who didn’t want his first-round picks – he didn’t think they were worth the money spent on them – and so deliberately signed Michael Tucker before the arbitration deadline. This allowed the Royals to offer Tucker arbitration after he had already signed – they had no intention of doing so because they thought he might accept – and get a pair of first-round picks in the following draft. (One of those picks was used on J.P. Howell.)
Both the Pierzynski trade and the decision to give up their first-round pick for Michael Tucker happened within three weeks of each other in the winter of 2003-04. And you thought Dayton Moore had a bad off-season last year.
Sabean has struggled to put together a winning team in the post-Bonds era, a task made more difficult by the 7-year, $126 million contract he gave to Barry Zito, a signing deemed one of the worst in baseball history before the ink dried.
Even after having Buster Posey fall into his lap, Sabean still refused to accept his good fortune. After refusing to see whether Posey could help the team last September, Sabean decided that Posey couldn’t help the Giants this April. Even after Posey hit .338/.426/.450 for Fresno in April, and even after enough service time had passed to guarantee Posey wouldn’t be a free agent a year early, Sabean left Posey for another month. After Posey hit .359/.456/.641 in May, and threw out 44% of attempted basestealers, he was granted parole.
But he still wasn’t allowed to catch. Posey was promoted on May 29th – he had three hits in his first game, another three hits in his second – but from that date through the end of June, he only started two games behind the plate. Instead, the Giants put him at first base, a position he played 12 times in Triple-A in anticipation of his call-up. Sabean simply couldn’t bring himself to bench Molina, even as the eldest Molina’s offense completely cratered. Only on July 1st, when Molina was traded to the Rangers, did Posey assume the full-time catching job.
Posey then spent the next three months reminding folks of how stupid it was that he had to wait so long for his opportunity in the first place. Posey was hitting .289/.314/.381 at the end of June; after becoming the full-time catcher he hit .311/.370/.544. He threw out 37% of attempted basestealers, and allowed just one passed ball in 76 games behind the plate. If Posey doesn’t win the Rookie of the Year award, it’s only because Jason Heyward had one of the all-time great seasons from a 20-year-old.
If the Giants had missed the playoffs – something they came perilously close to doing – Sabean’s refusal to give Posey a job sooner would have been the undeniable culprit. The fact is that the Giants made the playoffs despite, not because of, Sabean’s handling of his organization’s best prospect.
But the fact remains that the Giants, sans Barry Bonds, nevertheless won the NL West and are in the playoffs. Sabean and the Giants must have done something right.
They have. They’ve drafted well.
Take a look at the Giants’ roster, and what you’ll see is a team that’s succeeded mostly on the backs of homegrown players. Sabean did make a few savvy moves to bring in talent, most prominently the decision to give a one-year deal to Aubrey Huff, who was the team’s best hitter and will get some down-ballot MVP votes. He signed Pat Burrell off the scrap heap and Burrell rebounded better than anyone could have expected. Andres Torres, brought in last year as a 31-year-old outfielder with less than 300 career at-bats in the majors, had an out-of-body campaign. And Juan Uribe, signed to a modest two-year contract before the 2009 season, hit well while playing all over the infield.
I’m reluctant to give Sabean much credit for these moves, and not just because aside from Torres, every one of those players benefitted dramatically by moving from the AL to the inferior league. Sabean may have hit on those moves, but it doesn’t come close to making up for Barry Zito’s contract; for the ridiculous 5-year deal he gave Aaron Rowand after Rowand had a career year in the bandbox in Philadelphia; or the two-year deal he gave to Edgar Renteria’s corpse. Or the fact that the Giants traded Fred Lewis to the Blue Jays for future considerations in April, then spent the rest of the year so desperate for outfield help that they actually traded for Jose Guillen.
The reason the Giants are in the playoffs isn’t because their GM spent money wisely. It’s because, simply, they’ve done a pretty good job of drafting and developing talent.
Posey, we’ve already covered, although it’s worth noting how close the Giants came to not getting him. The Rays, with the #1 overall pick, narrowed their decision to between Posey and high school shortstop Tim Beckham. In one of the Rays’ few draft misfires, they went with Beckham, who is currently struggling to get out of A-ball. Sometimes you need a little luck in the draft, which is a nice segue to the fact that the Giants grabbed Tim Lincecum with the #10 pick in 2006.
There is simply nothing more important for the long-term health of a franchise than to hit it big with their first-round picks. A team that comes up with a Lincecum or a Posey in the first round every three years is going to be competitive no matter how bad they screw up everything else. And those two aren’t the only first-round picks that propelled the Giants to the playoffs this year. Matt Cain was selected with the #25 overall pick in 2002, and Madison Bumgarner was taken with the #10 pick in 2007.
The starting catcher and three-fifths of their rotation was drafted in the first round – and Sabean still deliberately surrendered his first-round pick for no reason at all. Look at the success the Giants had with their first-round picks in 2002, 2006, 2007, and 2008, and you can only wonder who the Giants might have drafted in 2004 or 2005 – if they hadn’t surrendered their first-round picks in both years.
Virtually every other significant contributor to the Giants was developed internally. Pablo Sandoval was signed as an teenager out of Venezuela in 2003, when Kung Fu Panda – the player and the movie – was still a distant dream. Jonathan Sanchez was a 27th-round find in 2004. The Giants had an astonishing run of finding quality pitchers deep in the draft; in addition to Sanchez, they drafted closer Brian Wilson in the 24th round in 2003, and set-up man Sergio Romo in the 28th round in 2005.
This all works its way back to the Royals, and Dayton Moore, and it’s the reason why I jumped back on the bandwagon this year. The Giants are proof that to build a playoff team, you don’t need to trade well, and you don’t need to spend money well. You simply have to draft well. The fact is that Brian Sabean, despite his many, many blunders over the years, cannot be considered a failure as a GM, because the Giants have done such a good job of drafting over the past decade that it covers over his mistakes.
I’m not close enough to the Giants’ situation to know whether it’s Sabean who deserves credit for that, or his scouting director, or someone else. But from my perspective, who gets that credit is irrelevant. The point is that the Giants, as an organization, have drafted well. And the Giants are in the playoffs. The point isn’t that Dayton Moore has done a terrific job of making trades or signing free agents. The point is that if the Royals draft well, then he can afford to make the occasional mistake in those other areas. Brian Sabean is proof positive that a GM doesn’t have to be perfect to be successful.
Some of you will point out that the Royals are handicapped by their payroll limitations, and have to do a better job with their money than the Giants do. That’s true, but that’s an overstated limitation. The Giants’ opening day payroll was a little north of $96 million. Simply take out Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand – as I’m sure most Giants fans would like to do – and you’re down to a little under $66 million. The Royals’ Opening Day payroll this year was about $75 million. Moore may have less margin for error than Sabean does – but Sabean has made some huge effing errors. With Guillen coming off the books this year, and Meche next year, Moore once again has payroll flexibility so long as he can avoid repeating his instant-gratification free agent contracts.
If Brian Sabean can lead his team to the postseason simply by drafting well, you can’t convince me that Dayton Moore can’t do the same thing. Particularly since nothing Moore has done can compare with the Pierzynski trade, or the Zito signing.
Going through this exercise just hit the point home even harder for me: if you want to know the single biggest reason why the Royals have sucked so bad, for so long, it’s not the financial limitations. It’s not the stupid trades for Neifi Perez and Roberto Hernandez. It’s this list:
From 1993 to 2001, the Royals drafted 14 players in the first or supplemental first round, including six guys in the Top 10. Every single player was a disappointment. Every. Single. Player.
From 2002 to 2005, the situation improves some:
Some big busts in there – and I’m this close to including Alex Gordon among them – but also some undeniable successes.
And then, starting in 2006 (sort of), the Dayton Moore era.
It’s too soon to know whether this group will turn out to be a complete disaster like the first group, or a mixed bag like the second group. But there’s every reason to think that this group of players is different. It helps, of course, that most of these guys were taken at the very top of the draft. (Remarkably, the Royals drafted #1 overall in 2006 (Hochevar), #2 in 2007 (Moustakas), #3 in 2008 (Hosmer), #4 in 2010 (Colon)…and will be drafting #5 in 2011. At this rate, they should be drafting among the playoff teams in 2029 or so.)
But the presence of Montgomery, who was a supplemental first-rounder, on that list is a reminder that the Royals are finding talent everywhere, whether it’s in the second round (Johnny Giavotella), or the third (Danny Duffy and Wil Myers), or the fourth (Chris Dwyer) or the fifth (John Lamb), or the 11th (David Lough), or the 20th (Patrick Keating), or hell, the 50th round (Jarrod Dyson). Or even in Latin America, where they’ve signed Salvador Perez and Cheslor Cuthbert, among others.
This was – again – a trying season, and I’m as tired of looking to the future as everyone else. But as the chill rains come, and baseball stops and leaves you to face the fall alone, it’s important that one more time we stop and remember what this season was all about. It wasn’t about wins and losses. It was about prospects succeeding and failing. On that score, this season was a spectacular success.
A few months ago, I asked this 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?” Some of you had a lot of fun with this question. Some of you answered, in all seriousness, that yes, you can still call Dayton Moore one of the worst GMs in baseball.
I think that’s wrong. I think that Dayton Moore has done the most important part of his job as well as we could have hoped. I think that we will start to taste the fruits of that success next year. Most of all, I think the lesson I’ve learned from Brian Sabean is that if Moore gets player development right, the Royals will be successful even if he makes the occasional mistake in the other parts of his job.
I’m not excusing the Guillen signing, or the Meche arm-shredding, or even the Yuni trade. What I’m saying is that when Moore blunders, as Royals fans we forget that all GMs make blunders. GMs can make mistakes – even horrendous mistakes – and still lead their team to the playoffs. As Royals fans, it’s been so long since we’ve seen a playoff team that we’ve lost all perspective of what it takes to build one. We’ve grown into this mindset that if our GM isn’t perfect, if he ever gets the short end of a trade, or if he ever spends millions of dollars on a free-agent flop, then we’re doomed.
As Brian Sabean has shown this year, we’re not doomed. So long as the system churns out talent.
Next year, the excuses end. Next year, the bill of goods comes due, and we have every right to expect to see the tangible results of this youth movement. If the Royals have a 2011 in which everything goes wrong – much like the Mariners’ 2010 – then you have my permission to jump off the bandwagon, because I’ll be jumping off with you.
But right now, I’m feeling pretty good about the future. The chill rains may have come – and for the 25th straight season, they’ve come early – but I’m not facing the fall alone. I’ve got the promise of the game’s #1 farm system to keep me company.