Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dyson: Does He Suck Up Everything, Or Just Suck?

With another season having come to another merciful end, there’s a lot we can take away from the last six months. What looked in March like a promising up-and-coming farm system is now generally accepted to be the best in the game. Zack Greinke declined; Joakim Soria didn’t. Kila Ka’aihue restored his luster; Alex Gordon didn’t. Mike Aviles impressed, then he didn’t, then he did again. Wilson Betemit exploded out of nowhere; Brian Bannister shriveled into irrelevance. Yuniesky Betancourt improved from being an all-out disaster to…well…something less than an all-out disaster.

And most importantly, the Royals finally, belatedly started clearing house; by the end of the season Kyle Farnsworth was blowing leads and Rick Ankiel was striking out in Atlanta, Willie Bloomquist was dispensing his winning attitude on an actual winning team in Cincinnati, and Jose Guillen was hitting into rally-killing double plays in San Francisco. The future looks brighter today than it did in March, and frankly looks brighter than it has in seven years.

But the present is as grim as always. The Royals won 67 games this year, compared to 65 last year, and even that overstates their progress. The Royals have scored fewer runs this year (676) than last (684), and allowed more runs (845) than last (842). Soria’s superhuman season helped the Royals convert a slightly worse run differential into a slightly better record.

There’s a lot to ponder about the Royals’ performance this season. But over the last few weeks, I’ve spent more and more of my time thinking about a specific player, a player who until he was called up four weeks ago I had hardly thought about at all.

The first time I gave Jarrod Dyson serious consideration for even a moment was last winter, when I asked Trey Hillman at the Winter Meetings manager press conference whether there were any minor league players he was looking forward to having contribute at the major league level in 2010. Granted that none of them were quite ready yet, but I figured he’d mouth a few platitudes about Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer or Mike Montgomery. Instead he mentioned just one player – Jarrod Dyson, who was coming off of a season in which, at the ripe age of 24, he had hit .258/.331/.319 in Double-A.

That seemed…odd. I could make a cheap crack at Hillman’s expense here, but it’s not like Hillman was scouting Northwest Arkansas games while managing the team in 2009. (Although if he was, that would explain a lot of things…) No, it was clear that as an organization, the Royals were enamored with this speedy old outfield prospect with absolutely no power. The question was why.

Fast-forward through 2010, when Dyson missed the first half of the season with various injuries. He then returned and sped through some rehab stints – hitting .520 in rookie ball, .327 in Wilmington, .240 in NW Arkansas, with a lot of steals and not much else in the way of secondary skills. He made it to Omaha in late July – just a few weeks before he turned 26 years old, mind you – and hit .278/.327/.349. He did steal 13 bases in 46 games, and he did hit the first home run of his five-year professional career. (It hit off the top of the wall, and bounced over, for a grand slam.)

He was promoted to the majors on September 6th, and over the next two weeks played sparingly. In his debut, he pinch-hit and walked; in his second game, he pinch-ran and immediately stole second base. He did start on the 18th and get three hits, making him 5-for-14 in his brief career.

On September 21st, I got an email from a long-time contact of mine, a long-time Royals fan with a scouting background – let’s just call him Amateur Scout Guy, or ASG. ASG used to correspond with me years ago, primarily to let me know that I was vastly overrating Prospect X and that Pitcher Y was an arm injury waiting to happen. He didn’t impress easily. He was also usually correct.

I hadn’t heard from ASG in years, but something mildly disparaging I had written about Dyson caused him to reach out to me. “I saw Dyson in NW Arkansas and also in Omaha this year, and I gotta tell you... he is legit. I like him decidedly more than [Derrick] Robinson, and I will bet you Dyson plays a lot more for the MLB club than Robinson ever does. I thought he was fantastic - espec. his CF defense. His arm, speed, and CF defense ALL were clearly better than Robinson for me, and I think he'll hit and walk as much or more than Robinson as well.”

ASG was making a presentation for the defense in the case of Sabermetrics v. Jarrod Martel Dyson. The defense was helped when, that night, Dyson went 3-for-4 with two doubles. Four games later – he hit his first major-league home run, and this once cleared the right-field fence cleanly.

Of course, in the three games in between, Dyson went 0-for-14. I felt compelled to respond on behalf of the prosecution. “So please, if you can, explain to me this: why I should believe that Dyson can be the Royals' everyday centerfielder next year, given that he has no power (last night notwithstanding), he doesn't hit for much average, and he's too old to improve much more?

“I'm not saying you're wrong - on the contrary, he's opened my eyes with his speed and defense to the point where I'm willing to have my mind changed. But you can't just explain away a five-year track record.”

ASG conceded nothing. “Dyson will be a top-15, maybe a top-10 (he would be in my top-10) prospect in a loaded Royals system, the best in the game. Top-100 for BA? No, but he’ll play more MLB games than 20-30% of the top-100 will. Sure, if he was 22 or 23, BA and everyone else would be all over him. But he’s not, and yet that’s got nothing to do with his ability and tools. I am telling you, at this point, I am convinced the organization believes much more strongly in Dyson than they do in Robinson. No doubt in my mind whatsoever. Robinson is 22 years old, so… get my point?

“…I really believe in the CONCEPT that there are some ultra-athletic – but raw – position players who can come very quickly, put it together very fast.”

Obviously, we have a disconnect here. The stats say Jarrod Dyson is a poor man’s Joey Gathright, or (as I compared him to before the season) Endy Chavez: a player with top-of-the-line speed and defense, but below-replacement-level hitting skills. The scouts – or at least one scout – thinks that Dyson’s numbers are a reflection of his inexperience playing the game, and that – even at age 26 – he is poised to take a giant step forward and become a quality everyday centerfielder in the majors.

I don’t doubt ASG when he says that “the organization believes much more strongly in Dyson than they do in Robinson.” This is, after all, the same organization that believed much more strongly in Jason Kendall than in John Buck, and in Mike Jacobs over Kila Ka’aihue. You’ll have to forgive me for not putting much stock in the organization’s opinion.

That said, I made it a point to watch Dyson as much as possible in the season’s final weeks. And I saw enough to understand why a scout would believe his eyes over a lyin’ stat sheet.

It’s not just that Dyson has speed to burn, though he certainly does. I don’t have the scouting bonafides to throw an “80 speed” label on a player, but if he’s not an 80, he’s at least a 75. He’s clearly the fastest Royal since Gathright. In 305 minor league games – basically two full seasons – Dyson stole 131 bases, at an 80% success rate. In just 14 starts and a handful of late-inning appearances with the Royals, Dyson stole 9 bases, and was caught once. The dude is fast.

But it’s not just his speed on the bases that is so enticing. It’s that he makes such good use of his speed in the outfield – he gets a quick first step, and accelerates rapidly. Again, I’m not comfortable calling him an “80 glove”, but I think it’s fair to say he’s a 70 – a plus-plus centerfielder. The only Royal outfielder in the last 15 years who put his speed to such good use defensively was Carlos Beltran.

On Monday, September 27th, in just his eighth start in the majors, Dyson recorded 10 putouts in centerfield – tying the Royals’ franchise record for putouts by an outfielder. Granted, there’s some luck in having that many flyballs in your vicinity in one game, but it says something that the record he tied was shared by Amos Otis and Beltran, two of the four elite defensive centerfielders in Royals history. (The other two would be Willie Wilson for a stretch in the early 80s, and Brian McRae for a stretch in the early 90s.)

In 129 innings in center field, Dyson had a range factor of 3.49, meaning he recorded 3.49 outs per nine innings. I’m fairly certain that no centerfielder in history has ever had a range factor of 3.49 for a full season. (Anything over 3 is Richie Ashburn/Willie Mays/Andruw Jones territory.) The advanced metrics are similarly gushing about Dyson’s defense; Total Zone ranks Dyson as 3 runs above average, and Baseball Info Solutions’ plus/minus system ranks him at 4 runs above average – in the equivalent of less than 15 games in the field.

On top of that, Dyson actually has a pretty strong arm – maybe a 60 or 65 on the scouting scale. Most waterbug-type centerfielders who can run like the wind but can’t hit for power have noodle arms – think Juan Pierre, or Coco Crisp, or even Johnny Damon. Dyson doesn’t fit that mold at all.

So you’ve got a player with three above-average to outstanding tools in his speed, glove, and arm. I can see how that might get the scouts salivating. That still doesn’t make him a valuable player. He has no power, and while he might have the speed to beat out a bunch of groundballs Ichiro-style, he doesn’t make good enough contact to hit for a good average. His strikeout rate in the minors is about 108 per season, and in his major-league cup of coffee, he struck out 16 times in just 57 at-bats.

Dyson’s final start of the season was a microcosm of his talents. His first time up, he reached base when the third baseman bobbled his groundball. Does Dan Johnson make an error if he wasn’t rushing to throw out the speedy Dyson? Maybe not. In the third inning, he caught up to Carl Crawford’s fly ball deep in the right-centerfield gap and made the catch look almost routine. In the bottom of the fifth, he laid down a textbook sacrifice bunt to move Mitch Maier from first to second.

But in his other three at-bats, he made outs, twice on a strikeout.

As he stands now, Dyson is certainly an intriguing player – a fantastic late-inning defensive replacement/pinch-runner, but someone who simply doesn’t hit enough to start. There’s no way to spin the stats to make him out to be anything more than a fourth outfielder, and at age 26, there’s no way to spin a projection system to suggest that he’s going to improve much upon who he already is.

The argument for Dyson, then, is that even though he’s already 26, he’s so inexperienced at playing baseball that he has an uncommon amount of room to improve. Dyson hardly played baseball before he was signed by the Royals as a 50th-round pick, and while he’s been in the system for five years, he’s played in just 323 games as a pro.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that an exceedingly athletic player with not a lot of experience can be expected to improve, even if he’s already in his mid-20s. The classic case of this would be Kenny Lofton, who was more of a basketball player than a baseball player in college (he was the sixth man on some great University of Arizona teams). Lofton was also a late pick; he was selected by the Astros in the 17th round in 1988. Three years later, in a good hitter’s park in Triple-A, Lofton hit .308/.367/.417 with just two home runs, struggled in a September call-up, and the Astros were so unimpressed they traded him to Cleveland that winter for Eddie Taubensee.

The next year, Lofton hit .285/.362/.365 for the Indians, led the league with 66 steals, and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. The year after that, Lofton began a seven-year stretch (1993 to 1999) where he was arguably the best leadoff hitter in baseball.

So yeah, I’ve seen athletic hitters figure it all out and become late bloomers. But look, Dyson is no Lofton. Lofton was old for an elite prospect, but he was 24 when he was Triple-A; Dyson was nearly 26. Lofton struck out a lot less, and hit for much better batting averages. And even though the Astros didn’t respect his talent, the rest of baseball did – Baseball America ranked Lofton as the #28 prospect in baseball after the 1991 season. Dyson’s not going to sniff their top 100.

Of course, Dyson doesn’t have to be nearly as good as Lofton to still be an asset for the Royals. He needs to cut his strikeouts, and he needs to hit lefties (he batted just .203/.242/.271 against LHP in Omaha; against RHP he hit .301/.362/.382.) But if he can hit .270 and draw the occasional walk, his speed and defense will make him a valuable player.

Dyson’s statistical track record would make you believe that even that modest ambition is unrealistic. The Royals, and ASG, will make you believe that it is. I don’t have a strong position either way. That, in itself, is progress, because a month ago I thought that Jarrod Dyson was a complete distraction from the minor league players who actually have a real future. Now, I’m willing to keep an open mind.

While Derrick Robinson might be the future in centerfield, he’s certainly far from ready. Next year is likely to be a transitional year, a year where the makeup of the roster in September is likely to be dramatically different than it was in April. It’s a year for the Royals to experiment a little, and see what they have with some of their young players, as opposed to wasting time with more short-term veteran solutions.

Given that, what do the Royals have to lose by letting Dyson play centerfield next season? If nothing else, his stellar defense may help in the development of some of the team’s many young pitchers. I do think Dyson will benefit from another half-season in Omaha, while Mitch Maier and Gregor Blanco get to showcase themselves in the majors.

But the thought of Dyson starting in centerfield next July, or even next April, no longer fills me with dread. On the contrary, I think it will be quite fascinating to watch. The all-out war between Scouts and Stats has simmered down to a low-level guerrilla battle. Dyson remains one of the few remaining flashpoints in this conflict. Regardless of which side wins, we’ll learn something from the outcome. We’ll get to watch an exciting rookie try to establish in the majors instead of watching another thirtysomething veteran cash a paycheck. And who knows? The Royals might have a found a viable everyday player in the 50th round.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The GM.

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:

Jeff Granger

Matt Smith

Juan LeBron

Dee Brown

Dan Reichert

Jeff Austin

Matt Burch

Chris George

Kyle Snyder

Mike MacDougal

Jay Gehrke

Jimmy Gobble

Mike Stodolka

Colt Griffin

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:

Zack Greinke

Chris Lubanski

Mitch Maier

Billy Butler

Matt Campbell

J.P. Howell

Alex Gordon

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.

Luke Hochevar

Mike Moustakas

Mike Montgomery

Eric Hosmer

Aaron Crow

Christian Colon

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.