This post could have been written in the heat of the St. Louis series at Kauffman Stadium, in the middle of three brutally bad baseball games where the Kansas City Royals were way outplayed and severely outclassed. But, it wasn’t.
I could have written an emotional rant-and-rave, “this team sucks,” post in the wee hours of the morning following any number of Jonathan Sanchez’s nonchalant pitching follies. But, that didn’t seem to serve my thoughts either. Then, I made sure not to make too much of an adjustment the other way, to jump on the high of watching a string of strong outings from Luke Hochevar and surmise that things really are looking up for the Royals, who continue to waffle between five and 10 games below .500.
I couldn’t do that, I surmised, not because I don’t think they might be heading in the right direction, but because I’m not sure they’re moving in any direction, really. Sparse quotes from the general manager reference championships from time to time, but the much-more commonly stated goal is .500. And while, in essence, I understand a team has to work its way past .500 to championship-caliber, having .500 become the end game in any season or conversation seems to be the initial step toward continued mediocrity. That is a fearfully paralytic thought when remembering where exactly this team has been for decades. (For a more recent look, Nick Scott at RoyalsReview.com breaks down the past six below mediocre seasons here.)
Past all of that, the harder part is trying to determine why things are stuck in neutral. This isn’t the joke organization it was from the mid-1990s to late 2000s, but it also hasn’t been a .500 club. Many of the old crutch excuses, like, say, overall talent, are gone, which means fans and media can’t rely on the old security blankets to wrap up their despair. It means there’s something else amiss now because frankly, as much as we love to cuddle up with the easy “Glass family is terrible baseball ownership,” it isn’t that simple anymore because while he’ll never be mistaken for Wilford Brimley, the aloof, hard, cold business man has supplied the cash necessary to rebuild the organization’s foundation, which is what it always comes down to.
You just wonder, however, as the fruits of those labors are beginning to show, whether ownership is willing to make the really big push of the boulder over the top of the mountain.
For the past six years, money has been no issue.
The Royals famously signed guys way above slot in recent years — a practice that netted them Wil Myers in the third round three years ago and helped them earn a spot in Keith Law’s Top 5 MLB organizations during last Sunday’s All-Star Futures game. The thought then was the organization had to do so in order to convince heavy-duty guys to sign the dotted line. In that regard, things worked, though it took to the last nanosecond for several bigger pieces — the Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Bubba Starling types — to put their name on a contract. (Now that MLB has put the kibosh on the overpaying practice, the Royals will need to find other ways to continue to secure their high-profile selections.)
But, even as we wait for (drafted) Wil Myers and (traded for) Jake Odorizzi to break into Kansas City, I’m worried that this plan isn’t going to form, not when Dayton Moore can’t get out of his own way and find space for legitimate, stat-producing youth on his team. He can’t find it, but he can find ways to keep a Mitch Maier on a 25-man rotation for five years, Jonathan Sanchez’s dead arm and terrible attitude on the roster this season and non-producing, -1.7 WAR-holding Jeff Francoeur in the lineup every day.
Does the process account for prospects’ delayed big-league maturation because of poorly filled roster spots? I don’t remember that being part of anybody’s outline.
As for the overall on bringing players up from the minors, all teams, even the awful ones, pull guys from their minor-league systems to supplant the major league roster. Bad teams actually probably do it more as they continue to find reasons for fans to attend games, or, at the very least, out of some necessity (which is what it took for the club finally to say goodbye to Mitch Maier). But, the point here is that one should be careful when evaluating a team’s growth mostly by the number of players who come to the Majors through a system.
Part of it is a whole-hearted investment in the belief that every top prospect is going to pan out as a stud at the top level. I’ve been lost some in that thought from time to time, for no other reason than I’m too close to the Royals in terms of seeing/hearing/watching games nearly every day. You hear the same names, feel the same hope, and feed off the same enthusiasm the organization has for its top young guys. And, with last year’s wave of youth, seeing the scores and grades assessed from the likes of Baseball America and others did nothing to put out that fire, which makes watching Hosmer flail, dink, dunk and (please, never again) one time bunt his way through the first half of the 2012 season seem all that much more incomprehensible if not deflating. It is a wake-up call for us all: not all guys tabbed as superstars wind up as such, no matter how hard you wish for it. Wish for it too much and you wind up with a team of guys like Hochevar and Francoeur.
As easy as it has been to include Hosmer in every conversation centered on Royals and/or MLB stardom, it needs to be as easy to acknowledge that if a guy does not, can not or will not adjust to off-speed pitches down and away, the chances he will be a star all but disappear. Again, the point is that just because he made it to the Majors, it doesn’t guarantee he will be a star…or even good… no matter how big the original signing bonus was.
Looking again at the big picture, things obviously have been done right from AAA on down, both within the U.S. and out. The Royals today, compared to the Royals pre-Dayton Moore, are not the same organization. It has been a championship-winning business, except for the one place it matters, of course.
So, that said, is it possible that Dayton Moore and his staff absolutely understand every nuance and responsibility, every short-term trick and long-term plan for rebuilding and running a successful organization, but just can’t quite execute what they know? I liken it to a lifetime .310 hitter who can’t verbalize how to hit a baseball, or maybe someone who is just extremely book-smart and a bit lost when it comes to real life application.
In real life, the Royals are made up of guys who are more valuable as Royals than they are to the Royals, at least in terms of trades (Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas aren’t in that category.) In other words, Dayton Moore has little to no leverage, and it leads to things like All-Star Game MVP (ouch…just, ouch.) Melky Cabrera being flipped for Jonathan Sanchez. The thought to trade Melky wasn’t a bad one, but, at best, it showed just how little bargaining power any one Royal commands, even if coming off a good year. Or cynically, at worst, it was a GM grossly underestimating his own asset’s worth, and not selling it for something better than Sanchez. (Not lying, I have nightmares that Wil Myers will be sent to San Francisco for a not-right Tim Lincecum, and that somehow, Philip Humber will again be a Royal. Ah, while mostly optimistic, the cynic in me refuses to die.)
So, if/when the young guys like Myers and Odorizzi finally get called up, the final piece to this for Moore and his staff will be learning how to let go of those guys who can not succeed at the major league level. We know what a team full of AAAA players looks like, and we know Moore has proven he is loyal to a severe fault to some guys. But, the tricks are not to fall in love with all of your own guys, and not to mistake an extraordinary season as something that can be repeated (Jeff Francoeur fits all of this.). Those weeds have to be pulled. Period.
It isn’t enough to simply spend in the minors alone because odds are not all of those guys are going to pay off. It is what the Royals are going through currently, and now that the minors are in above average shape, this coming offseason will be time to ante up on the other end of the proven-MLB-talent spectrum.