Believe it or not, the Royals used to be terrible. No, kids, it's true. Kansas City was terrible. Yes, you have go back a few years. You have to go back to those crazy days before Mike Moustakas started clubbing home runs, before Eric Hosmer won batting titles, before Wil Myers and Mike Montgomery and John Lamb all became household names. You have to go back to the days when the Internet wasn't in 3-D, when the Reverend Sheen was hiding out in some place called Sober Valley Ranch, when President Jeter was still playing for the Yankees, when our cars didn't fly.
You have to go back, in fact, to 2011. The Royals were dismal that year. They were also dismal the year before that and the year before that and the year before that and ... well, you get the idea. Kansas City lost 100 games four times in the 2000s. And, oh, the stories from that time! The Royals once had a runner simply fall off first base, like a statue tipping over, and get picked off. They once had a player lose a fly ball in the sun because his prescription sunglasses had not yet arrived. They once had an outfielder who climbed the wall to catch a fly ball only to see it land on the warning track and bounce over his head. They once had their first batter of the game bat out of order.
The biggest problem then, strange as it may seem now (we are talking about the three-time-champion Royals), was that Kansas City had trouble finding, developing and affording good players. How did it turn around? How did the Royals reach the playoffs in 2013, win the World Series in '15 and then dominate the latter part of the decade? Well, it was that minor league system ... that amazing Kansas City Royals minor league system.
Believe it or not, back in those days when human beings played Jeopardy! and people thought LeBron James was going to win championships and Tiger Woods was going to break Jack Nicklaus's career majors record, people also thought Dayton Moore was a complete failure. Moore will tell you this was mostly his fault. He made mistakes, and he did not explain himself well enough.
Moore was hired to replace Allard Baird as the Royals' general manager in the middle of the 2006 season, which would turn out to be the third straight year Kansas City lost at least 100 games. Moore knew things were bad. Over the next couple of years he told friends that things were a lot worse than he thought. "The problem wasn't that we weren't winning," he said one day during spring training in 2011. "The problem was that nobody could imagine us winning."
The Royals' television and ticket revenue was so low—only Milwaukee among big league cities had a smaller metropolitan population than Kansas City—that the team could not afford to acquire good players or keep the few good ones they happened to develop. Fans had grown used to the team's trading away young stars (Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran to name the most prominent three) and spending less money on the amateur draft than just about any team in baseball. They had become numb to the vague promises for a brighter future. Except for an occasional, halfhearted call for owner David Glass to sell the team, everyone in town had more or less given up any real hope.
This was the world Moore entered. He had grown up in the ultrasuccessful Braves system—first as a scout, then as a scouting director before moving on to player development—and he immediately went to work on the Kansas City system. In 2007 he added another minor league team, in rookie ball. He had the Royals Academy in the Dominican Republic completely rebuilt and put the universally respected Rene Francisco, formerly Atlanta's director of international scouting, in charge of the Royals' international operations. He brought in rising star J.J. Picollo, who had been the Braves' director of minor league operations, in '06, and Picollo is now in charge of scouting and player development. The Royals hired several other well-respected baseball men—including longtime Phillies assistant G.M. Mike Arbuckle, who helped rebuild that bottom-feeding franchise into a postseason perennial through player development—and added five extra scouts and redrew their territories so they didn't have as much ground to cover. Moore personally explained to everyone that while the Yankees and Red Sox and Phillies might dominate free agency, the Royals were going to dominate the world of amateur baseball. "I didn't just want good baseball people," Moore said. "I wanted people who understood that we're going to win a championship here. We knew exactly what we had to do. There was really only one way for us to do it."
That one way—as Moore explained on the day he was interviewed for the job by Glass—was to build the best farm system in baseball. ("That was all I ever promised," Moore said.) He told the owner point-blank that the Royals had not invested nearly enough in building their minor leagues. True, they had developed a few good players through the years. But Moore realized that for Kansas City to win it needed an almost embarrassingly great minor league system.
"We know that prospects don't all make it," Picollo said. "That's just the hard truth. Depth is the only way to combat it. Ten great pitching prospects is not enough. Twenty great pitching prospects is not enough."
In Moore's first few years, the Royals' major league team was as terrible as it had ever been, losing at least 93 games in three of his first four full seasons. Moore seemed to make mistake after mistake at the major league level. He hired a manager, Trey Hillman, who did not last 2½ seasons. He signed numerous free agents who made the team not only bad but also unlikable—outfielder Jose Guillen was the most prominent of those. Before the 2011 season Moore traded away the team's one marquee player, former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, and filled his roster with washouts and reclamation projects such as outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera, and pitcher Jeff Francis. He made odd statements that suggested he did not understand the need for players who got on base.