SI Vault: Royals, Flush: How Kansas City built a team to be envied
This story originally appeared in the March 21, 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated.
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 2 1/2 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.
All the while, he kept telling people that building the Royals was a "process." That word, process, became much mocked in Kansas City. You would hear people joke about how the Royals were processing themselves back into last place. What people didn't realize is that while they were laughing, Moore was building baseball's best minor league system in decades.
Believe it or not, nobody figured out what Moore and the Royals were doing until just before the 2011 season. Then everyone saw it all at once. Baseball Prospectus ranked 10 Royals in its top 101 prospects — five in the top 21. Baseball America had five Royals among its first 19 prospects and wrote that Kansas City had the richest minor league system since the magazine started keeping track of such things 22 years earlier. The website Minor League Ball put a dollar amount on all the team's prospects, as rated by minor league guru John Sickels, and concluded that they were worth $245 million—$61 million more than any other team's. "Their system is so good, it's a joke," one opposing scout said. "The Royals might have as many top-level prospects as any 10 teams in baseball combined."
There were so many great prospects that nobody knew how to rank them. Many people thought the best prospect was the slugger Moustakas, a third baseman who even then showed the sort of power that keeps scouts awake at night; many said he reminded them of a lefthanded version of the young Troy Glaus, who hit 47 home runs as a 23-year-old in 2000. The Royals drafted Moustakas with the No. 2 pick in '07 and did not sign him until 10 minutes before the deadline — as little as an hour before he accepted their $4 million offer, they were convinced that he would get away. He led the minor leagues with 36 home runs in 2010.
Then there was Hosmer, a first baseman whom scouts called "a Joey Votto carbon copy" (though, of course, now people call Votto a Hosmer carbon copy). There was Myers, a catcher turned outfielder who was such a natural hitter even then, when he was only 20, that traffic stopped whenever he was at the plate. "I have to watch this guy hit," Francoeur said during that magical spring of 2011. "It's mesmerizing."
The Royals had legitimate prospects at every position — they were excited about gritty shortstop Christian Colon, multitalented centerfielder Brett Eibner and catcher Salvador Perez, who one scout called "a defensive savant" — but they were especially loaded with lefthanded pitchers. They had four lefty prospects (Montgomery, Lamb, Chris Dwyer and Danny Duffy) on everyone's top 100, and each was so good that Moore said he was not sure which one would be the ace.
A gifted fifth lefty prospect, Noel Arguelles, had defected from Cuba in 2008, and the Royals outbid every other team and signed him for nearly $7 million. At the time, that sentence — The Royals outbid every other team — seemed odd. But it was all part of Moore's plan. "There are some financial realities," he said in '11. "We cannot just go out and get middle infielders or catchers or lefthanded pitchers. They are too expensive on the open market. So we have to develop those positions. We have to get them while they're young. I still don't think we have enough lefthanded pitching. I don't think we have nearly enough lefthanded pitching."
Moore's thirst for a better farm system was unquenchable — and it seemed directly at odds with the way he haphazardly built the major league team in those early years. "Dayton always knew that there was only so far he could get signing free agents and making trades," one friend said. "He tried to build competitive teams, and it definitely bothered him when those teams kept losing. But he knew that there was only so much he could do with the talent he had on the big league team. His heart was in building the future."
It does seem true that Moore's biggest goal with the major league club was to keep everyone distracted long enough to allow the young players to blossom. And yes, he could have done better with the distraction part of the plan. "This is the only way I know for a team like Kansas City to win," Moore said before the 2011 season. "The problem is that this way takes tremendous patience and it's easy to abandon the plan. The team starts losing, and you want to trade away prospects to win a few more games. A prospect goes through a bad stretch, you wonder if maybe you were wrong about him. The thing I kept thinking all along was, 'We're doing this the right way. We're doing it with good people. At the end of the day we're going to win.'"
Believe it or not, nobody in 2011 knew how it would all turn out. Sure, everyone knew the Royals had this great minor league system. But great minor league systems don't always lead to great success. The Diamondbacks had a great system in the mid-2000s, and it didn't work out. Ill-advised trades featuring Carlos Quentin and Carlos Gonzalez and the bumpy early careers of Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew and Justin Upton made Arizona a noncontender. "A team cannot win with simply a great minor league system," one baseball executive said that spring of 2011. "The team has to make smart big league decisions. They have to trade some of those prospects for useful major league players. They have to mix in a few good players that fit. The Royals have done a magnificent job building the system. But the job isn't close to done."
Moore knew that. In May 2010 he fired Hillman and installed manager Ned Yost, who had been the manager in Milwaukee when gifted young players such as Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun were coming up. Moore planned to bring up the prospects slowly, hoping to have Hosmer compete for a job in camp in '11 (he had six hits and two homers in his first 14 at-bats that spring), hoping to have Moustakas and a couple of the pitchers up by the end of that season. "We finally have our head above water," he said then. "Now we have to let things play out. We don't want to rush anybody, and we don't want to hold anybody back. We just want to do the things that will turn this team into a winner."
We now know that happened: In the latter half of the decade, the Royals won multiple World Series and became America's team. Kauffman Stadium filled up with Hollywood stars (actor and longtime fan Paul Rudd finally had company), every other team tried to follow their model. (The book Daytonball spent 23 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.) And because we know that happened, it's hard to go back in time and remember just how bad the Royals were.
"There was only one way to do it," Picollo said in 2011, when all that success was still a dream. "Dayton realized that, and he brought in a lot of other people who realized it too."
When Moore arrived in Kansas City, one of the first things he announced was that he would love to have a World Series parade go through the Country Club Plaza, a shopping district in the middle of town. In 2015, when the Royals won their first Series in 30 years, the parade indeed happened. It featured car after car, rolling along the road, close enough to touch for more than 200,000 people who had long thought the day would never happen. The flying car wasn't invented until later.