Dayton Moore's big gambit paid off, at least when it came to his job security. Last December, the Royals general manager traded top prospect Wil Myers and three other prospects to the Rays in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis. The move helped Kansas City post its first winning record since 2003 via an 86-76 season, and netted the GM a two-year extension through the 2016 season, though in the balance, he may not deserve that reward.
Hired as general manager in mid-2006 after 12 seasons as a scout and executive with the Braves, Moore has shown a knack for drafting and developing talent that can light up prospect lists. Alas, converting the Royals' prospects into useful major leaguers has proven to be more of a challenge than expected, particularly on the pitching side.
Meanwhile, he has often seemed far behind the curve when it has come to filling out his roster, relying on far too many subpar placeholders such as Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Guillen, Willie Bloomquist, Chris Getz, Miguel Olivo, Jeff Francoeur and Mark Teahen. From 2007 through '12, K.C. put together the AL's worst record (419-553, .431 winning percentage), never winning more than 75 games or finishing higher than third in the generally weak AL Central. In that span, the Royals led the majors in deadwood: no team used more position players 26 and older — non-prospects in other words — who compiled 1.0 WAR or less while playing in at least 150 games.
Desperate to post a winning season that would justify his continuation at the helm, and to shore up a rotation that finished 2012 with a 5.01 ERA, Moore traded Myers — the Baseball America 2012 Minor League Player of the Year — to the Rays in a six-player deal last December. I argued in this space that it was the wrong move for the time, given that it represented a fundamental misreading of the team's place in the rebuilding process:
Coming off a 72-90 campaign, their 17th losing season in the past 18 years, they simply weren’t a front-of-the-rotation starter away from contention even when one factors in the other improvements they’ve made this winter, or the ones they can expect from a nucleus of young talent that itself serves as a reminder that success isn’t 100 percent guaranteed for Myers.
Even so, the combination of Moore re-signing free agent Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year, $25 million deal, trading a minor league reliever for bounceback candidate Ervin Santana and dealing for Shields bolstered the rotation considerably. The starters finished 2013 with a collective 3.87 ERA, climbing from 11th in the American League to fifth. When combined with a live-armed bullpen that led the league in both ERA (2.55) and strikeout rate (9.6 per nine), the Royals actually yielded an AL-low 3.71 runs per game.
Alas, even a lineup studded with former blue chip prospects such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez produced just 4.00 runs per game, good for only 11th in the AL. Moustakas is approaching washout status, while the other four represented the only Royals players to finish with an OPS+ of at least 100. All of which is to say that the team's finish shouldn't lessen the sting of losing six years of club control over Myers, a potential middle-of-the-lineup bat who hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers in 88 games as a 22-year-old while winning Rookie of the Year honors. It's also worth remembering that the aforementioned nucleus is surrounded by utterly terrible offensive production at second base and shortstop, and below-average production in centerfield and right, where Myers would have fit in.
Though Kansas City spent a good bit of April in first place and wasn't officially eliminated until the season's final week, the team never seriously contended in 2013. Its Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds fell below 25 percent for good in early May and never rose above 10 percent once June rolled around. With the team only hovering right around .500 as the July 31 trade deadline approached, Moore resisted overtures to flip Santana, but even the Royals' 17-3 run from July 23 through Aug. 12 did little to turn them into realistic contenders.
Ordinarily, a team turning the tide by posting a winning season after a long drought might help it attract a higher grade of free agents. Early indications, however, are that the Royals aren't attempting to do that, nor has ownership signaled a willingness to spend significantly more money. The franchise gave Santana a qualifying offer and so will net a draft pick once he signs elsewhere, but if the signing of Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million deal is any indication, K.C. is going backward by committing money to mediocrity instead of the kind of talent that can help it get over the hump.
That said, it's unfair to judge Moore's retooling for 2014 so early in the winter and worth noting that his tenure has had some successes, many of which are still bearing fruit. Four-year extensions for Gordon and Butler have paid off handsomely while buying out their early years of free agency, and the five-year, $7 million extension for Perez covering his 2012-16 seasons may turn out to be one of the game's great bargains. A bullpen in which only failed starter Luke Hochevar has reached arbitration eligibility has allowed Moore to stretch his meager payroll further by not overpaying for big-money closers. The trade of Zack Greinke to the Brewers for Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress has yielded usable seasons from Escobar and Cain so far, possibly with more to come under their remaining years of club control.