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A Failed Experiment

Thanks for the All-Star Game, But What Kansas City Really Wants Is a Winning Baseball Team

With another losing season all but guaranteed, how can the Royals get better?

Tonight, Kauffman Stadium will host the 2012 All-Star Game. This is big news for baseball in Kansas City; it’s the first All-Star Game to be held in town since 1973. But that’s not the only reason it’s a historic day: For the first time in more than a quarter-century, both teams that take the field there will be playoff-caliber.

Kansas City will be the center of the baseball world for the first time since they won the 1985 World Series. This is unquestionably a good thing — All-Star Games bring attention to the host city and dollars to its local economy, which is why Bud Selig doles them out like doggie biscuits to get teams (and municipalities) to do his bidding. It’s also a bad thing, however, because by putting a spotlight on Kansas City, the game also puts a spotlight on its team. And it’s impossible to take a good, hard look at the Kansas City Royals without asking, “Shouldn’t they be good by now?”

It’s not simply that the Royals are working on their 27th consecutive playoff-free season, the longest streak of that kind in professional sports aside from the Washington Nationals — the first-place Washington Nationals. It’s that the Royals’ current front office was hired to much fanfare six years ago and has so far failed to deliver even a .500 season.

What GM Dayton Moore delivered was a farm system hailed by many as the best collection of prospects in a generation, if not longer. That was 18 months ago. Those were heady times; the Royals made the cover of Baseball America and were featured in Sports Illustrated. They might have lost 95 games in 2010, but they were close. Very close. The conventional wisdom was that the Royals might not be contenders by 2012, but they almost certainly would be better. A lot better.

Eighteen months later, it’s clear that building The Best Farm System Ever will forever shape Moore’s legacy in Kansas City. It’s just not clear whether it’s a feather in his cap or an anvil that will flatten it. There is no in-between.

Nine Royals placed on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list last year. Let’s check on how they have fared since:

Eric Hosmer (no. 8 on the list) arrived in Kansas City ahead of schedule, getting promoted to the majors on May 6 of last season after hitting .439 for a month in Triple-A. Hosmer went on to finish third in the AL in Rookie of the Year voting, hitting .293/.334/.465 with 19 homers and 11 stolen bases. He was just 21 years old. Scouts adored everything about him — his swing, his swagger, his athleticism, his defense at first base. He wasn’t projected to be a star — he was projected to be a superstar, perhaps as soon as this year. Really, the only bad thing you could say about Hosmer was that he was on Bill Simmons’s League of Dorks team.

Apparently that was enough. Hosmer is hitting .231/.299/.371 this season. The good news is that everyone says he’s hitting balls really hard — they’re just finding gloves. The bad news is that HE’S HITTING TWO-THIRTY-ONE.

Mike Moustakas (no. 9) was promoted to the majors a month after Hosmer and struggled mightily for two months. In his first 53 games he hit .182 with one homer. But over the last six weeks of the season, he hit .379/.412/.564, and after showing up to camp this season in the proverbial best shape of his career, Moustakas has hit .268/.327/.490 with outstanding defense at third base. While he wasn’t selected, he had a case for being on the field for tonight’s All-Star Game. If everyone on this list were playing as well as Moustakas, this would be a very different column.

Wil Myers (no. 10) slipped in the rain and lacerated his knee early last season — no, really — and hit just .254 with eight homers in Double-A. Fully healthy this year, Myers has been arguably the best hitter in the minor leagues. Still just 21, the right fielder has averaged .327/.403/.676 between Double-A and Triple-A, he leads the minors with 27 homers, and he played at Kauffman Stadium on Sunday as part of the Futures Game. He should rank higher than no. 10 on next year’s prospect list — that is, if he’s still in the minor leagues.

John Lamb (no. 18), a left-handed starter of considerable promise, started the 2011 season in Double-A. Then, in his eighth start, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament. He underwent Tommy John surgery, and — 14 months later — is expected to be back on a mound soon.

Mike Montgomery (no. 19), a left-handed starter of considerable promise, was so impressive in spring training last year that he nearly made the Opening Day roster. Instead, he went to Triple-A, where he put up an ERA above five despite continuing to show potential no. 1 stuff on the mound. He went back to Triple-A this year, and his results have been more in line with his stuff. Unfortunately, this isn’t because his ERA has improved — it’s 5.69. Instead, his velocity has dropped. No one really knows what’s gone wrong with Montgomery, but everyone agrees he’s further from the major leagues than he was 18 months ago.

Christian Colon (no. 51) was the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, and so made the Top Prospects List almost by default — the top 10 picks in a draft almost always rank as top prospects the following spring, before their weaknesses have been identified and exploited. In Colon’s case, his weakness appears to be that he isn’t very good. He’s a shortstop without a shortstop’s range, and he’s repeating Double-A this year because he struggled with the bat last season. He was hitting .290/.369/.407 before going on the DL with a toe injury, and while the Royals still think he’ll be their second baseman of the future, most scouts peg him more as a super-utility player.

Pouring salt on the wound is that back in 2010, the Royals were rumored to select yet another left-handed pitcher with that pick, only to change their minds hours before the draft because they felt that Colon would agree to their financial terms. The left-hander they would have taken instead: Chris Sale, who has been the best left-handed starter in the league this year, for the AL Central–leading Chicago White Sox, who drafted him 13th.

Danny Duffy (no. 68), a left-handed starter of considerable promise, made it to The Show last May and, despite a 5.64 ERA as a rookie, showed the makings of an above-average starter. He was throwing harder than ever this spring, pitched very well early in the season, and then tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his sixth start. He had Tommy John surgery and he’s expected to return sometime next summer.

Jake Odorizzi (no. 69) has steadily worked his way to Triple-A, and for the season has a 3.05 ERA and has struck out 92 batters in 86 innings. Like Myers, he played in the Futures Game at Kauffman Stadium on Sunday. In the short term, he could be promoted to the majors at any time; in the long term, he projects as a solid no. 3 starter.

Chris Dwyer (no. 83), a left-handed starter of … oh, you know the drill. Dwyer is healthy; he simply can’t throw strikes. He’s repeating Double-A, where he has a 4.93 ERA, until he gains some control — he’s walked 41 batters in 80 innings this year.

Here’s the grisly math: one above-average player at the major league level, one sophomore slump from hell, two top prospects who are on the verge of the majors, and five guys who have either regressed, gotten hurt, or both. This is not the farm system we ordered in the catalog.

Unfortunately, this is the nature of prospects in baseball — particularly pitching prospects, who get injured at a frighteningly high rate. It’s no coincidence that of the five pitchers on the list, only one has remained healthy and effective. The adage has long been that the best way to develop a major league starting pitcher is to start with five pitching prospects, and that arithmetic is working out precisely here.

But if the Royals haven’t botched the job of turning prospects into major league talent, they haven’t done nearly enough to prepare for this eventuality. Even with The Best Farm System Ever, it was exceedingly unlikely they could build an entire roster from within. They would need to complement their home-grown players with a savvy sprinkling of imported veteran talent.

Moore did a solid job of that last season; he signed free agent outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur for less than $4 million combined, then watched as Cabrera hit .305/.339/.470 and Francoeur hit .285/.329/.476. Combined with incumbent left fielder Alex Gordon — who finally had a breakout season four years after being ranked the no. 1 prospect in baseball — the Royals had the best outfield in the major leagues. (The 2011 Royals were the first team in history to have three outfielders each hit 40 or more doubles.)

Having rehabilitated the reputations of Cabrera and Francoeur, the Royals offered both of them identical two-year, $13 million contracts for 2012 and 2013. Francouer accepted, and he is hitting .251/.289/.378 as one of the worst right fielders in baseball, which he was from 2008 to 2010. It’s as if last year never happened. Cabrera declined, so with one year left until he reached free agency, he was traded to San Francisco — where he is batting .353/.391/.519, leads the NL in hits, and was voted by the fans to start the All-Star Game. In Kansas City. Awwwwwkward.

The Royals traded Cabrera to solve their chronic lack of starting pitching — the hole that their prospects were supposed to fill. Instead, they wound up with Jonathan Sanchez. Sanchez was a key part of the Giants’ rotation when they won the World Series in 2010. That year, he struck out 205 batters, had a 3.07 ERA, and threw five shutout innings in the final game of the regular season to clinch the NL West. Sanchez had a down year in 2011, but trading Cabrera for Sanchez looked like a smart deal — a classic case of selling high and buying low.

It turns out that Cabrera was Apple and Sanchez was Enron. Sanchez has been perhaps the worst starting pitcher in the majors this season. In 11 starts, he has a 6.75 ERA, and in 52 innings he’s walked 43 batters against just 34 strikeouts. Among all major league pitchers with 10 or more starts, only one has a higher ERA; none has a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Meanwhile, the man who was supposed to replace Cabrera in center field, Lorenzo Cain, played just five games before going on the DL with a strained groin, and then he injured his hip flexor during rehab. Cain is the poster child for a team ravaged by injuries. Starting catcher Salvador Perez hurt his knee in spring training while lunging for an errant pitch (thrown by Sanchez, naturally), and only rejoined the team two weeks ago. And Duffy is just one of four pitchers — a full third of the team’s projected pitching staff — who have undergone Tommy John surgery since March. The other victims include Joakim Soria, one of the best closers in baseball and the team’s most consistent pitcher over the past five years, and Felipe Paulino, who had been the Royals’ best starter since the team shrewdly claimed him on waivers from Colorado last May.

Blaming injuries is the last refuge of the incompetent, but the Royals deserve some sympathy here. Just last season they won the Dick Martin Award for having the best training staff in baseball. They were fortunate to avoid the injury bug last year; this year it returned, and it brought friends.

It’s not as if everything has gone wrong. When ace Zack Greinke forced a trade after the 2010 season, Dayton Moore was able to extract an excellent return from the Milwaukee Brewers, including Odorizzi and starting shortstop Alcides Escobar, who is hitting .307/.350/.410 with Gold Glove–caliber defense. Perez, who was overshadowed by all the other prospects in the system, has emerged as perhaps the best young player in the organization — just 22 years old and a stellar defensive catcher, Perez has somehow hit .344/.366/.528 in his (brief) major league career. The Royals have one of the deepest bullpens in the majors, which has come in handy given that — thanks to their atrocious rotation — they are on pace to throw the most innings of any bullpen in major league history.

But results are results. The Royals have scored the third-fewest runs in the American League. Their starting pitchers have the second-highest ERA in the league, which is what happens when your rotation consists of Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, some guy who bears a vague resemblance to Jonathan Sanchez, and the lucky fan who registered the top velocity on the radar gun at the ballpark the day before.

At 37-47, they have the third-worst record in the AL, and they’re just 2.5 games out of dead last.

Six years after he was hired, and 18 months after putting together The Best Farm System Ever, Dayton Moore is starting to feel some heat. Moore has publicly stated many times that rebuilding an organization from scratch is a process that takes eight to 10 years. That seems like an awfully generous time frame, given that Dave Dombrowski took over the Detroit Tigers in 2002, a situation even more hopeless than the one Moore inherited in Kansas City (the 2003 Tigers lost an American League–record 119 games). Three years later, Dombrowski had them in the World Series.

Ah, but Moore has clarified what he means by “rebuilding.” In this 2010 article on MLB.com, when the pieces of the farm system were just clicking into place, Moore said this:

Look what Colorado did, look what Minnesota did, look what the New York Yankees did. It took the Yankees seven years. They committed to it in ’89, and finally in ’96 they won with homegrown guys. I’m not talking about getting to .500, I’m talking about winning the World Series when I say eight to 10 years.

To get your team in the playoffs, that’s how long it takes. Terry Ryan and the Minnesota Twins had a well-built farm system, and they started in ’94 when Terry took over, and for seven straight years they had 87 to 97 losses. In year eight, they were above .500, and in year nine they were in the playoffs. That’s all I said. It just amazes me that guys don’t do their own research.

We’ll ignore the fact that our research tells us that the Twins lost between 87 and 97 games for six straight years, not seven, before they went over .500. Or that after committing to a rebuild in 1989, the Yankees were over .500 just four years later, and that the following year, 1994, they had the best record in the AL when the strike hit. Or that the Rockies — hardly the model for any franchise to follow — have never had more than six losing seasons in a row.

Those things are important, but they’re beside the point. The point is that Royals fans aren’t asking for their team to go to the World Series. We’re not even asking for the Royals to contend yet. We’re simply asking for the Royals TO STOP SUCKING ALL THE TIME. We’re asking for them to stop extinguishing hope while the trees are still in blossom, like this year, when they lost 12 games in a row by the end of April. (This is the ninth consecutive season the Royals have had a losing streak of at least six games by the middle of May.)

We’re not asking for them to play deep into October; we’re asking them to still have something to play for in July. The Royals haven’t been within nine games of first place at the All-Star Break since 2003, three years before Moore was hired. We understand that before you fly, you have to learn to run, and before you run, you have to learn to walk. We’re just asking the Royals to hold their heads up on their own and sleep through the night.

Moore can talk all he wants about how the process takes eight to 10 years, but the reality is that if he doesn’t show tangible progress, he’s not going to get eight to 10 years. Dave Littlefield was hired as GM of the Pirates in the middle of the 2001 season; six years later, with the Pirates no better than when he was hired (they lost 94 or 95 games each year from 2005 to 2007), he was shown the door. You won’t find any Pirates fans lamenting the fact that Littlefield wasn’t given another two to four years to finish the job. Doug Melvin didn’t get eight to 10 years in Milwaukee, because he didn’t need that long. Melvin was hired at the end of the 2002 season, when the Brewers lost 106 games. Within three years the Brewers were at .500; three years later they were in the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.

Moore was hired in 2006. Enough time has passed since then for the Cleveland Indians to ascend to the top (they won 96 games in 2007), strip down to the bottom (they lost 97 games in 2009), and get back above .500 again. In 2006, the Washington Nationals were still two years away from back-to-back 100-loss seasons — and after losing 103 games in 2009, they have the best record in the NL today. In three years, the Nationals have done what the Royals’ front office hasn’t done in six. When Moore was hired, the Miami Heat were on their way to winning the NBA title — behind Shaquille O’Neal. When Moore was hired, the defending NFL champions were the Pittsburgh Steelers — who were led by Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher. When Moore was hired, real estate was still thought to be a sound investment.

The year Moore was hired, the Royals went 62-100. Since then, their win totals go like this: 69, 75, 65, 67, and 71. Their 37-47 record puts them on pace to win 71 games. This is progress measured by a geologic clock. At this rate, the Royals will be ready to contend when you can buy beachfront property in Nevada and Mount Everest is 40,000 feet high.

Despite yet another disappointing season, it’s way too early to label the Royals’ farm system a bust, or to write off their chances of contending as soon as next season. Their offense, which averages 26.6 years in age, is still the youngest in the majors. Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi will probably give the team a shot in the arm in the second half of this season. So will a healthy Salvador Perez. It’s reasonable to think that John Lamb will be ready to join the rotation by the middle of 2013, around the same time Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino return from Tommy John surgery. More top prospects are on their way, including last year’s first-round pick, outfielder Bubba Starling, and this year’s first-rounder, right-hander Kyle Zimmer.

But the cold reality is this: Dayton Moore took the job right after the 2006 draft, and six years later, not one pitcher he has drafted is in a major league starting rotation. And unless the Royals make a major splash in free agency or through a trade, there is no reason to believe their starting rotation next April will be any better than the one that has torpedoed this season. Moore knows this, and he also knows that excuses for losing are wearing thin on ownership. The only way out may be to trade a sizable chunk of his vaunted farm system this winter to acquire an established starting pitcher — which risks undoing all the good that Moore has done with the farm system to begin with.

Maybe 2013 will turn out differently than 2012, and it will turn out that the Royals just held their coming-out party to the nation a year early. But if it doesn’t, don’t be surprised if ownership cleans house and lets another front office try to finish the process that this one started. It’s not fair to hold Dayton Moore accountable for the sins of his predecessors. It’s not his fault that the Royals didn’t win a damn thing for 21 years before he was hired. But if he’s responsible for seven years of losing, that will be long enough.

Filed Under: Baseball, Kansas, Magazines, MLB, Sports, Star, Teams

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Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

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