Breaking Balls: The last head-scratching days of Dayton Moore
I feel bad for Kansas City sports fans. By all accounts, they are a devoted and enthusiastic people, despite their two major sports teams caroming between mediocrity and putrescence for the better part of the last four decades.
The football Chiefs and the baseball Royals were both previously quite successful franchises, winning championships and featuring superstar-quality players. But those days are long gone, and Kansas City is left with two bottom-feeding teams that just can’t seem to get it together.
The Chiefs are a somewhat lost cause, but the Royals have been building. The key to establishing a great baseball team – regardless of team payroll – is by developing minor league players who can become future major league players or can be traded for established veterans. A few years ago, the Royals had one of the worst minor league systems in baseball. But then they started to build.
In 2012, whether by accident or by brilliant scouting and foresight (or a combination of all of these), the Royals found they had built arguably the best minor league system in baseball – with excellent prospects at every level of the organization and young players proving themselves on the big club. There was hope for this long-forsaken team.
Unfortunately, in this modern world, “hope” doesn’t necessarily put butts in seats, and a baseball team, at its core, is a business. And businesses need to make money. So, the Royals decided it was time to put the pedal to the metal and make some moves to push themselves back into relevance.
The timing for the move was right. The division the Royals are in, the AL Central, is the weakest in the league. The Royals have some money to spend thanks to the generous contributions given by more profitable teams in the league’s revenue sharing program. And the team certainly has the minor league assets to move and not significantly affect their long-term plans.
The Toronto Blue Jays are in the same position. The Red Sox and Yankees are weak, and Toronto used its impressive minor league assets to make some very impressive trades that, for now, make them look like the team to beat in the American League. It’s all about timing and being smart.
The Royals got the timing part right, but the “smart” aspect seems to have been missed – dramatically. This is as good a place as any to introduce the central character of our story: Dayton Moore. He’s been the Royals’ general manager for a bit more than six years, and in that time, he hasn’t really done anything to help the team out of their long-running quagmire.
He came over from the Atlanta organization and its rich tradition of winning. The team and city were excited to have him on board. But then his first move was to sign free-agent pitcher Gil Meche to a five-year $55 million contract. “Who is Gil Meche?” you ask. Exactly! The contract set a new standard for what to pay mediocre free-agent pitchers, thereby messing up every other team’s budgets that year and forever.
There’s the old idea that you have to overpay to get players to sign for small-market or bad teams. And that’s somewhat true. But I think you need to make sure you’re overpaying for the right guy. Gil Meche was not the right guy. And that pretty much describes Dayton Moore’s tenure in Kansas City.
So, now it’s six years later, and with no success to speak of, you have to figure that Royals’ ownership might be looking at giving Dayton the boot. So, with the timing being perfect, he decided to make some big time moves.
His first two moves of the offseason involved pitching. He re-signed Luke Hochevar for about $5 million, and that would be a heck of a bargain if Luke was even remotely good. He isn’t. Last season, he had the second-worst earned run average (ERA) of any player in all of the major leagues. Then he went out and traded for the Angels’ Ervin Santana and his $13 million contract. The Angels were just going to release Ervin into free agency, but Dayton wanted to make sure he didn’t have to bid against any of the league’s other teams. A crafty move if we were talking about any player other than the league’s absolute worst pitcher last year.
So, a week or so into the offseason and Dayton had spent $18 million on two of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. For that money they could have “overpaid” for Anibal Sanchez (a very good pitcher) and teamed him up with a bag of sand and they could easily out-perform Santana and Hochevar.
And then there was The Trade. Notice how I used initial capital letters there? That’s an old writing trick to make something that is somewhat ordinary seem like it is more important because it implies that is the actual name of a thing. Anyway, The Trade sent minor league prospects to the Tampa Rays for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.
But these weren’t just any prospects. Outfielder Wil Myers is considered by most to be the best minor league hitter in the game. Maybe this trade would have been even if it were only for Myers, but the Royals also sent over a major-league ready pitcher in Jake Odorizzi – who would definitely be better than Santana or Hochevar and certainly better than the aforementioned bag of sand.
And the Royals sent two more prospects as well. This seemed like one of those classic old-school talent robberies that used to go on years ago when teams didn’t really understand the value of young, cheap players. Like when the Red Sox traded away soon-to-be Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell for a relief pitcher. Or when the Expos dumped Pedro Martinez on the Red Sox for an assortment of middling prospects.
Teams are supposed to be smarter these days. But, again, “smart” wasn’t really involved in this Royals offseason. Maybe make a phone call to check around and see if you’re getting robbed. Maybe call another team and see if they can top it. And then when every single team in the league and five from the NBA say you are getting robbed, then you rethink doing The Trade.
I am reminded of the scene towards the end of Blazing Saddles when Sheriff Bart tries to convince the townfolk to stay and hold their ground against the bad guys: “Can’t you see that’s the last act of a desperate man?” And they respond, “We don’t care if it’s the first act of ‘Henry the Fifth.’”
Dayton Moore is a desperate man. And this was quite possibly his last act.
Last year’s team was statistically very unlucky, and the struggles of young superstar-in-the-making Eric Hosmer are perplexing. The team definitely lacked a front-line starting pitcher who could eat up innings and give the team a legitimate chance of winning every fifth game. So the idea of the trade was spot on. However, the execution left something to be desired.
But there’s also the matter of Jeff Francoeur. This is the guy who plays the position that Wil Myers should be playing for the Royals. Last season Jeff was the third-worst player in all of baseball. If you just replaced him with an average player, the team would have won four more games.
It’s almost like Dayton Moore has a penchant for fielding the worst players in baseball. It’s like those girls who can only date guys who are terrible and abusive and are sure to wreck their lives, but they stay with them anyway, because they love them so much and you just don’t understand!
Maybe you think I’m being too harsh and that there are always going to be “the worst” players and they have to be on someone’s team. Yes, you’re right. But do they have to all be on the same team? And why the hell is Dayton paying them so much money?
I imagine that being a baseball general manager is actually quite difficult, and a-holes like myself make it even harder. But some guys just aren’t very good at the job. And when it looks like their job is on the line, general managers tend to act to try to “win now,” instead of trying to continue to be a good general manager and show they put the team’s overall success ahead of their own personal career goals.
Another thing that irks me about The Trade is that it was the Rays that scored the big haul. Wil Myers is going to help them compete next year and into the foreseeable future. That’s a team that knows how to balance spending and prospects in a way that is actually smart. They do not need anyone doing them any favors.
Yes, Dayton did amass an impressive minor league system, but industry insiders know that the general manager doesn’t actually have that much involvement in the drafting of players – that’s for scouting directors and player personnel guys.
Part of being a good general manager is being a lucky general manager. Look at how fortunate the Phillies’ Ruben Amaro was to have former Phillies GM Ed Wade running the Astros. Wade would constantly give away his high-end players to the Phillies, while asking for little of value in return. And since Ed was fired by the Astros, all of Ruben’s moves for the Phillies have been shaky at best. Of course, now Ed works for Ruben, so that’s not suspicious at all.
The Rays GM is Josh Friedman and even without Dayton’s help, he has put together an excellent organization from top to bottom that regularly competes with teams that spend more than twice as much as them. If you’re wondering how to run a baseball team, just watch the Rays do their thing.
Dayton is on his last legs with the Royals. And The Trade wreaks of someone on their way out – like a guy showing up at work with his suit inside-out and smelling of whiskey, cigarettes and low-cost ladies of the night.
Of course, maybe The Trade was a smart move for Dayton. Because once he gets fired, he can knock on Josh Friedman’s door and say, “It’s time to return the favor.”