Did you enjoy the happy times? I hope so, because it looks like they are over.
Looking back at the calendar -- and this is a little bit like trying to isolate a major historical period, such as, say, the Dark Ages -- this humble historian would label The Good Times as beginning roughly on April 18th, when the Royals improved to 7-4 and ending somewhere around May 20th, when the Royals stood at 21-19. Nearly dead in the middle of that epoch was the Greinke SI cover and attendant Posnanski piece, which pushed both Greinke and the Royals onto the radar of middle-aged men across the country. As many of you know, I live in DC, so much of my background noise baseball is Orioles & Nats on TV and a variety of Acela corridor teams on the radio. During the Good Times, I probably heard six or seven different broadcasters praise the Royals in passing, inevitably mentioning how "they won't be going away this season".
Well, they did go away, and I fear that the historical record will reflect that they did so with astonishing rapidity. The descent from 18-11 to 24-32 has all but buried a team that only needed to play .450 baseball during the slide to remain a perhaps unnecessarily heralded darling. That's how you make your hot start hold up: just being mediocre for a month will barely get noticed in this division. The AL Central this season evokes memories of the first half of this decade, when a generic .500 team would win 88-92 games against weak intra-divisional foes.
I believe it's time to begin reconsidering the Dayton Moore Era in Kansas City. Yes, he took over one of the two or three worst franchises in the game. Moreover, Moore's successes are easy enough to see and indisputable. Overall, the team is better. The minor leagues are better. Payroll is larger. Still, it must be pointed out that the Royals hired Moore during the 2006 season. Not only has Moore now been around for awhile, he's also made a number of moves, and for that reason the Major League roster has been nearly entirely remade in Moore's image. When DeJesus and Buck are finally traded, the transformation will be that much fuller.
The 2009 Royals are what Dayton Moore wanted. This is a team he's rather meticulously built. Sadly, if you remove Zack Greinke -- a Baird holdover -- from the roster, the Royals are probably one of the worst two or three teams in the American League.
It's time to ask some tough questions.
What was the point of hiring Trey Hillman?
Let's start with the least important concern, at least in a pure baseball sense, the Hillman hire. What exactly is Hillman good at? I think that being a baseball manager is one of the weirdest, generally most pointless, jobs in sports. For all the attention it gets, being a baseball manager is probably about as important as being the linebackers coach in football. You don't call plays 99% of the time in a baseball game, and there's so little variation regarding what's acceptable managerial moves, that even the worst guy ever is only going to be marginally worse than the best. All that being said, what was the point of hiring Hillman? By all accounts he's had problems managing the clubhouse from the leader-of-men/motivator perspective and even the laziest observer can glean that his bullpen and lineup management is, at best, ok. It isn't an accident that Joakim Soria has appeared in one one-run or tied game while Jamey Wright has done so seven times.
Obviously, Hillman was a manager that Moore targeted from the earliest days in his tenure, and a year and a half later, it appears to be merely an extremely idiosyncratic way of finding just another generic, probably below average manager.
When Hillman was hired we read a lot about how the new Royals were going to emulate the smallball Angels, with special guidance from Hillman's Japanese experience. The Royals tried to play Treyball for about two weeks in 2008, then wisely abandoned it amidst a flurry of caught stealings. Since then, the team has gotten even slower and less prone to making contact. The Royals aren't a fundamentally strong team either, another early buzzword. Nor was Hillman connected emotionally to any of the Royals key young players, he was just a guy winning games in Japan talking about Jesus a lot. And now he's in Kansas City.
When Hillman was announced as the manager I wrote that the important thing was not so much anything about the man himself, but rather what the move potentially said about Moore's masterplan, his thoughts on strategy and how to build a team, etc. Eighteen months later, do we have a clearer idea or one that we can really feel excited about? Personally, I'm not seeing it. Essentially we've got merely a confused and un-focused traditionalism looking for a target. Speed, steals, smallball, err... power, or something. Hillman's a traditionalist it appears, and even in an especially moribund age strategy-wise, he's certainly not an innovator. Rounding back to Moore, are the Royals going to be able to win with an ultra-traditional approach? Sure, there's the Twins, who are also unfortunately way ahead of the Royals and in their own division.
Can Dayton Moore build an offense?
A typical starting lineup this season features at a bare minimum six offensive players brought in by Dayton Moore, and most games the number is higher than that. Despite heavy investments in both talent and dollars however, the Royal offense has declined each of the last three seasons. This year, the Royals have scored 222 runs, good for 3.96 runs per game. In 2008 they were also bad offensively, but nevertheless managed 691/4.26 per game. In 2007, that figure was 706/4.32 per. From his very first trade -- the Gathright deal -- to the flurry of moves this past off-season, Moore has shown a tendency to value two tools, speed and power, over patience. This obp blindspot, frequently identified prior to the 2008 season, has been particularly damaging. The amazing thing is that not only has Moore not generally brought in high OBP players, he's actually acquired some of the absolute lowest OBP options possible. It's like deciding not only to not buy your wife a good birthday present, but also deciding to give her a framed picture of you and your hottest ex together.
It isn't just about the lack of walks -- themselves a good thing -- its about the increase in outs. That's all OBP really is, your non-out percentage. Guys like Mike Jacobs, Jose Guillen & Miguel Olivo are out-machines and it continually drags down the offense. Even accounting for the slight decline in run scoring that we've seen the last two seasons, the Royal offense is more expensive and worse than the one they fielded in 2006 or 2007. Where have you gone Emil Brown? Of the five most patient players on the team, exactly one is a product of the Moore regime, Coco Crisp, and he was acquired for his speed and defense. Allard Baird, supposedly one of the worst GMs of the decade, and a man fired nearly three years ago, is still carrying the offense. At the moment the Royals are 13th in the AL in runs, 13th in batting average, 13th in OBP and 11th in slugging. As has been pointed out multiple times the last few weeks, when you factor in both who is over and under-performing, it seems extremely likely that this team is about where it's going to be all season.
On balance, there is really no choice but to say that Moore has shown a singular inability to construct a reliable offense at the Major League level. Although we've heard for two years now through the official channels that the Royals are focused on building their pitching staff and will worry about the offense later, a look at the transaction sheet betrays the lie behind this rationalization. Moore has been "working" with the offense from the very beginning, and he's done the very amazing thing of spending more, yet keeping one of the worst offenses around just as terrible as it ever was.
What's going on with the defense?
The truly amazing thing is that Moore's position-player misfires have not only not worked offensively, they've also torpedoed the Royals's defensive abilities. As such, the Royals are attempting to win with pitching and defense, without the defense. Despite two injuries which arguably improved the team's defensive configurations for long periods (the Guillen and Gordon injuries) after two months the Royals are solidly one of the absolute worst defenses in the game. According to UZR the Royals are 13th, and BP's two primary metrics, defensive efficiency and park-adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE) rank the Royals at 14th and 11th respectively.
As with everything else you've read above, these are not new problems, or one's generated by second-guessing. Everyone pretty much knew that the Royals infield defense was going to be awful this season, and if anything the Royals are a bit lucky that Butler has been better than expected and that Teahen was moved off of second by Gordon's injury. It's hard to give the Royals much credit for Butler being ok at first, considering their long-running bungling of his defensive development. Furthermore, Jose Guillen has been a butcher in right from day one, and he's so terrible that he mitigates much of the good that the Royals generate from playing two CFs in the other two slots.
Considering the industry-wide turn towards defense this past off-season, and the lack of polished defensively strong top prospects in the system, it's hard to see the Royals fielding a better defense any time soon. The Hoz and Moose are not going to make the defense better when they get up, in fact, they're going to likely make it worse. In turn, the pitching staff has to be that much better, that much deeper, to overcome this hindrance.
The defensive collapse is especially disheartening because you would think that it would be at the very bedrock of an effective old-school approach. Instead, in going after players like Guillen, Moore has done just what all the counter-revolutionaries used to mistakenly mock Billy Beane for doing: building a softball team.
Can Dayton Moore assemble the league's best pitching staff?
Because considering the team's offensive and defensive limitations, that is what it is going to take.
Dayton Moore deserves enormous credit for rebuilding the Kansas City pitching staff. Enormous. Let me do my damndest to give the man credit there. The mid-decade Royals featured a number of historically bad pitching staffs, completely mind-numbingly hideous ensembles that only featured a handful of players that even belonged at the Major League level. Go look at the 2005 and 2006 rosters for a moment, then head back here. It was laughably bad.
Almost overnight, Dayton remade the pitching staff from an achilles heel into the strength of the team, and to this date, his signature moves -- the Meche signing, the Davies trade, the Soria discovery, the Ramirez discovery -- remain pitching moves. Distressingly however, after reaching respectability, the Royals have somewhat stalled.
|Runs Allowed Per Game|
This year's pitching staff is better than these numbers show, for all the reasons noted above. However, those problems aren't going away easily. Relatedly, this is also where some of Moore's unwise spending is especially painful. With pitching remaining the most expensive asset in the game, can Moore build the game's best staff? A staff so strong that it can overcome a poor offense and a poor defense? Payroll is especially relevant here
The depressing thing, from an odd perspective, is that Moore has already made a number of brilliant moves, and it hasn't been good enough. When you thrown in the fact that he inherited Zack Greinke, you can't help but feel that we're watching a current group that's about as good as it's going to get. It's a Jay Leno group: it is where it is and you can't imagine it taking a leap to another level. Leno's not suddenly going to go back on the standup circuit and kill or be be super funny on his new show. He's going to remain Leno. The variables at present have an essence of a balancing act: Davies falls, Bannister rises again, Hochevar presumably rises, the bullpen takes a step back, and so on.
Moore deserves further credit for amassing a number of highly regarded pitching prospects, most of whom remain in the low minors. Perhaps some of them will pan out, while others will inevitably fail, suffer injury, or be traded for the next RBI man with no actual value. The cycle of baseball life will continue. The current staff as is, however, while being good, is not good enough to carry the Royals into the post-season. Frankly, perhaps no staff in the AL would be.
If not now, when?
So here's the game we play. I think it's reasonable to argue, "well, even if the Royals don't even really come close to winning a pretty bad division in 2009, that doesn't matter because Moore's still relatively new and he's cleaning up a mess". Fair enough. The pickle of it is, can you truly argue that 2010 is going to be the year? At a certain level, we shouldn't care about 2006 anymore. The horror stories about the depths of the bad old Royals are increasingly irrelevant. To be plain, the easy part of the job is getting from awful to medicore. That's not being a genius, that's being competent. I go back to my old days as a composition teacher: I could help a student get from being clueless to being passable, but that doesn't mean I'm anything special or that I could get them from clueless to being a truly great writer.
No, 2006 doesn't matter anymore. 2008 matters, and the Royals of 2009 are barely better than the 2008 team. Can the Royals win in 2010? Offensively, the team's room for growth remains nearly identical to what it's been for the last two years: some breakout potential from Gordon and Butler and a random improvement of your own pet liking. Maybe it's Aviles at short, maybe it's Kila. Maybe it's something more exotic. There are obvious enough problems with nearly all of these hopes, ranging from our tempered expectations about the two saviors to the organization's own stubborn allegiance to lesser options. So the 2010 recipe remains pitching driven: Meche, Greinke, Soria as givens and three good seasons from Hochevar, Davies, Bannister and a wildcard prospect. Maybe more. By and large however, we're watching the 2010 team right now. And sadly, if there's a greater intellectual purpose to following the Royals this season, it would be that, trying to see if there's enough in place to win next year. 2011 and beyond, remains a topic for another day. Looking at the current team, there are very few faces who will still be around in 2011.
In conclusion, I believe that we've entered a new phase in our relationship to Dayton Moore. The first phase was the relatively brief, "let's see" entry-phase. Because the 2007 team improved so clearly, that period was brief. The next phase was one of mostly unencumbered praise and faith. The Major League talent actually stalled or even declined, but there was so much seemingly positive happening at the minor league level that it hardly mattered. I say this as likely one of the least sanguine Moore believers in the Royals blogosphere, but really questioning Moore prior to sometime this last off-season wasn't really intellectually defensible. He'd done too much good.
Unfortunately, that period has also passed. Dayton Moore shouldn't get the benefit of the doubt anymore.