When the Royals’ farm system began to seem exceptional to national writers last year, and then to seem even better than your run-of-the-mill best farm system in baseball, a thought kept running through my mind: “They’re looking for the next Rays.” I felt I was observing two sociological phenomena in action: (1) love for the underdog, which has deep historical roots in the American psyche, and (2) a collective casting-about for the next instance of something noteworthy that recently happened. Before moving on to the point of this post, which is of course, what Dayton should do between now and opening day 2012, I think it’s worth having a quick discussion about both.
The farm system was irrationally inflated, I think that much is clear to most people by now, to a greater or lesser degree. I have a long-winded train of thought as to why the media so quickly fell in love with the notion of the Royals’ system being so exceptional, which I won’t waste too much of your time explaining (if we were at a bar I could really talk your ear off here, probably to the same irrational levels the baseball writers reached waxing poetic about our ‘embarrassment of riches’). Suffice it to say that the underdog narrative is a big part of who we are, a trait that I would argue goes back to the first waves of (post-Columbus) immigrants who migrated to America. They were disgruntled, pissed off, curious, ballsy, in search of something better. They were underdogs. You could convince me the same is true of native Americans who crossed the Behring Strait and descended into America thousands of years ago. They were hungry, they were ballsy, they may have been pushed out of other places by more powerful groups. They were probably underdogs too. Even as this country became a great power, you could argue that the theme of the underdog was always there—the championing of the young individual who rises from nothing to achieve great things (make a shitload of money). The celebration of the notion that anyone in this country can do anything. These are democratic ideals, and they are dear to us. And they drive us to always root for the underdog. Rudy. Gonzaga. The Tampa Bay Rays.
At the same time, we poke great fun at our pathetic franchises that DON’T climb out of the rubble, don’t we? We make movies like Major Leagues. Jay Leno and the Simpsons get easy laughs at the Royals’ expense. Owners of crappy franchises are demonized. Do a Google search of Kevin McClatchy. David Glass. William Clay Ford. So you’re either a hero who rises from the ashes, somebody we fall in love with, or you’re a goat we’re embarrassed to have around. Ted Stepien.
Another endearing aspect of our collective culture—or maybe it’s human nature, but it seems uniquely American to me—is that we instinctively look for patterns. Once in a while, something truly surprises us on a large scale. Quentin Tarantino makes Pulp Fiction. Suddenly we’re looking for the next Pulp Fiction and Hollywood is bending over backwards trying to give it to us. Movies start appearing en masse with random, quirky dialogue that has nothing to do with the plot of the movie (only somehow it doesn’t quite work the way it did the first time). American Idol becomes a hit show, and suddenly talent shows are everywhere. Dancing, more singing, singing in groups, modeling, making clothes, cooking, juggling…until the genre has had every last bit of life squeezed out of it. And even then…
So, to me at least, it was almost tediously predictable that the minute the Tampa Rays pulled themselves out of a humiliating puddle of incompetence, after they resurrected their punch-line status seemingly forever, with Joe Maddon’s hip, black-framed glasses still a topic of discussion, the national writers and, by extension, we began searching for the next Tampa Bay Rays.
There wasn’t much searching to be done. There are only so many teams in baseball that are so dreadful that a quick turnaround would make a really good story. The Mariners don’t even count, they’ve been good too recently. Basically the Pirates or the Nationals or the Royals. Maybe the Orioles.
The sorts of people who frequent Royals Review had been watching the gradual improvement of the farm system for some time and we had become happy little prospect watchers while Baseball America editor Jon Manual was still calling our franchise “a train wreck” and going on at length on a podcast about how the Royals didn’t know how to develop players, even though our entire staff had completely turned over and the new regime had already had a number of development successes, including getting Mike Montgomery to morph into an elite prospect.
Yet, before the word ‘historic’ caught fire in the baseball community, I would say we sized up our prospects, sized up our major league team, sighed a bit, and sort of resigned ourselves to the fact that, although this all seemed to be heading in the right direction, any utopian plateau we might share with the Twins was a good way off.
The hype machine really started rolling after Moustakas became Barry Bonds in May, 2010. Hosmer was already hitting, although if you remember, he was doing his hitting in Wilmington and wasn’t really hitting for power (yet). Montgomery was doing nasty work in Wilmington. Lamb was doing the nasty in either Burlington or Wilmington. In that little window of normalcy, of unbiased reality, we were quite excited about the Royals’ little experiment, and people like Kevin Goldstein were whispering good things (this was before Goldstein’s Up and In podcast became popular). But we were also aware that we weren’t going to be contending in 2011, or 2012, or probably 2013. It’s long way to the majors from Wilmington.
Then the hype machine began rolling. Writers looking for the Next Tampa Bay Rays—New York Times writers among them—began crowing about the Royals’ riches. I work in New York. Some guy in my office who was vaguely aware I’m from Kansas City asked me if I was aware that the Royals had a load of talent coming. I started to get a bad feeling in my gut.
I would submit that the Moore regime was heavily influenced by the hype machine. One month later, the Royals were suddenly drafting lower-upside college players. Seemingly out of nowhere, they had adopted what appeared to be a One Wave (or Super Wave) philosophy, where they were going to arrange for neat package of exactly 25 great players arriving to the major leagues at the same time. There’s no doubt they were aiming for a single wave, both Moore and JJ Picollo explicitly said as much in radio interviews.
Suddenly there was much talk of contention in 2012—that became the year the Wave would arrive in Kansas City. Never mind that Lamb had struggled a bit in his introduction to AA, Montgomery’s elbow was barking and he’d been shut down, and the bulk of Dwyer’s impressive performances had happened in Wilmington. Crow was lost. Duffy had just returned from nearly walking away from the game and was the only one truly dominating at an upper level. But his sample size was small.
Despite all of that, some even began to wonder if we might contend in 2011 (admittedly, not many). The worst effect of all of this was that the Royals appeared to start basing their decisions on an altered and expedited timetable. Thankfully, they were patient enough to sign a number of warm bodies to play the outfield and to pitch on one year contracts to give the kids a little more time. Nonetheless, they were only giving them one extra season. The Royals’ system became Mission 2012.
I don’t need to recap what has happened to our 2012 dream since then. While it’s not dead, it does seem to many people that our ORIGINAL projection—contention in maybe 2013 or 2014 or even beyond that—is more accurate. Hey, we were right the first time. We were doing just fine until Baseball America butted in.
So. In light of all of that, what do I think Dayton should do between now and opening day 2012? Keep doing exactly what you were doing before the hype machine started rolling (and, judging from this most recent draft, it looks like you are back to what got you this far). Keep stocking the pipeline. Take high ceiling risks in the draft. Attack Latin America.
Don’t go signing some overpriced Gil Meche project in an effort to contend in 2012. Actually, if you want to do that, fine, you have money you don’t know what to do with at the moment. But don’t EXPECT to contend in 2012. Don’t go accelerating development timetables. Just keep stocking the pipeline. Keep trusting your scouts. Keep hammering away on developing those youngsters.
Other than that, if you decide to do absolutely nothing else, I’m fine with that. Really.