We may discount the "window of opportunity" that teams may or may not have. Yet with starting pitcher James Shields in the final year of his contract and with Billy Butler and Alex Gordon in their primes and inching closer to free agency, this feels very much like it's 2014 or bust.
In his column, Gregorian interviews Royals General Manager Dayton Moore. You know how I can't resist the opportunity to do a little "truth check" on Moore's words. I should have business cards made up about it. In the column, Gregorian opens with Moore expressing disappointment after failing to advance to October in 2013. (Coming on the heels of his "I feel like we won the World Series" firestorm, I draw the logical conclusion that Moore reads this blog.) Damage control - even three months after the fact - can be fine and all, but what really catches the eye is this quote:
"What I've said from Day One is 2014 is the year we ought to be able to compete from the first day to the last day,"
Let's roll back the clock. To Day One. Or thereabouts. This is from Moore's introductory press conference in June of 2006:
"I'm not going to sit here today and say we're going to do X, Y and Z," Moore said. "That would be inappropriate and irrational. The plan is to have the very best baseball people and for us to work hard every day to make good decisions about our players and our organization. If we commit to that and are focused on that goal, we'll begin to turn everything around and get moving in the right direction."
Fooled you, didn't I? Because as far as I could tell Moore didn't actually say on Day One that the Royals were going to compete in 2014. Because if he had actually said that, his tenure as GM would have been... one day. He also didn't say the Royals were going to compete in 2009, 2011, or any other year. He played it coy. Which is to say he played it correctly. Moore said (and I still believe in what he said) the Royals were going to get good people and work hard with the ultimate goal of a championship. It makes sense to say this at your introductory press conference. To set timetables so early would be folly. And trouble.
However, Moore seemed to set one for himself just six months later:
"The economics of the game are what they are. It is very competitive. Certainly it's great for the players. But at the same time for us to be able to manage our payroll effectively, we have to have a great farm system. It takes four to five years to develop your farm system and get that steady flow. But there's no doubt that we'll be able to do that."
Four to five years. A timetable for sure, but one that seems reasonable. Especially - as we've gone over before - given the barren state of the Royals farm system when Moore took the reigns. Years of neglect had taken a serious toll on the Royals minor league rosters. We know the story. Painful. What Moore said wasn't really a timetable for contention, but it could have been one. Patience has been a Moore mantra since he began.
Except that patience seemed to run out after just a year and a half on the job. From his post-mortem on the 2008 season:
"That's it. We're at a point now where you will never, ever hear me say again that we have young players who are improving. You will never, ever hear me say again that we are rebuilding. That stuff is over. I'm sick of all that. We're not a young team anymore. We're not an improving team anymore. There are no more excuses."
What's interesting to me is that Moore made that quote after a 75 win season which represented the Royals best showing since 2000. It was also the second consecutive year the Royals improved their win total. There were some positive signs, and Moore seemed ready to accelerate his process.
Except we know what happened next.
2009 was a struggle. Moore received an extension in August of that year with the Royals stumbling to just 65 wins. Likewise in 2010. The Process began to evolve. Terms like "patience," "instant gratification," and "microwave society" were bandied about. The script changed. When Moore arrived, he made free agent splashes with Gil Meche and Jose Guillen. Now, the focus shifted almost entirely to the minors which was anointed as THE BEST SYSYEM IN THE HISTORY OF SYSTEMS.
As the prospects were percolating, Moore continued talking timelines, for minor league talent to reach the majors. From 2010:
"Our goal by 2013, 2014 is to have the majority of our 25-man roster be homegrown players. That's what we're shooting for, that's been the long-term plan all along. We were brought in here to build a farm system, build an international program and be aggressive in the Draft, and that's what we're continuing to do."
Within the same article, Moore finally seemed to present a timetable for contention. Not surprisingly, it dovetails with his "homegrown" player statements:
"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."
By my investigation, this is the earliest I can find where Moore actually put a time frame on contention. Maybe a bit bold in talking about winning a World Series. Although we know the postseason by it's best of five or seven game nature can have some strange things happen. Play in October and you have a chance to win the whole thing. And that's all you really want, isn't it? A chance?
Given the benefit of hindsight, we can see the minor league pipeline started flowing to Kansas City in earnest in 2011. Five years after his quote that it would take four to five years to sufficiently stock the farm system. That was when we saw the debuts of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella, Aaron Crow, and Louis Coleman.
After that initial burst of talent from the pipeline, it has trickled off the last couple years. The recently traded David Lough and Yordano Ventura are the only notable debuts since then. (Insert lament about Wil Myers here.) But I digress.
Ahead of the prospect gold rush of 2011, the Royals and their farm system were becoming the darlings of baseball. Moore gave an interview to John Sickels where he continued to discuss the pipeline he envisioned:
The other day I was looking at some notes I made during organizational meetings early in 2007. We decided then that by 2012 or 2013, we wanted the majority of our players to be home-grown, from the farm system. We wanted a young core in place by that time. We knew it would take at least five years for that to happen.
ESPN The Magazine sent a reporter to Arizona to preview the team. Tim Keown described that year's version of the Royals as "a garage band with promise." These weren't your father's Royals of the '90s and the '00s. This team was young, hungry and on the upswing. They were going to knock on the door of respectability, and then kick the mother down. Just as Moore planned:
Who wants to wait? Waiting is old-school, pre-Internet, pre-free agency, prehistoric. In baseball and in life, waiting is for people who don't have money or credit or guts. And nobody -- nobody -- wants to pay for the right to be patient. But that's what Dayton Moore sells. He sells 2012 or 2103 and definitely 2014.
Moore recites history like a professor: The Yankees committed to their farm system in 1989 and won a title by '96; the Twins did the same in '94 and were contenders by 2001. Since Moore took over in 2006, his timetable has the Royals in the running by 2013.
Ignore the historical inaccuracies about when the Yankees and the Twins started their rebuilding processes. The point to gain was Moore set his focus for 2013. That's when the Royals were to be in the running. And by staying on the fringes of the AL Wild Card through most of September, I'll cede that point to Moore. The Royals were relevant in 2013. They were in the running.
This brings us to 2014.
It's not difficult to look through your Royal blue colored glasses and see a successful 2014 season. Especially when viewed through the prism of 2013. When you see a marked improvement like the one we saw just a year ago, you expect to see contention in your immediate future. It's not just fans who project like this. For example, this is Moore prior to the 2009 season:
"We've had a 13-game improvement over the last two years. We expect not only to improve, but to compete within our division. You say the same thing every year, but this year I think it has much more of a meaning when we say that."
How do you go from contender in 2009 to explaining your real target was always 2014?
Moore talking about competing from the first to the last day in 2014 is him throwing down the gauntlet. It's acknowledging that he's placed his prospects and assorted deals in one basket. October or bust, baby. Sure, he has a shiny new two-year extension that would take him through 10 years (no plan?) but a failure in 2014 makes it difficult to see how he makes it that far. And failure is defined as not qualifying for the postseason. The Class of 2011 has had a couple of years and as they glide toward their arbitration years, the clock is ticking. Time is not on the side of the Royals. They need to win now or face yet another rebuild. Not as major as the Allard Baird rebuilds, but a rebuild just the same.
Still, it wouldn't be a Dayton Moore interview without him hedging his bets:
"I've never said that this is the year we're going to be in the playoffs. I don't make any predictions like that... But without a doubt, this team in 2014 is one I expect to be able to compete from the first day to the last day."
It's too late, Dayton. You've had enough time. Your player development fell short, so you made some aggressive moves to push your team closer to contention. This is where we now stand. The upcoming season has promise, but it also has pressure. The 2014 Royals team must not only compete, they must make the postseason. Players must improve (yes, I know), new prospects like Yordano Ventura (and possibly Kyle Zimmer) must arrive and be productive, and your owner needs to green light the money for another starting pitcher. It may not seem fair, but that's the pressure on the shoulders of the general manager. You focused everything on 2014. You positioned your team. Now they must win.
Finally, the money quote that will ultimately serve as Moore's epitaph for his tenure in Kansas City:
"It's not as simple as saying, 'This is what's going to happen in Year 1 and Year 2.' That's bull. If you make enough good decisions, three-year plans turn into two-year plans and five-year plans turn into three-year plans. If you make bad decisions, 10-year plans turn into no plan."
We are in Year Eight.