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Dayton Moore’s success and failures tell the same story

They tell one story.

General manager Dayton Moore of the Kansas City Royals watches batting practice prior to a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Kauffman Stadium on August 30, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. Owner David Glass has agreed to to sell the team to a group led by Kansas City business man John Sherman for an estimated $1 billion. Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Recently, Dayton Moore celebrated his 15th anniversary as general manager of the Kansas City Royals. If it sounds like a long time, it is. Put it this way: Moore was hired three presidential administrations ago, a year before Apple released a little device called an iPhone for the first time. It’s been a hot minute.

In that time, Royals fans have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, from two consecutive World Series appearances to two consecutive 100-loss seasons and everything in between.

But, here we are, and the Royals are still bad. Kansas City is tied for the third-worst record in the American League and has already suffered one 11-game losing streak, very nearly notched a second 11-game losing streak, and is currently on a five-game slide. It has been six years and two presidential elections since the Royals have won more games than they have lost, and for longtime Royals fans, Moore-led losing seasons are a cold and unfortunately constant companion. Moore took over on June 8, 2006, and oversaw the rest of a 100-loss team. They predictably (and understandably) had a losing 2007. Then again in 2008. And in 2009. And in 2010. And in 2011. And in 2012—before finally breaking through in 2013.

There are two inarguable facts about the Moore era after 14 complete seasons. Moore overhauled the entire organization and his efforts culminated in postseason glory. At the same time, the 2007-2020 Royals have been one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball. They seem to be at odds with each other. They are not.

Fact one: Moore guided the Royals from laughingstock to World Series champions

It’s hard to overstate just how awful the Royals were before Moore took over. From 1995 through 2006, when Moore was brought in mid-season, the Royals had precisely one (1) winning season. During that time, the Royals lost 94 or more games seven times—with four instances of 100 or more losses. The Royals were a joke. Though the original article in the Kansas City Star seems lost to time, the New York Times quoted the most damning part:

In a 2011 article, former employees told The Kansas City Star that scouts and others were denied basic equipment, even company cellphones, as the Royals cut costs. Brett, who fronted a group that failed in a bid to buy the team, said he had heard that the Royals, in the early 2000s, would pay no more than a $1,000 signing bonus to any drafted player taken after the fifth round.

“Not going to find many good players to sign for that,” he said. “You just don’t need bodies; you need players.”

When Moore took over, he wasn’t just taking over a team that had been poorly managed and funded; rather, he was taking over a team whose entire infrastructure needed to be rebuilt, a team that ran out of money midway through a draft.

Additionally, while every general manager inherits assets, Moore made the most of his baseball inheritance. Moore helped reshape Alex Gordon from bust third baseman into the best left fielder in baseball for half a decade. Then, Moore’s regime and coaching staff helped Zack Greinke to grow into one of the best pitchers in baseball, and when the time came to trade him, he acquired a quartet of assets that would include his World Series starting shortstop and center fielder.

Finally, after a heartbreaking World Series lost, Moore cashed in his chips to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. Moore knew what he had—a championship-level team. The 2015 Royals were an elite squad, but Moore knew that those chances don’t always present themselves. Before the trade deadline, the Royals traded for the best pitcher and the best hitter available on the market. It worked.

Kansas City sports fans have been spoiled in the last decade or so. Sporting KC won a championship in 2013, the Royals in 2015, and the Chiefs in 2020. But let’s not kid ourselves: a small market team winning a championship in baseball is extremely rare. For the better part of two decades, only two small market teams have a World Series trophy: St. Louis and Kansas City. There have been better teams, but a World Series creates memories that the likes of the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins can only dream about.

To discount Moore’s achievements as luck, or as accidental, is to discount the work and the starting point at which he was forced to begin. He and his team did what hadn’t been done in 30 years: they turned the Royals into a contender. Furthermore, discrediting Moore is in part ignoring how hard it is to win in the smallest markets. By Nielsen DMA Rankings, Kansas City’s closest peers are Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Baltimore, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. Of those six teams, only the Brewers have achieved any kind of consistent success.

To the “championships are everything” crowd, Moore’s legacy ends here. But it does not.

Fact two: Under Moore’s guidance, the Royals have been unequivocally one of the worst teams in baseball

While the Royals were enjoying the fruits from the Best Farm System in the History of Whatever and winning playoff games left and right, something else was happening under the surface: the talent in the Royals’ minor league system was drying up, and quickly.

Some will argue that the Royals’ eventual farm system crash was due to the 2015 trades for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. Those people are incorrect. The real reason why the Royals had the 29th-ranked farm system entering 2018 was because they stopped drafting or developing players effectively.

In 2009, the Royals drafted Aaron Crow with the 12th pick in the draft. Crow pitched four seasons in the big leagues. In 2010, the Royals drafted Christian Colon with the fourth overall pick. Colon played four seasons with the Royals before being cut. In 2011, the Royals drafted Bubba Starling at fifth overall. Starling floundered in the minor leagues and has all of 91 MLB games to his name. In 2012, the Royals signed Kyle Zimmer at fifth overall, whose injury history became legendary and who made his big league debut in 2019. Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot, Ashe Russell, Nolan Watson—all busts.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the often boneheaded moves of the early Moore years. Put it this way: he willingly acquired Yuniesky Betancourt twice. Mike Jacobs, Kyle Farnsworth, Willie Bloomquist...these names are from the “good ol’ days” in the way people say ironically because those days stunk.

But it was the lack of talent development, a core theme among Moore teams, that sunk the Royals. Other than the initial success of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, and Salvador Perez, the Royals have struggled to develop talent even when they were winning. When the Royals faltered and lost players to injury in 2016 and 2017—a thing that happens to nearly every team—they had no one to replace them. The Kansas City Royals are the only team since the Marlins in 2003 to win a World Series and then fail to make the playoffs again within three seasons.

The Royals have been so bad for so long that their brief appearance as a relevant team acted as a sort of flash-bang grenade to distract from their long, languid history under Moore’s front office regime. And while there’s no perfect way to judge which team has been the best, we can compare the Royals to the rest of MLB.

Below, I’ve recorded how many times each big league club had a winning season, a 95+ win season, and a playoff appearance between 2007 (Moore’s first full year) and 2020. I also recorded how many times a team was truly putrid via 95+ loss seasons. Then, I ranked every team and assigned an average. By these regular season metrics, the Royals have been the second-worst team in Major League Baseball when it comes to what matters on a year-to-year basis: winning baseball games.

Regular Season Performance, 2007-2020

Team Winning Seasons 95+ Win Seasons Playoff Appearances 95+ Loss Seasons AVG Rank
Team Winning Seasons 95+ Win Seasons Playoff Appearances 95+ Loss Seasons AVG Rank
Yankees 14 6 10 0 1.0
Dodgers 13 4 10 0 1.8
Red Sox 10 5 7 0 2.8
Cardinals 13 2 8 0 4.0
Rays 10 4 6 1 5.5
Cubs 9 4 7 2 7.0
Brewers 8 2 5 0 7.3
Cleveland 10 2 6 1 7.3
Athletics 6 3 6 0 7.5
Braves 8 2 6 1 8.3
Angels 7 3 4 0 8.8
Nationals 8 4 5 2 8.8
Rangers 7 2 5 2 11.3
Phillies 5 2 5 2 13.3
Astros 6 3 5 3 13.8
Giants 7 0 4 1 14.8
Blue Jays 7 0 3 1 16.0
Mets 5 0 2 0 17.0
Twins 6 1 5 4 17.0
Tigers 7 1 4 4 17.3
Reds 4 1 4 2 17.5
Rockies 5 0 4 2 18.0
Diamondbacks 5 0 3 2 19.3
Padres 3 1 1 2 21.5
Orioles 4 1 3 4 21.8
Pirates 4 1 3 4 21.8
White Sox 4 0 2 3 23.5
Mariners 5 0 0 3 23.5
Royals 3 1 2 4 23.8
Marlins 3 0 1 3 25.3

It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in your team’s daily performance during long summers with games nearly every day, and to neglect to look around and see how other teams are doing. For Royals fans, this is necessary; 14 seasons is a long time, and to be so consistently bad over such a long stretch under one front office is...not exactly ideal.

And yet, the Royals are the ones with the championship memories. How much does that matter? There are those who would discount that it matters, that championships are all luck, and that the regular season is what truly counts. But try telling that to Cleveland sports fans, or to Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills fans, or to Dan Marino. It’s not that simple.

So, what does this mean?

At face value, it seems that these two facts of the Moore-era Royals cancel each other out, or that one does not explain the other. That is not the case, and they are not, as it might seem to be, mutually exclusive.

In order to completely evaluate Moore and the Royals front office over the last 15 years, we need both parts of the puzzle. Taken together, and considered honestly, they tell one story: that Moore’s legacy is propped up by the performance of a baseball team in 32 baseball games strewn across two separate Octobers, and that the foundation—both successes and flaws—has been consistent throughout Moore’s tenure.

You simply can’t argue with the fact that no team in baseball has had fewer winning seasons than the Royals since Moore took over. And this matters because you don’t accidentally get playoff teams: you assemble playoff teams by winning games. There is far and away enough evidence that Moore’s front office is awful at putting together winning teams for a collection of reasons that are worth their own series of editorials. This is not an opinion; this is cold, hard fact borne out by regular season wins and losses.

The question at hand is not “would you trade 14 years of mostly bad baseball for the Royals’ run in 2014 and 2015,” because that is a purely hypothetical question. Nobody’s answer—not the fans, not the players, not even the people in charge of the Royals front office or team ownership—can affect what has already happened.

Rather, the question is this - is Dayton Moore and the front office and coaching staff he’s assembled skilled enough to bring the Royals back to contention—and bring them back to contention without a protracted, lengthy rebuild that lasts seven seasons like it did the first time?

The evidence suggests that the answer is “no.”

This isn’t the case because the Royals are suddenly bad again. It’s because Moore’s flaws are the exact same in 2021 that they were nearly 15 years ago. This could also be its own separate discussion, but in my opinion the front office has two persistent flaws: one, that Royals have been unable to set up a sustainable talent stream even with plenty of premium draft pick positions; and two, that Moore’s front office cannot properly evaluate how good their teams will be, which leads to a cascade of poor decisions and inefficient player transactions.

Taken together, these flaws are why it took so long for the Royals to get good in the first place, these flaws are why the Royals suddenly had no talent left when their championship window was still open, and these flaws are why the Royals made moves to compete this year but are nevertheless barrelling towards 90 or more losses. It’s 2009 all over again.

Ultimately, deciding which general manager is the person to helm the team is John Sherman’s call. What I think doesn’t really matter in the long run. I, like many other fans, am just tired of losing. Nobody expects the Royals to win every game. But at the very least, we can hope for a competitive season where the Royals are in nearly every game. Too often over the past 15 years, that simply hasn’t been the case.