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Five years, no progress: it’s time to clean house

Moore and his front office must go.

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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.
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.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The 2022 Kansas City Royals are an astoundingly terrible baseball team. This is inarguable. They struggle to score runs and rank towards the bottom of the league in nearly every important offensive category. Their starting pitchers have pitched some of the fewest innings in the league but have also managed to give up a whole bunch of runs. Their reliever squad is one of the worst in baseball, too.

Unfortunately, the Royals aren’t just bad—they’re pathetic. They are a team bereft of an identity, saddled with a mismatched roster that somehow manages to block the Royals’ intriguing young talent while simultaneously failing to be good enough to win more than a third of their games.

Worst of all, the Royals have made no progress in the winning column in half a decade. Five years ago, the Royals were the second-worst team in baseball. And yet after 45 games, this year’s squad has somehow managed to be even worse: at this article’s publish time, the Royals are tied for the worst record in baseball with a team that started the season 3-22.

The key question behind all this: why? Why are the Royals awful, again? The simple answer is that they are so because their front office, led by Dayton Moore, has made and continues to make the decisions to put them there.

It is time to clean house. Dayton Moore, JJ Picollo, and Mike Matheny need to go.

The Royals front office does share some blame for the predicament we’re in right now. New owner John Sherman did not properly evaluate the state of his billion-dollar purchase and has doubled down on the cracked foundation. Some media outlets have given the front office a little too much benefit of the doubt for a little too long. And after experiencing decades of losing and embarrassing baseball, beaten down fans aren’t accustomed to demanding better from a franchise that has all of four winning seasons since 1994.

But none of them are in charge of putting together a baseball team. That is on Moore.

Moore initially published the book “More Than a Season: Building a Championship Culture” in the beginning of 2015 after the Royals made the 2014 World Series following eight painful and clumsy rebuilding years. In hindsight, that Moore was so quick to pat himself and his team on the back even as their farm system had ceased to produce talent despite a flurry of top-ten picks should have been a bigger red flag. Near the beginning of the book, Moore had this to say:

Everyone manages failure differently...the key to baseball is who manages failure the best. You will fail in baseball. Period. But the people and teams that manage it the best are able to reach their ceilings.

Certainly, the Royals have had more than their fair share of failure. During Moore’s 16-season tenure as head of the baseball operations department, he has guided the team to three winning seasons—the fewest among all teams in Major League Baseball. During Moore’s tenure, every other team in the American League Central has won the division at least twice except for, of course, the Royals. Furthermore, the 2015 Royals own the unpleasant distinction as the only World Series winner since 2000 to go over four years until they next had a winning record.

Much can be said about the Royals’ World Series runs, but Moore and the front office cannot control what happens on the field, and it is not their job to play baseball. Weird things happen in short playoff series. It is the front office’s job, however, to regularly assemble competitive Royals squads. Unfortunately, we have a lot of data points that suggest they are exceedingly bad at that crucial part of baseball operations.

To use Moore’s own words, it has become obvious that the Royals have ceased to manage failure.

There is no shortage of small-market teams that have been able to stay competitive with similar resources to the Royals. The St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Guardians, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays have been consistently competitive ever since Moore and his front office took over. Those are what well-run franchises look like. That the Royals are the ones with the World Series victory is a cruel twist of fate for the likes of Cleveland and Oakland—not the other way around.

Well-run franchises don’t struggle to simply win more games than they lose for a decade and a half. Well-run franchises don’t immediately crumble after assembling the significant talent required to win a World Series. Well-run franchises don’t regularly go through eight-year rebuilds. Well-run franchises don’t make excuses for why they find themselves barreling towards losing 100 games for the third time in fifth years while actively trying not to tank.

We would be remiss in discussing this season, which has been such a train wreck that it would be unfair to train wrecks for calling it as such. A core component of such a train wreck is that they insist that they’re trying to win games, finally. The Royals thought that they could compete last year—or at least, that’s what they told reporters in November of 2020.

“We expect to win next year,” Moore said during a video conference call with reporters. “What does that look like? Is it going to be enough wins to make the playoffs? We’ll find out. Our mindset is going to be to win every single pitch, every inning, win every game. That’s the only way that we’re ever going to win another championship, you’ve got to expect to win at all aspects.”

Well, they found out. They lost 88 games and ended up 17 games behind in the Wild Card chase. Anyway, even after jettisoning their hitting coach because the Royals’ offense this year was an embarrassment and their record standing at 12-20, general manager JJ Picollo had the gall to say that they still thought a competitive season was still in the cards.

The Royals promptly lost eight out of their next 10 games to become the worst team in the American League.

There are two emblematic problems at the heart of this failure of a season: they need to move on much more quickly from underperforming veterans and overhaul—or at least make serious changes to—how they coach pitching at the big league level. Fortunately, this is obvious. Unfortunately, this is obvious to everybody but the Kansas City Royals.

In a recent mailbag, Alec Lewis relayed that opposing scouts don’t think Santana is a big league player anymore.

Multiple opposing scouts have asked this same question: Why? Why is manager Mike Matheny continuing to pencil Santana into the lineup nightly?

And if that isn’t damning enough, opposing teams also think the Royals are doing a poor job with pitching development and, importantly, that there are fixes out there the Royals aren’t good enough to implement.

What’s notable are comments that scouts and analysts who work for opposing teams have made in regards to the Royals’ pitching. Some are convinced that their staffs could transform some of the Royals’ prospects’ deliveries and arsenals because their organizations are better equipped to deliver a unified message directly to the player.

In a piece from a few weeks ago, Lewis also highlighted sharp improvements by former Royals after they were able to receive pitching coaching elsewhere: Brad Boxberger, Wily Peralta, Jorge Lopez, Jason Adam, and Jake Junis, to name a few. He included one sentence that speaks to far greater issues:

Notably, current Royals big leaguers are not ignorant of the strides others have made elsewhere.

It is one thing for fans to be critical of the Royals. It is more dire for journalists—whose jobs necessitate cautious objectivity—to be critical of the Royals. It is even more dire for opposing scouts—who have insider knowledge—to be critical of the Royals. But for Royals players to know that there is better coaching elsewhere? That is the most dire of all, but here we are.

Unfortunately, it seems that new Royals owner John Sherman has bought into what the Royals are selling. In a recent interview with the Kansas City Star, Sherman placed his faith in the front office while acknowledging that fans are growing restless (emphasis ours):

While Sherman didn’t explicitly refer to Bradshaw, he referred to his trust in the leadership “focused on improving that performance and willing to make tough decisions to make sure that it’s clear that our expectations are higher than this.”

So, too, are those of the fans. He knows they are “disappointed and frustrated with us.”

“I appreciate the engagement of our fans and I get the sense that they care a lot,” he said. “So we’re committed to make sure that we put a good product on the field, and I do feel … like we are ultimately going to do the right things to get there.”

With respect to Sherman, his faith in the Royals’ ability to make tough decisions is misplaced. Moore’s Royals have consistently taken the easy road and not the best road. It is one of the persistent issues with the Moore-led Royals that were just as true when I wrote these words a few weeks ago, as they’ve been true through a decade and a half. The Royals’ consistent problems are:

  • An inability to develop pitchers. To date, the Royals have developed precisely two consistent, productive starting pitchers that were drafted or signed internationally and internally developed: Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy. That’s it.
  • A refusal to trade big league talent when it makes sense. See: Merrifield any time in the last four years, Danny Duffy after 2017, David DeJesus in 2009, Joakim Soria in 2009 or 2010. Zack Greinke demanded a trade and the Royals acquiesced; otherwise, the Royals would have likely not traded him.
  • A pattern of blocking young talent with mediocre veterans. See: Carlos Santana, Omar Infante, Mike Jacobs, Chris Getz, pick a name.
  • A lack of strategic roster building. The Royals are always in some sort of limbo between trying to compete and rebuilding, with never enough talent for the former and never enough young players for the latter.
  • A disproportionate loyalty to players and coaches. The Royals believe in themselves and their players even if data says otherwise and make moves at a glacial pace, if at all.

Even if the Royals do the obvious things they need to do to improve now and for the future—say, to call up Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino, fire Cal Eldred, jettison Ryan O’Hearn and Santana—the damage has already been done. We have seen all five of these issues at play this year in abundance.

Ultimately, this is because the Royals’ mistakes and failures aren’t mistakes or failures to them; rather, they’re part of a grand plan that is insulated from criticism because that’s just how they do things. Moore explains it himself in his book (emphasis ours):

I’ve been criticized — and sometimes rightly so — for holding on to players too long. [Joakim] Soria might’ve been one of those...With young players, I’d rather have them a year too long and have them possibly succeed; whereas I’d rather moving aging players a year too early. Some people don’t agree with that philosophy, and it’s probably bitten us a couple of times, but that’s who we are.

We hold no personal grudges against the Royals’ front office, and the Royals’ flaws are fixable—indeed, fixable even by the team, should they have the guts to do so. To their credit, they’ve assembled some nice young talent and have plenty of money to work with. But this leadership team cannot be trusted to see this through. The last time they had seven seasons of Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and Alex Gordon, they only managed three winning seasons. When it takes eight years to get that to happen, it’s not enough.

A few weeks ago, just after the Royals fired their hitting coach in a move that is looking more and more like a scapegoat situation, Moore spoke about accountability and that there’s times when patience simply runs out.

Well, it’s time for some accountability. The key to a successful baseball organization is to adapt or die. With Moore at the helm, the Royals are choosing the latter, making a cozy bed at the bottom of the standings year after year.