When Dayton Moore arrived in 2006 to run the Kansas City Royals -- the team he rooted for as a youth -- the prognosis was grim. Never mind that the franchise was in the process of losing 100 games for the fourth time in five seasons. The Royals' farm system had no catching or shortstop prospects, negligible speed, zero left-handed pitching and precious little pitching overall. Hope was manifested solely in the presence of two promising young hitters -- Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.
The most disturbing math had nothing to do with OPS, ERA or even the Royals' sorry run differential: Of the 25 players who formed the heart of that 2006 Kansas City team, only six were originally drafted or signed by the organization. And that included the likes of Ambiorix Burgos, Runelvys Hernandez and Jimmy Gobble, who weren't exactly long on staying power.
For Moore, who had been raised in the Atlanta Braves' organization, the lack of talent in the pipeline was daunting. But he quickly established benchmarks to make sure the trend would cease. Moore was like the attentive dad who scratched lines on the wall as a growth chart to measure how rapidly Junior was sprouting.
"From the first day I got here, I said, 'Our goal is to build one of best farm systems in baseball and have two to three players every year competing for spots on our 25-man roster,' '' Moore said. "If we can do that for about four or five years in a row and reach the point where 12 to 15 of our players are homegrown, we have a chance to turn this around and be a consistent, solid, thriving organization.''
To Moore and the people entrusted with bringing competitive baseball back to Kansas City, scouting and player development are more than a source of pride. They're a recipe for survival.
After going 67-95 last season and trading staff ace Zack Greinke to Milwaukee for four young players in December, the Royals don't expect to make a run at Minnesota, Chicago or Detroit in the American League Central Division in 2011. But if the media outlets that assess minor league talent are correct, that day isn't far away. Kansas City, by acclamation, has the most bountiful, prospect-laden system in the game.
ESPN's Keith Law ranks the Royals' farm system as the best in baseball and includes six Royals players -- first baseman Eric Hosmer, catcher-outfielder Wil Myers, third baseman Mike Moustakas and pitchers Mike Montgomery, John Lamb and Danny Duffy -- among his top 100 MLB prospects. Two other Kansas City minor leaguers, pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Chris Dwyer, fell slightly short of Law's top 100, which will run Thursday on ESPN.com.
Royals senior adviser Mike Arbuckle calls the Kansas City contingent a "very significant crop of high-ceiling young players.'' Arbuckle brought Scott Rolen, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and others to Philadelphia in his previous role as Phillies' scouting director, so he knows a good young player when he sees one.
The Royals held their career development program this week for their top prospects in Kansas City, and the kids displayed their skills each morning while listening to an array of guest speakers, financial advisers and nutritionists in the afternoon. As Royals executives and scouts looked on, they tried to balance optimism with the realization that the jump to the big leagues is the hardest one of all.
"These kids are reading everything that's been said about them,'' said J.J. Picollo, Kansas City's assistant GM for scouting and player development. "We tell them, 'Hey, that's great. We're happy with what you're doing. But the reality is, you need to do it at the major league level. Let's not get complacent or assume it's going to happen.' We're excited here, but we're also cautious in what we're doing. We realize we still have a long way to go.''
Investing in the future
Success in Kansas City is a product of several factors. According to Baseball America, the Royals ranked fifth in overall spending on draft bonuses from 2008 through 2010, behind only Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington and Baltimore. With the support of the Glass family, the Royals' owners, Moore and his scouting team have invested about $24.5 million in draft picks in that span.
The Royals also made a greater commitment in Latin-America, hiring Rene Francisco from Atlanta in 2005 to run their international operation and opening a new academy in the Dominican Republic. And at a time when some teams were retrenching, the Royals added an Appalachian League farm club in Burlington, N.C., in 2007. Today, Kansas City is one of only eight teams with seven minor-league affiliates.
Above all, development has become an organizational mantra under Moore, who broke in as an area scout with Atlanta in 1994 as a disciple of the highly respected Paul Snyder and Roy Clark. When he stresses the importance of the draft and observes that "the most important parts of your organization are the area scouting supervisors and your minor league managers,'' he's not just paying lip service to building from within.
The Royals were one of baseball's proudest franchises from 1976 through 1985, when George Brett, Frank White & Co. led the team to six division titles, two pennants and a world championship. When losing became a habit in Kansas City in the late 1990s, a sense of defeatism crept in all the way to the amateur ranks. Part of Moore's challenge was empowering his scouts, boosting their morale and making them feel as though they could compete on an equal footing with the best organizations in the game.
"Let's face it. When you're losing as many games as we've been losing, it's oftentimes difficult to represent your organization in your community,'' Moore said. "When I was an area scout with the Braves, everybody wanted me in their home. When you're an area scout for the Royals, we know that presents some challenges. So we needed to make sure we got scouts who believed in the organization and could sell our developmental program, because players want to be put in situations where they can reach their ceilings. That's the type of environment we have worked hard to create.''
The Royals' talent surge is particularly impressive because of how quickly things have coalesced. That's a product of two astute drafts by former scouting director Deric Ladnier, who now works for the Washington Nationals, and two more good ones from Picollo. Now the job falls to Lonnie Goldberg, another former Atlanta talent evaluator who took over as Kansas City's scouting director in November.
Talent across the board
The Royals haven't had many high-level misses of late. In 2007, they selected Moustakas and Duffy with two of their first three picks. In 2008, they landed Hosmer in the first round and followed up with Montgomery, Tim Melville and John Lamb, three high school pitchers. The following year they chose pitcher Aaron Crow in the first round and gave Myers $2 million as a third-round pick. And in 2010, they snagged Cal State Fullerton infielder Christian Colon and University of Arkansas outfielder Brett Eibner, who might be attracting more attention if not for the wealth of prospects in front of them.
Moustakas, 22, hit 36 homers and slugged .630 in two minor league stops in 2010. There's some debate about how he'll fare defensively at third base, but no one questions his bat speed or ability to hit the ball with authority.
"The raw power has always been there,'' Picollo said. "He's always been able to drive balls in batting practice. Last year, he became a better hitter. He got into more 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1 counts, and when he got a pitch to hit, he wasn't missing it. He was more disciplined early in the at-bat.''
Moustakas also has displayed the poise and demeanor of a player who's ready to assume a leadership role. "He cares about his teammates and helps create the right environment,'' Moore said. "Mike Moustakas treats everybody else like they're the first-rounders.''
Hosmer, who recently turned 21, has a .378 on-base percentage in the minors, and finished with more walks (44) than strikeouts (39) in the high-A Carolina League. And Myers has elicited comparisons to Dale Murphy and Jayson Werth, two rangy catchers who eventually moved to the outfield. The Royals can only hope it turns out that well.
The Royals are greedy enough to know that they can't whiff on a draft or miss an opportunity to strengthen the pipeline. Moore landed some immediate up-the-middle help in the Greinke trade with shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain. But he also acquired Odorizzi, the Brewers' top prospect, and Jeremy Jeffress, who served two marijuana-related suspensions in the minors but has the arm to be a top-flight reliever.
Odorizzi and Jeffress join a pitching contingent that's absolutely stacked. The question is how quickly the next wave will infiltrate Kauffman Stadium. It's likely that between three and five of Kansas City's top prospects will make their big league debut sometime this season.
The sunny outlook in Kansas City has done wonders for Moore, who took his lumps when he spent $55 million for Gil Meche and $36 million for Jose Guillen in free agency. As Moore points out in hindsight, Meche gave the team a veteran-innings eater and took a lot of attention from the press-shy Greinke, and the Royals were hoping that Guillen would ease the burden on Butler and Gordon in the middle of the order. Moore took his shot, and paid above the going rate in the process.
"In January of 2007, we weren't even sure if Zack Greinke was going to show up in spring training,'' Moore said of the Meche signing. "We needed to be relevant again in this city, and we needed to be aggressive in our approach to signing players. That's the same philosophy we have internationally and in the draft, and it's not going to change. When you're aggressive, you're going to make mistakes.''
The growth of the K.C. farm system is less a case of vindication for Moore than a new take on a recurrent theme. Go back a few years, and Minnesota's Terry Ryan and Colorado's Dan O'Dowd were routinely pilloried until their minor league operations began churning out talent in abundance. They're living proof that nothing makes a general manager look smarter than a loaded farm system.
"Personally, I feel like this is my first month on the job,'' Moore said. "It's really invigorating to see what we have.''
No matter how the story turns out, the Royals have come a long way since 2006.