Royals general manager Dayton Moore is one of my favorite people in the world, even though we fundamentally disagree on pretty much everything … pretty much everything, that is, except all the stuff that really matters to us, like family, loyalty, believing in something, hard work, a deep love of baseball and an even deeper sense of gratitude that we have been given the chance to build our professional lives around games we played as children. On those, we agree entirely, and so after every argument, we go to dinner, raise a toast, talk about our kids, and the fact that we might not agree about some current event or how good James Shields will be next year doesn't seem quite so important.
In the aftermath of Moore's earth-shattering Wil Myers (and others) for James Shields (and others) deal -- a trade that I openly and emphatically did not like -- there was this sentiment out there that Moore made the trade in a last-ditch effort to save his job. And it's possible, reading my piece a certain way, that I contributed to that theory, because I did write that this was a huge gamble and that if it didn't work, jobs would be lost. But I don't think Dayton Moore made this trade for any job security or personal reasons -- in fact, knowing Dayton for many years, I know he didn't. And I think it's important to talk about where Dayton Moore's heart is. Moore was a moderately talented and deeply passionate baseball player who realized at some point that his ceiling was way below the major leagues. It's a common story among people in and around the game. If you loved baseball as a kid, really loved it, you probably remember the precise moment when you realized that you wouldn't become a major leaguer. For me, it was the day I saw my first REAL curveball -- not the loopy, gently arcing variety that the kids in the neighborhood played around with, but the real curve, the one that emits a buzzing sound and makes the hard left turn you never see because you're too busy diving out of the way. I was struggling enough with fastballs. It happened when I was 14. Moore's ceiling was much higher than mine -- he was a fine player at George Mason, got some professional looks, and he was better than 99 percent of all baseball players in the world. But that's still not nearly good enough to play in the big leagues.
So he coached at George Mason for a while. And while he was coaching, he began to do a bit of scouting for the Atlanta Braves. He was noticed pretty quickly. No surprise: Dayton Moore is an impressive guy. He's an irrepressibly hard worker. He's a very quick learner. He's a deeply principled person. And, more than anything, he has an unabashed enthusiasm for life. I tell my kids all the time: Be enthusiastic. That's one of the secrets of success. People are drawn to enthusiasm. People want to be around a bubbling energy.
It wasn't too long before the Atlanta Braves put him in charge of stuff -- Latin American baseball, international baseball, player development and so on. Moore tells a great story about the first time he was in a key Braves meeting; he was sitting next to legendary GM John Schuerholz, who asked him a baseball question about whether a guy could hit in the big leagues. Moore told Schuerholz that it depended on numerous factors, like what kind of coaching he got. Schuerholz grunted.
After the meeting, Schuerholz pulled him aside and explained, in no uncertain terms, that when he asked a question, he wanted and expected and needed a direct answer. Yes. No. That's it. He didn't have time for equivocations, and wasn't interested in talking philosophies. Baseball is a success and failure business. Moore never made that mistake again.
Inside baseball circles, he was a huge star before he became Royals general manager in the middle of the 2006 season. The Red Sox interviewed him for their GM job; he decided after one interview that it wasn't right for him and his family. He was so respected and admired in the game that people figured he could get any job he wanted … so much so, in fact, that a lot of people were stunned when he took the Royals job. They thought he could do a lot better.
The Royals GM before Moore had been another great guy, hard worker and former scout -- very similar person, in fact -- named Allard Baird, who had done quite a few little things right (he'd been heavily involved in drafting Carlos Beltran, Zack Greinke, Johnny Damon, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and acquiring several bargain-basement free agents). But Baird, for a number of reasons (many of them well beyond his control), simply could not get the team winning. And by the time 2006 rolled around, things were at a low ebb in Kansas City. The team was a loser. The farm system was barren. There were many Mickey Mouse aspects to the organization -- one year the team simply did not want to pay the few grand for Negro leagues uniforms that the team usually wore on Negro Leagues Day, another they canceled the community dinner that celebrated the season because the dinner lost money. Many of Moore's best friends in the business told him not to take the job.
I asked Moore on Tuesday if he knew what he was getting himself into.
"I don't think you ever really know what it's like to be a GM until you sit in that chair," he said. "You watch other people do the job. You pick up things here and there. But you don't really know. … You come in with ideas of what you're going to do and how you're going to do it. The realities are a lot different. Don't get me wrong, I love this job. But it's a lot different."
Moore came into the KC job with his usual energy and creativity and enthusiasm and, perhaps more than anything, a deep faith that the Royals would become winners. On one of his first days, he was driving through the Plaza -- an outdoor shopping area that is at the heart of Kansas City -- and he thought: This would be a great place for the World Series parade. He demanded that kind of positive thinking from everyone, even though at that moment the Royals were well on their way to their third straight 100-loss season. He took any and all negative thoughts personally. Very personally. Too personally, sometimes. For the Royals to win, he believed, they had to become winners in every aspect. Everyone needed to wear a tie. The words "small-market team" were banned, along with other excuses. He completely remade the farm system. He talked Royals owner David Glass into investing heavily in the draft and international scouting. I remember early on he told me, "One thing I can promise you is this: We will have the best farm system in baseball."
After numerous stops and starts, he did build the best farm system in baseball.
But the big-league team struggled year after year. The shrewd maneuverings that marked the Royals scouting -- like, for instance, signing a 16-year old Venezuelan catcher named Salvador Perez, who might be the best defensive catcher in the American League RIGHT NOW at age 22 -- was curiously absent when it came to the big-league club. He gave big contracts to Gil Meche and Jose Guillen. He kept acquiring and reacquiring Yuni Betancourt. Moore believed that the way to win was to get "winning-type" players, and so he loaded the Royals' roster with veterans like Jason Kendall and Willie Bloomquist and Mike Jacobs and Jeff Francoeur, and he thought their attitudes and competitiveness would bring the inner winner out of the rest of the team, especially the young players.
"You know that my plan has always been to acquire great young talent and surround them with winning-type players," Moore says. "That will help them become winning-type players themselves. I always thought it was important for young guys like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to be around winners."
Well, it didn't really work … in part because those "winning-type players" just weren't good enough players to lead* and in part because it takes a long time to develop enough good young players to win. The Royals kept changing shapes and forms, but the records never really changed. In Moore's time, the Royals have lost: 93, 87, 97, 95, 91 and 90 games.
*I always remember when the Royals got Terry Pendleton in 1998 -- long before Moore came to Kansas City -- and Pendleton was widely viewed as one of the great leaders in the game. But he didn't do much leading in KC, and I remember asking him about that. "No one can be a leader," he said, "when hitting .220."
But all the while -- I know this is true because I've been there to see it -- Dayton Moore kept his faith and stayed true to what he believes. He locked up a few of the best young players like Alex Gordon. And the Royals kept developing prospect after prospect. Yes, some flamed out -- especially the starting pitchers. Some got hurt. Some are now in the big leagues -- Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, a fire-throwing bullpen of young arms -- and Moore believes they are the core of a winning team.
All of which leads to this offseason … and Dayton Moore's determination that the time has come to make their stand: "When you are trying to build a team," he says, "you have to strike a balance between what's good for the team NOW and what's good for the team in the FUTURE. Every GM has to take those things into consideration.
"Well, we're done with that balance. We're trying to win now. Everything we do from here on in will be to win now. I mean, we are obviously going to try and be smart about it. But, as you know, the Royals have not won for a long time. And, as you know, Major League Baseball players have a small window of opportunity. Our young nucleus of players, we have them under control for the next three to seven years. We have to give them a chance to win every one of those years."
I asked Moore if he thought that maybe he jumped too soon. There are teams that thought it was time to win, like the Mariners going into 2008, for instance, and they made a bold and regrettable trade, sending future star Adam Jones and some other young talent for pitcher Erik Bedard. The team slid backward and lost 101 games. Moore said he isn't making a rash or impulsive decision here; he is simply following the game plan he had laid out for this team. Yes, of course, he would have preferred if the Royals had shown a few more signs of life in 2012, finished closer to .500, because that would have fit his plan better:
2010: Have the minor league system show signs of life.
2011: Begin to bring up the young players from the stocked minor league system.
2012: Mix in more talented young players, win more games.
All these things happened so far -- except the "win more games" part. Moore says that's unfortunate, but the plan goes forward. He believes the Royals underachieved in 2012 for a few reasons. He believes the team's best young players (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvy Perez, Alcides Escobar, those young bullpen arms -- Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are still in their 20s too) will all step forward, some of them in big ways in 2013. He thinks this team is close enough, especially in a weak American League Central, to shift its direction. And that is the biggest point of all: Shift … the … direction.
"We came into this offseason hoping to acquire two or three starting pitchers," he says. "We talked a lot about it, and we believe that if we could do that -- and get a top-line starter in that group -- we could alter the course of the Kansas City Royals.
"We think we still have a very good farm system. But what happens if we don't make this Wil trade? You and I both know we don't have enough pitching to contend. So what are we hoping to do? Win 79 games and take another small step forward, then face the same thing again next year? It's time to try and start winning every year. We owe that to these players. We owe that to the fans of Kansas City."
I ask him if he wakes up in the middle of the night worried that he has just traded away a future league MVP or something like that and, at the same time, this trade will not spark the winning he's hoping for. He admits that, yes, he does think about that -- not so much the "not winning" part (Moore remains unabashed in positive thinking) but thinking he traded away a future star. But, he says, it was the right choice. He wanted to improve the pitching without hurting the big-league club. And while he did trade away one of the best prospects in baseball, he did acquire or reacquire four starters this off-season -- James Shields, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis and Jeremy Guthrie -- without trading away any of his young big leaguers.
"I don't think there's any question we are better than we were before," he says. "How much better? We'll have to wait and see. But this is who we are. I heard people say, 'Why didn't you just sign a free agent?' Well, I'm not sure they understand the challenges for us doing that. It's not just about money. You have to convince a free agent to sign with your team. You have to sell them on your future. It's a very involved and difficult process. And you're competing against 29 other clubs. Someone asked me if we could have signed James Shields on the free-agent market? I don't like to be negative, as you know, but let's face it: That would have been very hard.
"Fortunately, we had enough talent in our system to trade for him. We were not the only big-league team that wanted James Shields, not by a long shot. But we had developed enough young talent to make the deal. You have to trade good players to get good players."
I ask him if he thinks Shields -- at age 31 -- will be an ace for the Royals. That really is my biggest question about the trade. I like Shields a lot, but I don't see him as an ace, and pitchers older than 30, well, you never know about those guys. If the Royals had made this exact trade but gotten, say, David Price instead of Shields, yeah, I could see that. But Dayton Moore, as mentioned, believes in certain kinds of players.
"James is a winner," he says. "He's the kind of pitcher you build a staff around. He has strikeout stuff, and he's competitive, and he's a great teammate. He was the guy we wanted. For us, he was the very best guy we had a shot to get. … And we like Wade Davis a lot too."
As with most baseball conversations Dayton Moore and I have, we don't end up agreeing entirely. I still think the trade could work, but I think it's more likely that it will be one they look back on with regret. I also think that Dayton Moore is staying fully in character. It has nothing to do with saving his job. Dayton Moore will always have a big-time job in baseball. He built what is acknowledged to be the best farm system in the game. No, he made this trade because he thinks the Royals are finally ready to take the next step. He has been Royals GM for six and a half years. It's been bumpy. Every mistake sets you back. Every bad break costs you time. But here we are, and the Royals DO enter 2013 with a potentially dominant bullpen, a legitimate rotation and enough young every-day players to be excited about. Maybe they aren't ready to win. But, Moore has decided, they have to try.
"This trade is just one of many moves we hope to make to become winners," he says. "I understand the criticisms. I know that there will be some negative reactions when you trade away a young player as talented as Wil Myers. … But the last couple of days, I can't tell you how many text messages I've gotten from our players. They're excited about what we've done this offseason. They believe we are ready to be winners right now. I believe it too."