Ambiguous Victory: Thoughts on the Dayton Moore Extension

In November of 1941, the British forces in North Africa launched Operation Crusader with the intention of engaging the Axis forces led by Erwin Rommel. The British were hoping for a tank battle in which the superior numbers of British tanks would have the advantage and crush the German armor while also relieving the besieged fortress at Tobruk.

It did not turn out that way. The short version begins with British constantly giving up the initiative, dispersing their tanks and then suffering huge losses as the concentrated German forces smashed through them one by one. Despite numerous initial setbacks, Operation Crusader ended with what is generally considered a victory for the British. Rommel overreached, and during his “dash to the wire” (the border between Libya and Egypt), the British, rather than retreating as Rommel had thought, held fast and Rommel was ultimately forced to withdraw west of Tobruk. It was not an overwhelming victory for the British by any means, and in many ways the fighting highlighted the British Army’s glaring tactical shortcomings. Yet it was a victory, generally considered to be the first by the British against German-led forces during the Second World War.

The Royals might be said to have had their own version of Operation Crusader in 2013. They made some questionable decisions along the way, they did end up winning 86 games, their first winning season since 2003 (with the previous one coming in 1993 — every 10 years!). So on Black Friday, the Royals rather unsurprisingly announced an extension for general manager Dayton Moore, whose contract was scheduled to end after the 2014 season. The new contract extends him through 2016.

If one thing was surprising about the extension, it might have been that it did not come sooner. After all, manager Ned Yost‘s extension was announced pretty much immediately after the end of the regular season. Internal reasons and negotiations were probably the reason for the delay, and as noted, the extension itself is not surprising given the winning season the Royals had. It would be more than a bit unusual not to extend the general manager after the best season the team has had in years. As Sam Mellinger notes, Letting Moore go into his lame duck year after this season might be seen as the “old Royals” way of doing things, the sort of thing that made good personnel reluctant to take a job with Kansas City.

This is not a huge commitment to Moore. His original contract when he took the job during the 2006 season was for five years (through 2011). During the 2009 season, he received another extension through 2014 (effectively adding three years). This extension adds just two years. It is not a long-term commitment, but it is enough to avoid the dreaded lame duck status, which might tempt Moore to trade away long-term assets for short-term wins in order to save his job. Bullet dodged.

Moore’s decisions have come under a lot of criticism over the years, some fair, and some not so fair (I must admit to my own fitting into both categories at different times). Leaving aside the easy jokes, few would deny the Royals’ improvement under Moore’s watch. The Best Farm System in the History Of Whatever was never going to live up the hype, and it hasn’t (so far, hey, Mike Montgomery could still become an ace, right?), but the farm system has obviously improved, and has produced legitimately good major league talent: Eric Hosmer, Greg Holland, and Salvador Perez stand out in particular. Moore has also done a good job of signing players to team-friendly contracts, Perez’ especially, but Alex Gordon and Billy Butler‘s contracts are also team-friendly. Alcides Escobar‘s bat cratered this season, but it is testament to the extension Moore gave him that it still does not project to be anything like a problem for the Royals.

Moore has not been uniformly awful on the trade and free agent fronts, either. Erwin Santana was obviously the big hit this year. Many of us (myself definitley included) should be self-aware enough to admit that the original Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera one-year deals prior to the 2011 season turned out — sure, they might have bombed, but the cost was small in a year the Royals were not going to contend. Both Francoeur and Cabrera had very good seasons for practically nothing in terms of money or opportunity cost. The aftermath did not turn out well for Kansas City, but for all the comments (many from me) when they were first signed, they were smart plays showing Moore could successfully bottom feed. These are just a few examples, but they highlight the best of Dayton Moore.

Some might also (rightly) note Moore’s greater budgets both for signing amateur talent and for major league payroll compared to his predecessor. This should be taken into account, but it is part of the general manager’s job to convince ownership to commit the money, and Moore should get credit for that as well (an argument could be made that the Royals could afford to do even more, but that is a different post for a different writer).

It is fun to issue jokes and soundbites about good and bad general managers, and I have done plenty of that, but we also know things are more nuanced than that in reality. This is not a call for a moratorium on jokes or something, just an acknowledgement. It is important to note how Moore has made the Royals better, but beyond the jokes, even with our limited outsider perspective, there are apparent problems, as well.

Not even the most optimistic analyst thought every prospect from the Best Farm System Ever was going to pan out, the point was that the Royals had so much high-end talent that is was hard to see how it would fail. Prospects, even the best-looking ones, bust. Beyond Hosmer and Perez panning out and Mike Moustakas and Christian Colon not doing so well thus far, there is a more disturbing trend: a lack of starting pitchers. Unless one counts Danny Duffy (who has pitched just over 50 innings in the majors during the last two years), Dayton Moore’s farm system has not developed a single starting pitcher into the major leagues. Sure, Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Kyle Zimmer look promising, but so did Duffy, Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, and Chris Dwyer a few years ago. Royals fans probably should hold off on getting excited.

This goes beyond the well-known volatility of pitching prospects. First, yes, pitching prospects are particularly risky, but if you have the Best Farm System Ever, shouldn’t it produce at least one reliable starter after more than seven years? Second, and perhaps more troubling, is the Royals’ reputation for poor minor-league pitching instruction and development methods. This points to more something deeper than just bad luck in the Royals’ failure to develop major-league starters.

All teams, especially those with payrolls like the Royals, need to have success with player development for now-obvious reasons. However, almost no team can completely rely on that. They need to have success in signing the right free agents or making good trades to fill in the gaps. As noted above, Moore’s record in this regard is not total failure. But it has not been a big success, either. Jose Guillen stands out, as do most of the acquisition prior the the hilarious 2009 attempt to contend (which was subsequently swept under the rug as another rebuilding year, “trust the process”). The initial signing of Francoeur turned out well, but the subsequent two-year extension ended predictably, and highlighted Moore’s tendency to double down (cf. Chen, Bruce).

Every team is going to make some signings that turn out well, and some that don’t. Some are more predictable than others. But beyond how the balance sheet on return for money ends up for Moore in that respect, what is more troubling might be a lack of “situational awareness.” It is not just that three years and $36 million for Jose Guillen was silly, but that the Royals were nowhere close to contention at the time. Even if one thinks Moore’s first big Meche contract (five years, $55 million prior to the 2007 season) was defensible in itself, what was the point with the Royals (according to some of Moore’s defenders) supposedly in a state worse than an expansion franchise? Maybe Moore thought the team could win while Meche was there, but that makes his later statements look, well, interesting. More on that below.

One could go on: the whole 2008-2009 off-season, a.k.a. the Mike Jacobs Year, and, of course, one could argue about the Myers-Shields trade along these lines — if Moore is right and that it was not done just to save his job, then even with the Royals relative success, getting two years of a good starting pitcher for six-pus of a good hitting prospect shows poor awareness, since despite their best season in decades, the Royals still ended up in third place.

What Moore’s actual (as opposed to publicly presented) plan was at any given the time is ultimately beyond our reach. Executives rightly avoid showing their hands, and it is fair for them to say things to make themselves look better. when they say things to make themselves look better, they put it out there, so it is fair game to bring them up later. So, with the Royals seven games out of the second wildcard spot near the end of August, when Moore said that the team was “ahead of schedule” after trading youth for immediate improvement in the off-season, well, it did not look good. It was clearly backpedaling spin to paint the failure of a move for contention in a positive light. As noted, that is part of Dayton Moore’s job, but it is also one that we can criticize.

Space does not allow for going through every good and bad move or aspect of Dayton Moore’s management of the Royals. This post will not even offer anything like a verdict. After all, we have seen general managers seem to flail around for a years before turning it around. How much of that is luck (bad or good) or learning is an interesting question — player projection is beset with difficulties, but projecting the “true talent” of front offices (which should really be considered as a whole, but since this is just Moore’s extension, he is the focal point here) is complicated in an entirely different way. As for Moore’s plans and awareness of the team’s situation, however, it is worth sharing two different quotes from him to gain perspective on how he has spun the team’s situation while he has been in Kansas City (keep the “ahead of schedule” quote in mind, too) since he took over during the 2006 season. The 2014 season will mark Moore’s eighth full season in Kansas City, which does not include 2006.

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.

— Dayton Moore, June 6, 2006

It took the Yankees seven years. They committed to it in ’89, and finally in ’96 they won with homegrown guys. 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.

— Dayton Moore, quoted on May 5, 2010

If one is looking for a “good” or “bad” verdict on the current extension, one will be disappointed. Although it has probably happened, it is hard to imagine a team letting a general manager go into a lame duck year after the best season in years. Moreover, despite the mistakes, the Royals are in a pretty good position. The Tigers are clearly still the best team in the division in the short-term, but they are aging. Cleveland will be hard-pressed to repeat their success. The Twins and White Sox are rebuilding. The Royals do have a good base of young talent, even if it needs to be supplemented properly, and with a second wildcard spot, the Royals could have some decent shots over the next few years.

So there are some reasons for the Royals to feel good about their situation and chances, and Moore might be the executive to oversee the next Royals playoff appearance. But his past record of making decisions appropriate to the team’s situation has been mixed at best.

The British are generally seen to have won Operation Crusader, but it was in many ways despite themselves. Perhaps it was a “moral” success in that the British could see that the Rommel-led Germans were not unstoppable, but it was not a decisive series of battles either way. The British commander in the Middle East, Claude Auchinleck, who saved the situation by ordering his forces to continue the attack when others wanted a retreat, understood his forces needed time afterwards to regroup (and, indeed, the great defeat at Rommels’ hand during the Battle of Gazala was still to come before the British turned things around for good in North Africa). Something similar could be said of the Royals’ 86-win season in 2013. It was clearly a “win” on one level, but hardly not guarantee future success, either.

History does not record whether or not, in the aftermath of Operation Crusader, Auchinleck told Churchill (who was about as helpful to his generals in North Africa as Jeffrey Loria is to the Marlins) “In a small way, I feel like we just captured Berlin.”

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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One would hope that Klaasen includes Napoleonic, Thirty, and Seven Years War analogies as well


…as well as the inevitable Rob Ford obituary.