Commentary

Get your jokes in now

With MLB's best farm system, the long-suffering Royals intend to get the last laugh

Updated: March 26, 2011, 1:18 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

Emily Shur for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the April 4 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

YOU STARTED HEARING THE MUSIC carrying through the night air a few years ago. It sounded rough and discordant, sure, but something in those stops and starts caught your attention. There was a certain beat, or the lilt of a voice, or an inspired drum solo. It kept getting better, to the point where, after pulling into the driveway, you'd stop and listen for a minute or two before going inside. Roll down the windows, turn off the car, tilt your head back and think, Not bad.

Then you started seeing fliers for local gigs. Hey, look, those are the kids down the block. Eventually they left town, cut a record and went platinum. Pretty soon everybody knew the kids down the block. You were left with the story of those moments nodding to yourself in the car and a line you use every chance you get: I feel like I discovered them. The Kansas City Royals are baseball's version of a garage band with promise. The music started emanating from minor league towns four years ago. It bounced from Idaho Falls, Idaho, to Burlington, N.C., to Wilmington, Del., to Springdale, Ark., to Omaha, Neb. Disgruntled fans of the big league club, weary of 90-plus-loss seasons, began following the farm system instead. Independent Royals websites started getting requests to live-blog minor league playoff games. There was something happening out there: The music produced by all those ultrahigh draft picks began to sound like something you could dance to.

The group is strictly a boy band right now, with probable maturation dates ranging from this season for third baseman Mike Moustakas to next season for first baseman Eric Hosmer and pitchers Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer and Danny Duffy, to 2013 for outfielder Wil Myers.

The trick is to ignore the endless cacophony at the big league level, the overmodulating screech of the Jose Guillen era, the missed note of the $55 million Gil Meche contract, the off-key wail of trades that dissolved a once talent-laden young outfield of Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran. Noise-cancel 15 losing seasons in the past 16, fan walkouts to protest the big market-small market disparity of a Yankees-Royals mismatch and more Jimmy Gobble than anyone should have to endure.

Once, Kansas City won the World Series, competed for AL pennants and was a model organization. But after that 1985 title, which capped off seven postseason appearances in 10 years, the Royals disappeared from October. And after George Brett, the icon of those glory teams, hung up his spikes in 1993, the Royals became something of a laughingstock. Did you hear the one about Mark Redman, he of the 6-4 record and 5.27 ERA, representing the Royals at the 2006 All-Star Game? Or the one about centerfielder Kerry Robinson jumping at the wall to prevent a home run, only to have the ball land at his feet? Or about the time shortstop Tony Pena Jr., when asked why he wasn't wearing sunglasses when he lost a pop fly in the sun, responded, "I ordered some but never got them"?

Recently a team exec suggested, with the slightest hint of defiance, that the new Royals put up a billboard that reads: Get Your Jokes in Now. Yes, the future is coming. For evidence, all you had to do was check out what was going on last year in Springdale, where the Northwest Arkansas Naturals won the Double-A Texas League. At various points, Moustakas, Hosmer, Montgomery, Lamb and Duffy all spent time on the roster. They stirred long-dormant images of Brett, Frank White, Bret Saberhagen, Willie Wilson and Dan Quisenberry. "We'd sit around and project what might happen in a few years," Hosmer says. "Everything we talked about had to do with bringing a championship back to Kansas City. This group can't wait to get it going."

First in line is Moustakas, a 22-year-old bundle of power who was the second pick of the 2007 draft. The 5'11", 230-pound lefty hitter produced 36 homers, 124 RBIs and a .999 OPS last year, splitting his time between Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha. Moustakas is the group's earnest, smiling, chamber-of-commerce representative, who says things like, "The Royals are getting back to being a first-class, model organization. They've done everything possible to make it easier for us to get through the tough times."

If they build a statue to symbolize the 2015 World Champion Royals, the model will be Hosmer, the third pick of the 2008 draft. A 6'4", 230-pound first baseman with a lefthanded power swing that is equal parts Justin Morneau and Todd Helton, Hosmer hit 20 homers with 86 RBIs and a .977 OPS between Class-A Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas last year. The ETA for the 21-year-old is early 2012.

As impressive as Moustakas and Hosmer are, the real strength of the Royals' system is the pitching, especially the lefthanders. When Dayton Moore was hired as general manager in 2006, there was not one highly regarded lefty arm in the organization. Not one. Now, Tim Collins, a 5'7" (maybe) lefty reliever prospect who throws 95 with what Moustakas describes as a "ninja kick windup," looks around the spring training clubhouse in Surprise, Ariz., and says, "I've never seen so many lefthanded pitchers in my life."

The best are Montgomery and Lamb, two SoCal kids who could anchor the top of the rotation as early as next spring. The 21-year-old Montgomery -- quiet and composed -- rolled through three levels last season and allowed just 76 hits in 93 innings with a 2.61 ERA. Lamb, just 20, could wind up being the steal of the 2008 draft; he fell to the fifth round after a broken left arm cost him much of his senior season in high school. His motion bears a striking resemblance to Red Sox stud Jon Lester's, and his 2010 stats look like Lester's too: a 2.38 ERA in 28 starts at three levels, 159 strikeouts and just 122 hits allowed in 147 2/3 innings.

ESPN Insider Keith Law rates the Royals as having Major League Baseball's No. 1 farm system, saying that in fewer than five years Moore has elevated it from "a borderline laughingstock ... into the toast of baseball." According to Baseball America, Kansas City boasts a record nine of the top 100 prospects in the game. (Hosmer, Moustakas and Myers are Nos. 8, 9, and 10.) The organization graded out with the highest score in the 22-year history of the rankings, making it the highest-ranked farm system in the history of ranked farm systems. The Royals -- dare we say it? -- are the Yankees of the minor leagues.

You can sell youth. You can sell energy. You can sell the ambience at a beautiful new ballpark.

But good luck selling patience. It's the toughest sell in sports, maybe the toughest sell in any American business. Today, everything is right here, right now. Need an answer to a question? Type a few words into Google. Need a pair of shoes? It's three clicks away. Need to watch a winning team? Subscribe to a service and start following a squad halfway around the country. Who wants to wait? Waiting is old-school, pre-Internet, pre-free agency, prehistoric. In baseball and in life, waiting is for people who don't have money or credit or guts. And nobody -- nobody -- wants to pay for the right to be patient.

But that's what Dayton Moore sells. He sells 2012 or 2103 and definitely 2014. He sells the idea that his garage band is starting to sound like something you'll want to brag about discovering someday. As the corporate face of the franchise, he speaks a lot in public, and his spiel is nothing new. He shrugs and says, "I give the same speech they've been hearing for a long time. It all comes down to whether we can do it on the field."

In 12 years with the Atlanta Braves, Moore developed the reputation of a farm-system guru, and that got him the job in Kansas City. He's a good salesman, a youthful 44-year-old who remembers names and talks the game with the exuberance of a first-year scout. Some cynics -- "cynic" and "Royals fan" have practically become synonymous -- will concede that Moore can develop a farm system, but they ask, can he build a major league contender? The acquisitions he's made at the top level -- some, admittedly, simply as placeholders until the boy band arrives -- have been less than inspiring. What happens when he has to fill in around the prospects?

Emily Shur for ESPN The Magazine

The question is legitimate. Moore's drafting has been impeccable, and he acquired three solid-to-great prospects (pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, outfielder Lorenzo Cain) for ace Zack Greinke in a December trade with Milwaukee. But other decisions are less defensible. Following the recent free agent signings of Pedro Feliz and Jeff Francoeur and the Greinke-trade acquisition of Alcides Escobar -- owners of three of the worst on-base percentages in baseball last season -- one Royals blogger surmised that Moore must be counterintuitively turning the Moneyball concepts on their heads. With new metrics accentuating the importance of stats such as WAR and VORP, it was jokingly suggested that the Royals have blazed their own path by stockpiling players with low OBPs.

Again, Moore shrugs. He runs a small-market team that must build from within and use closeout spackle to patch the holes. "I've put myself out there trying to articulate our message," he says. "Kansas City is a unique place. Everyone's passionate about the Royals. People are frustrated, and often it's directed at the GM. I can live with that."

Bloggers, columnists and some Royals fans have a good time mocking Moore's mantra -- "Trust the process" -- but it's clear he trusts it, even if they don't. He inherited an organization that was terrible on the field and dreadful in the farm system, a remarkable feat of incompetence for a franchise that consistently drafted as high as Kansas City has in the past 20 years.

"I remember when it was easy to be a Royals fan," says Royals Authority blogger Clark Fosler. Small market or no, the Royals of the 1970s and '80s were baseball's archetypal franchise, developing talent, winning pennants, opening the game's first baseball academy. Now being a Royals fan is like standing on the side of the mountain rooting for Sisyphus -- or Alex Gordon -- to push the rock. It takes not only patience but willful optimism and a suspension of disbelief. Asked what it's like inside the mind of a Royals fan, Fosler sighs and says, "It can be a dark, dark place."

The problem, as Moore knows all too well, is that the future has been pitched to KC fans like a bad infomercial. As Royals Review blogger Will McDonald says, "It's hard to embrace a team that's been rebuilding since the mid-'90s. The casual fan doesn't buy it, but the people who know the Hosmers and Moustakases understand this is a special group."

The temptation might have been to draft the players closest to the majors, college pitchers and hitters who might sell a few tickets within a year of their signing. Instead, Moore drafted primarily big-upside high school players, and ownership green-lit large bonuses (Hosmer: $6 million; Moustakas: $4 million). It might take them a little longer to make it to the bigs, but Moore believes they'll be better prepared when they do. (The Royals have the second-youngest 40-man roster in the majors, behind Cleveland's, and most of their highly touted young players aren't yet on it.)

Moore recites history like a professor: The Yankees committed to their farm system in 1989 and won a title by '96; the Twins did the same in '94 and were contenders by 2001. Since Moore took over in 2006, his timetable has the Royals in the running by 2013.

He pilots the baseball operation like a college coach, sitting down in living rooms with potential top picks, selling his organization as family-first, telling everyone from the Rookie League backup catcher to Billy Butler that his door is always open. Every member of the boy band is already on a first-name basis with Moore. "A lot of people ask if it's hard to be patient," Moustakas says. "It is, because you want to get to the big leagues and stay in the big leagues. But whenever Dayton says I'm ready, I'll be ready. We're all on board with Dayton's plan."

Moustakas and the rest of the boy-band Royals trust the man and the process.

What other multimillion-dollar operation hinges its success on a group of employees between the ages of 19 and 22? It's like turning over the day-to-day of General Motors to the boys at the local frat house.

There's no way to overstate how much is riding on the boy band, and the organization is taking extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented measures to build a bridge to connect minor league success to big league stardom. In January, the Royals brought nearly two dozen of their top prospects to Kansas City for a five-day symposium on life in the big leagues. They talked about how to deal with the media, about travel and women and autograph hounds and how to pack for a 10-day roadie. What did the kids learn? They learned how a simple daily greeting to a beat writer can bank credit to draw on if times get bad. They learned that many big league clubhouses employ chefs who take your order before the game and have it ready for you when the game is over. Hosmer's eyes widened at this revelation. "To think there are chefs," he says. "That's pretty unbelievable."

They learned that veterans have routines that must be honored. Veterans, even nonstar veterans, take precedence over young players, even star young players. Vets get their choice of seats on flights -- including who sits near them -- so it's best for the young guys to board last to avoid conflict.

And if a young guy wants to take some extra hacks in the cage before a game, he better plan on doing it at least four hours before the first pitch. The veterans will arrive fashionably later and expect the rookies to be out of their way. "But since pretty much everyone here is so young," says Lamb, "we're all here early."

You can hear the music. It's getting louder and better every day. Standing by his locker, Moustakas looks around and says, "It's going to be fun to be part of this." Even in the clubhouse, where the process is trusted and the music is made, there are times when patience loses and youthful exuberance wins.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com