All the while, he kept telling people that building the Royals was a "process." That word, process, became much mocked in Kansas City. You would hear people joke about how the Royals were processing themselves back into last place. What people didn't realize is that while they were laughing, Moore was building baseball's best minor league system in decades.
Believe it or not, nobody figured out what Moore and the Royals were doing until just before the 2011 season. Then everyone saw it all at once. Baseball Prospectus ranked 10 Royals in its top 101 prospects—five in the top 21. Baseball America had five Royals among its first 19 prospects and wrote that Kansas City had the richest minor league system since the magazine started keeping track of such things 22 years earlier. The website Minor League Ball put a dollar amount on all the team's prospects, as rated by minor league guru John Sickels, and concluded that they were worth $245 million—$61 million more than any other team's. "Their system is so good, it's a joke," one opposing scout said. "The Royals might have as many top-level prospects as any 10 teams in baseball combined."
There were so many great prospects that nobody knew how to rank them. Many people thought the best prospect was the slugger Moustakas, a third baseman who even then showed the sort of power that keeps scouts awake at night; many said he reminded them of a lefthanded version of the young Troy Glaus, who hit 47 home runs as a 23-year-old in 2000. The Royals drafted Moustakas with the No. 2 pick in '07 and did not sign him until 10 minutes before the deadline—as little as an hour before he accepted their $4 million offer they were convinced that he would get away. He led the minor leagues with 36 home runs in 2010.
Then there was Hosmer, a first baseman whom scouts called "a Joey Votto carbon copy" (though, of course, now people call Votto a Hosmer carbon copy). There was Myers, a catcher turned outfielder who was such a natural hitter even then, when he was only 20, that traffic stopped whenever he was at the plate. "I have to watch this guy hit," Francoeur said during that magical spring of 2011. "It's mesmerizing."
The Royals had legitimate prospects at every position—they were excited about gritty shortstop Christian Colon, multitalented centerfielder Brett Eibner and catcher Salvador Perez, who one scout called "a defensive savant"—but they were especially loaded with lefthanded pitchers. They had four lefty prospects (Montgomery, Lamb, Chris Dwyer and Danny Duffy) on everyone's top 100, and each was so good that Moore said he was not sure which one would be the ace.
A gifted fifth lefty prospect, Noel Arguelles, had defected from Cuba in 2008, and the Royals outbid every other team and signed him for nearly $7 million. At the time, that sentence—The Royals outbid every other team—seemed odd. But it was all part of Moore's plan. "There are some financial realities," he said in '11. "We cannot just go out and get middle infielders or catchers or lefthanded pitchers. They are too expensive on the open market. So we have to develop those positions. We have to get them while they're young. I still don't think we have enough lefthanded pitching. I don't think we have nearly enough lefthanded pitching."
Moore's thirst for a better farm system was unquenchable—and it seemed directly at odds with the way he haphazardly built the major league team in those early years. "Dayton always knew that there was only so far he could get signing free agents and making trades," one friend said. "He tried to build competitive teams, and it definitely bothered him when those teams kept losing. But he knew that there was only so much he could do with the talent he had on the big league team. His heart was in building the future."
It does seem true that Moore's biggest goal with the major league club was to keep everyone distracted long enough to allow the young players to blossom. And yes, he could have done better with the distraction part of the plan. "This is the only way I know for a team like Kansas City to win," Moore said before the 2011 season. "The problem is that this way takes tremendous patience and it's easy to abandon the plan. The team starts losing, and you want to trade away prospects to win a few more games. A prospect goes through a bad stretch, you wonder if maybe you were wrong about him. The thing I kept thinking all along was, 'We're doing this the right way. We're doing it with good people. At the end of the day we're going to win.'"
Believe it or not, nobody in 2011 knew how it would all turn out. Sure, everyone knew the Royals had this great minor league system. But great minor league systems don't always lead to great success. The Diamondbacks had a great system in the mid-2000s, and it didn't work out. Ill-advised trades featuring Carlos Quentin and Carlos Gonzalez and the bumpy early careers of Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew and Justin Upton made Arizona a noncontender. "A team cannot win with simply a great minor league system," one baseball executive said that spring of 2011. "The team has to make smart big league decisions. They have to trade some of those prospects for useful major league players. They have to mix in a few good players that fit. The Royals have done a magnificent job building the system. But the job isn't close to done."
Moore knew that. In May 2010 he fired Hillman and installed manager Ned Yost, who had been the manager in Milwaukee when gifted young players such as Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun were coming up. Moore planned to bring up the prospects slowly, hoping to have Hosmer compete for a job in camp in '11 (he had six hits and two homers in his first 14 at bats that spring), hoping to have Moustakas and a couple of the pitchers up by the end of that season. "We finally have our head above water," he said then. "Now we have to let things play out. We don't want to rush anybody, and we don't want to hold anybody back. We just want to do the things that will turn this team into a winner."