It was the last night of the winter meetings. No, actually it was morning, the morning of the last day of the meetings, about 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 6, as Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore recalls.
All of the Royals’ top scouts and executives were gathered in Moore’s suite at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, facing a defining moment — for their trade talks with the Tampa Bay Rays, and maybe for their long-suffering franchise.
Moore, using a dry-erase board, ranked all of the Royals’ top prospects by position. And then, after informing those in the room that the Rays would not waver in their demands for right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis, he started erasing names.
Bubba Starling and Jorge Bonifacio, who Baseball America later would rank among the Royals’ top four prospects, were the next outfielders on the list.
“Still pretty good players, right, guys?” Moore asked.
Kyle Zimmer, Yordano Ventura and Jason Adam, three right-handers who BA ranked among the Royals’ top eight prospects, were still on the board — as were other intriguing arms.
Now came the lefties: Danny Duffy, who is expected to return from Tommy John surgery as early as mid-June. John Lamb, who is on his own road to recovery from a TJ.
Chris Dwyer, who regressed last season, but still has a chance. Donnie Joseph, whom the Royals acquired in the Jonathan Broxton trade and project as a power reliever. Justin Marks, who excelled in the Arizona Fall League.
No, Moore said, the Royals didn’t want to lose the least well-known of the four, either. But the team had another 20-year-old third-base prospect, Cheslor Cuthbert, playing at a more advanced level.
“Leonard is pretty good,” Moore said to his assistants. “They’re all going to be good. But guys, how does this farm system look? Still pretty good.”
The system, Moore continued, certainly would be in better shape than when he took over as GM in June 2006, though maybe weaker than in recent seasons.
Still, the Royals had the eighth pick in the upcoming draft. They had an international program that could produce more players. They had ways to replenish what they were about to lose.
Moore then reflected back to his time when he and some of his Royals’ assistants were with the Atlanta Braves, working for the great John Schuerholz.
“John made deals like this every single year, moving players,” Moore said. “He did it in the winter, he did it in spring training, he did it at the trade deadline.”
In the wee hours at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, the Kansas City Royals decided that it was time, finally, to follow suit.
“Once we put the names up on the board, went through ’em all, saw them there, right in front of you, it opened everyone’s eyes,” said Mike Arbuckle, one of Moore’s senior advisers.
“It made it easier for guys in the room to say, ‘This is going to hurt. But at the same time, it’s not cleaning the system out. There are more players coming.’”
Moore didn’t know it at the time, but he nearly lost the deal that night — not to the Detroit Tigers, the team that the Royals thought was also pursuing Shields, but to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
As Moore huddled with his advisers, three other GMs — the Rays’ Andrew Friedman, Diamondbacks’ Kevin Towers and Texas Rangers’ Jon Daniels — were deeply engaged in their own trade discussions.
Those discussions, according to major league sources, centered around a three-team deal that would have sent Shields and Davis to Arizona, outfielder Justin Upton to Texas and a package of prospects to the Rays.
That night — er, morning — the deal was close, sources say.
But, for reasons that are unclear, it never got done.
The Diamondbacks, instead of acquiring Shields and Davis, reached agreement the next day with free-agent right-hander Brandon McCarthy on a two-year, $15.5 million contract.
Two days after that, Moore rubbed out the names of Myers, Odorizzi, Montgomery and Leonard for good, officially sending them to the Rays for Shields and Davis.
The reaction of many, both locally and nationally, was best summed up by seven words:
“How could the Royals trade Wil Myers?”
It was — and is — a fair question.
Myers, 22, is one of the game’s top offensive prospects, a right-handed hitter who draws comparisons to Dale Murphy. The Royals didn’t want to trade him. But they had no other choice if they wanted Shields and Davis.
“If you focus on what you’re giving up, you’ll never make a deal,” Moore said. “It will paralyze you. You’ve got to focus on what you’re getting and what it brings to your team.”
Shields is one of the game’s most effective, durable starting pitchers, under club control for two more years. Davis, who is established as a reliever but not a starter, is under control for five more years.
Those additions, combined with a trade for right-hander Ervin Santana and the re-signing of righty Jeremy Guthrie, pushed the Royals’ top two starters from the start of last season, lefty Bruce Chen and righty Luke Hochevar, into a competition for the fifth spot.
Yet, even rival executives who believe the Royals made a fair deal question whether Moore did the right thing.
One exec said that the Royals, coming off a 72-win season, were not close enough to contention to go “all-in.” Another said that Moore could have made a less aggressive play, keeping Myers and trading lesser prospects for a pitcher less accomplished than Shields, but with greater upside.
The second exec, though, pointed out that no one knows the internal pressures that might have driven the Royals, who have not made the playoffs since 1985 and last had a winning season in 2003.
Maybe ownership drove Moore to make a splash. Maybe Moore, entering his seventh season, decided that he could wait no longer.
When Moore first took over, fans would say to him, “OK, you’re committed to scouting and player development. Well, how are you going to keep your young players once they arrive?” Those fans remembered that Moore’s predecessor, Allard Baird, had traded outfielders Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran, all for insignificant returns.
Well, the Royals no longer operate in such fashion.
Many of their best players — left fielder Alex Gordon, designated hitter Billy Butler, catcher Salvador Perez, shortstop Alcides Escobar — signed long-term extensions. Others, including first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas, are under long-term control.
Players are committing to the Royals. Doesn’t the club owe them something more than money in return?
“At some point, you have to go out there and try and do what’s best for the team,” said Guthrie, who rejoined the club on a three-year, $25 million free-agent contract. “I don’t think there is any way that anyone can say that in the next couple of years we’re not in a better position to win than we were five months ago with the personnel we have.
“You can only stockpile prospects for so long. If you never cash out, you just continue to roll the dice with 10-20 prospects, maybe it works out, maybe it doesn’t.”
Shields and Davis were available to every team in baseball. Their salaries were affordable even to low-revenue clubs.
The Royals — the team that once traded all of its veterans away — had enough prospects to get both.
Walk through the Royals’ spring training clubhouse, and you’ll see two position players who were once among the hottest young talents in the game.
Jeff Francoeur, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a Braves rookie in 2005, under the headline, “The Natural … Can Anyone Be This Good?”
And Brandon Wood, who was Baseball America’s No. 3 prospect entering the 2006 season, right behind Delmon Young and Justin Upton.
Neither Francoeur nor Wood fulfilled expectations. Francoeur, 29, is a below-average major league hitter, according to OPS-plus. Wood, 27, is in camp on a minor league contract, fighting for his career.
Which isn’t to say that Myers is destined to fail; he and the three other youngsters traded by the Royals all could develop into quality major leaguers, and maybe more.
But let’s go back to ’05, when Moore was the Atlanta farm director and the Baby Braves, led by Francoeur and catcher Brian McCann, were all the rage.
The Braves used 18 rookies that year to win their 14th straight division title. Twelve of those rookies made their major league debuts.
McCann is the only one of those players who lasted with the team beyond ’09. Infielders Wilson Betemit and Andy Marte, projected to be stars, turned out to be much less.
Moore remembers all that. And he remembers how aggressively Schuerholz used his farm system to transition players to the majors or develop pieces for trades.
In December 2003, Schuerholz parted with a young right-hander named Adam Wainwright in a five-player deal that brought the Braves one year of outfielder J.D. Drew.
“We’ve got to get more players,” Schuerholz told Moore and everyone else in the Braves’ scouting and player development departments.
It was as simple as that.
And it’s as simple as that for the Royals, now that they must replace Myers, Odorizzi, Montgomery and Leonard.
No one knows if Moore’s blockbuster will revive the franchise, reverse some of its recent gains or leave it somewhere in between.
But in the wee hours of Dec. 6, when Moore started rubbing out names on his dry-erase board, the Royals’ future was there for everyone in the room to see.
Four prospects leaving. A host of others staying. And James Shields and Wade Davis joining a club that has struggled mightily to develop its own starting pitching.
The deal hurt. It might hurt for a long time.
But for the Royals, at that moment, there was no turning back.