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Did Dayton Moore and Neal Huntington improve at their jobs?

H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

I don't mean to belabor the discussion of Royals GM Dayton Moore, since I'm basically sticking to my guns about him, and the day a team makes the World Series might not be the best day for me to argue that its GM might not be the best. But the discussion in the last thread got me interested in looking back at some of Moore's worst moves -- the ones that looked terrible right from the beginning -- to see if there's anything about them we ought to reevaluate now that the Royals are the talk of the game.

The main reasons many commentators criticized Moore early in his tenure were his moves at the big-league level. As I recall, most people were fine with Moore's drafting, or thought it was outright good. But the Royals in Moore's first few years were wretched for reasons that were clearly partially his fault. Or so it seemed. Let's look at a selected list of sub-replacement-level Royals from early in Moore's tenure. (There were many more sub-replacement-level Royals than this, but let's start with these.)

2008: Jose Guillen

2009: Guillen, Yuniesky Betancourt, Tony Pena, Willie Bloomquist, Mike Jacobs

2010: Bloomquist

2012: Betancourt, Jeff Francoeur

Obviously, it would be silly to criticize Moore because the 2009 Royals had sub-replacement-level players. That's part of being a rebuilding team, and if the Royals gave Johnny Giavotella or Kila Ka'aihue a shot and he was bad, well, it happens. If you try a Giavotella and it works, you've got a cheap infielder for the next several years. If it doesn't, you've only made a bad team marginally worse.

My problem is with veteran acquisitions who were given starting jobs and didn't have that kind of upside. Most of Moore's moves to acquire veterans made no sense when they were made, and they blew up in his face over and over.

For example: Betancourt played parts of three seasons with the Royals and produced a total of -1.9 WAR. Everyone knew he stunk, and Moore kept running him out there as a starting player anyway.

Prior to the 2008 season, Moore signed Guillen to a three-year, $36 million contract that looked like a bad idea right from the beginning. That got the Royals -2.2 WAR.

Before the 2007 season, Moore traded for Pena, who had posted a .671 OPS at Triple-A Richmond the previous year, and installed him as the Royals' starting shortstop. Pena was good defensively, but he hit like Francisco Liriano on opioids, and the Royals ended up with -3.2 WAR over three seasons.

Before the 2009 season, the Royals signed Bloomquist, previously a light-hitting utility player, to a two-year deal and played him nearly every day, much of the time in the outfield. Those two years earned the Royals -0.8 WAR.

At around the same time, Moore traded a decent reliever, Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly known as Leo Nunez) for the Marlins' Mike Jacobs, who had been below replacement level the previous two seasons. As the Royals' starting first baseman, Jacobs posted -0.9 WAR before being released.

Moore signed Francoeur prior to the 2011 season and got one good year out of him, but continued to lean on him in 2012 and, incredibly, in 2013, even though Francoeur was playing terribly and had been teetering on the edge of a cliff since 2008. In two and a half years as a starting outfielder in Kansas City, Francoeur produced a total of 0.2 WAR.

Again, my point here is not to call Moore out for having bad players. There was probably very little he could have done to make the 2009 Royals a good team. But he made the problem worse by repeatedly making moves that had very little chance of working and no upside if they did. Commentators criticized these moves when they were made, and they were proven right over and over. If anyone has any questions about why we used to bash Moore a lot around here, this is why.

Other than Francoeur in 2013, though, Moore mostly stopped making obviously terrible player personnel moves. The '13 Royals, for example, only had one pitcher on the entire team (Aaron Crow) who was below replacement level. That team also had Francoeur and a few bad infielders, but that was mostly it.

So what happened? How did Moore quit doing this stuff? There were, I think, four key factors.

One likely reason, which some have already discussed in the comments, is that Moore improved at his job. That's surely partially true. He shouldn't have needed seven years to learn that someone like the 2013 version of Francoeur wasn't a starting-caliber outfielder, but he did learn that eventually. We probably don't want to put too fine a point on the idea that he improved, though, as we'll see.

Second, as Moore graduated more talent from his very good farm system, he didn't have to lean as hard on outside veteran acquisitions, many of whom Moore had to acquire very cheaply. The free agent market simply isn't favorable to teams like the Royals or Pirates.

Third, Moore's budgets improved. In 2011, the Royals' Opening Day payroll was $38 million. In 2014, it was $92 million. Jason Vargas, who the Royals signed to a four-year deal before the 2014 season, isn't a great pitcher, but he's a far better talent than Yuniesky Betancourt or Jeff Francoeur. (Another four-year signing from before the 2014 season, Omar Infante, was mostly a bust this season.) Then, of course, there's James Shields. I'd argue that the trade that brought him to Kansas City still wasn't a good idea, but there's no doubt that the Royals were willing to pay real money for a good pitcher.

But fourth, and this is probably crucial, the desirability of Kansas City as a free agent destination likely increased as it became clear that the Royals weren't pushovers. Neal Huntington did a much better job than Moore with some of his early veteran signings, in the sense that a lot of Huntington's signings made some semblance of sense at the time, but there's a clear pattern at work with Huntington too, just as there is with Moore. Here are some of Huntington's key signings by year. (We're looking only at signings here, because these are players who chose to play for the Pirates.)

2009-2010: Octavio Dotel, Bobby Crosby, Javier Lopez
2010-2011: Lyle Overbay, Kevin Correia, Matt Diaz
2011-2012: Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas, Erik Bedard
2012-2013: Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Jason Grilli (re-signed)
2013-2014: Edinson Volquez, Barmes (re-signed)

There are a number of factors here (the amount of money spent, the free agents available, the suitability of various free agents for the Pirates' needs, and so on), but the pattern here is clear. Prior to the 2013 and (to a much lesser extent) 2014 seasons, Huntington was able to lure quality free agents to Pittsburgh. Maybe some of that was Huntington getting smarter, but that's probably only true to a limited degree. He wasn't an idiot before, and he surely knew that Lyle Overbay wasn't any more than a placeholder. The more crucial factor was probably that Huntington was able to lure a good free agent like Martin with the idea that the team wasn't a joke anymore.

The same likely goes for Vargas and the Royals. Of course, the Royals had made higher-profile free agent signings in previous years, like Guillen and Gil Meche, but they were mostly enormous overpays.

In the end, then, we may be too hard on GMs like Moore and Huntington for the free agent signings they make early in their tenures as they're trying to rebuild bad teams. Many of Moore's acquisitions during that period were ridiculous, and he shouldn't have done them, and they're probably indicative of a way of thinking about player evaluation that needed tweaking. But in the end, the signings themselves weren't that important. And if acquiring Jeff Francoeur or Jose Guillen got casual fans excited during the Kansas City winter, well, maybe that wasn't all bad.

It might also be that Francoeur or Overbay-type acquisitions aren't that predictive of the kinds of moves a GM will make once he has a competitive team in place. For one thing, having some semblance of a good team might help an incoming veteran on the field, the way the Pirates' defense did with A.J. Burnett or the Royals' likely did with Vargas. Also, a small-market GM with a good core will likely be able to lure more talented players, rather than players who have no other options.