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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Moore's blueprint for Royals beginning to pay off

New veteran starting pitchers have led team to strong start to 2013

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Sometimes, it works out exactly the way they drew it up back at the home office. That's what has happened with the Royals' overhauled rotation.

General manager Dayton Moore set out to acquire two veteran starting pitchers when last season ended. He ended up with three: James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana. If you're looking for the single biggest reason the Royals are 10-7 and alone atop the American League Central standings as they begin a three-game series on the road against the second-place Tigers, this is it.

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Shields, Davis and Santana have combined to pitch 72 innings, win five games and compile a 2.63 ERA. Best of all, those numbers don't tell the entire story.

First, there's the impact their presence has had on the club. Shields had a huge role in transforming the Rays into one of baseball's best and most efficient organizations. When you trace back Tampa Bay's remarkable run of starting pitching, it begins in large part with Shields.

Sure, David Price and Matt Moore and others probably would have succeeded with or without Shields as a teammate. But he was there, and he set the bar high in terms of work ethic, professionalism, preparation and the rest.

In just the first few days of Spring Training, Moore felt his team had a different feel around it. It would be wrong to say Shields changed everything, because the Royals already had plenty of guys who understand that the difference between winning and losing is tiny.

But Shields became the leader of the pitching staff, and that's the part of these Royals that is different. Kansas City starters are third in the American League in ERA (3.29) and fourth in innings. Last season, they were 11th in ERA (5.01) and 13th in innings.

Meanwhile, Shields, Davis and Santana have upgraded the bullpen, as well. Former first-round picks Aaron Crow and Luke Hochevar, who both seemed destined for roles in the rotation at the beginning of their pro careers, have found success in relief roles. Also, veteran lefty Bruce Chen, who has been Kansas City's best starter in recent seasons, has slid nicely into a relief role.

Moore surrendered his best Minor Leaguer, outfielder Wil Myers, to get Shields and Davis from the Rays. In making that trade, he was sending a message that his seven-year rebuilding project had ended and that it was time to win.

Getting Santana -- and his $12 million price tag -- from the Angels for a Minor Leaguer came with a similar message. Few general managers have accumulated as much Minor League talent as Moore since he arrived in 2006, but the Royals still haven't been to the playoffs in 28 years. He believed those three starters would help the franchise turn an important corner.

Offensively, the Royals are still a work in progress. Their everyday lineup is still under the age of 30, but Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and others -- once the projected future stars of the future -- have arrived at the point in their careers where it's time to produce.

Nothing is guaranteed, but the Royals had a 25-7 Spring Training record that has carried over into a solid start in the regular season. Every weakness is exposed in the course of a 162-game schedule, but the Royals seem capable of holding up.

The Tigers are the division favorites, while the Twins are getting better. The Indians have spent more time in first place the past two years than any other team. But for a change, the Royals have to be included in this conversation. That in itself is a step in the right direction.

Plenty of baseball executives probably are rooting like crazy for Moore, who has reminded us all that the best way to construct a winning organization hasn't changed much through the years.

Moore laid out a blueprint for Royals owner David Glass when he was hired in 2006 and has resolutely stuck to it. There are dozens of new ways to evaluate players, decide on strategy and assemble rosters, lineups and so on. But the core of every successful organization still comes down to making smart decisions in the First-Year Player Draft.

The Royals have accumulated so much highly regarded talent during Moore's tenure that he could afford to trade Myers. That's another part of his blueprint. Once it was time to win, he was unafraid to take a chance.

It looks like this might be the season when all that hard work and all those smart decisions pay off. If that happens, we'll be reminded that Kansas City remains a great baseball town. Fans were just waiting for hope. That hope appears to have arrived.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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