Even with yesterday’s loss to the White Sox, which ended a seven game winning streak, the Kansas City Royals still own an impressive 11-6 record in the month of September.  It has been a fun month to be sure.   This is a young team, playing well and hopefully positioning itself for better things in 2012.

Of course, we would not be Royals’ fans if a cynical part of us did not remember that the 2008 Royals went 18-8 in September and led many of us, including GM Dayton Moore, to believe that the 2009 team was ready to contend for the division title.

On September 18th, 2008 the Royals blasted Seattle 12-0 for the seventh consecutive win.   Somewhat coincidentally, that streak would be ended by the White Sox the next day, but the Royals would go on to win six of their final eight games to finish a promising 75-87.   Back on that September day in 2008, then manager Trey Hillman used this lineup:

  • David DeJesus, LF
  • Mike Aviles, SS
  • Jose Guillen, DH
  • Ryan Shealy, 1B
  • Mark Teahen, RF
  • Miguel Olivo, C
  • Alex Gordon, 3B
  • Alberto Callaspo, 2B
  • Mitch Maier, CF
  • Zack Greinke, P

Twenty-two year old Billy Butler was given the day off and Kila Ka’aihue, who had just finished a tremendous breakout minor league year, pinch hit for Shealy late in this game.   Callaspo had taken over for the injured Mark Grudzielanek at second and Olivo was splitting time with John Buck at catcher.

Aviles was pushing for Rookie of the Year consideration and would finish the year with an OPS+ of 121.  DeJesus was having a nice year as well (OPS+ 118) and Alex Gordon, although not a star, would end up with an above average OPS+ of 109.   Guillen, Butler, Callaspo and Teahen would all post OPS+ marks within spitting distance of average, while Olivo and Buck would combine to hit 21 home runs.

Greinke, who threw seven shutout innings that day, would end up with an ERA of 3.47 and throw 202 innings:  at last realizing his vast potential.   Gil Meche was wrapping up his second good year with an ERA of 3.98 over 210 innings and 24 year old Kyle Davies was using an excellent September to finish with a 4.06 ERA and establish himself as a solid mid-rotation starter.    Luke Hochevar, also just 24, was working through the typical rookie kinks, but would have 129 innings under his belt by season’s end and Brian Bannister was actually quite awful, but just a year removed from being quite good.

The bullpen featuered lock down closer Joakim Soria and quality set-up men in Ramon Ramirez, Leo Nunez and Ron Mahay.   Joel Peralta and Robinson Tejeda rounded out what was a pretty solid group of relievers.

Looking back, one can see why we might have been a little fooled by that team.   DeJesus was an established above average player, Gordon was appearing to ‘get it’, Aviles was a revelation, Butler was budding star and Guillen, while an abosolute piece of work, had produced some runs.   With the exception of Guillen, every starter was under 30 years of age.

On the mound, Greinke was poised to be an ace, Meche had given the Royals 400+ innings of solid number two starter work and Davies had apparently ‘figured it out’, while Hochevar was surely about to ‘figure it out’.   The bullpen, with the exception of Mahay, was young and effective.    The Royals were not a good defensive team, but they had half of Dayton Moore’s pitching and defense mantra nailed down.

Yep, this team was close.

Close enough that Dayton Moore took the plunge.  He traded Ramirez for Coco Crisp to improve the defense in centerfield and Nunez for Mike Jacobs to add pop at first base.  Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth were brought in to shore up the holes in the bullpen and for reasons still unknown, Sidney Ponson (that’s SIR Sidney to you, mister) was brought in to be the fifth starter.  

Some of those moves were curious and questionable, but on May 7, 2009, the Royals were 18-11 and three games up in the Central Division.   By the end of May, however, the Royals were four games under .500, mired in 4th place and well on their way to being a hapless 97 loss club.

Mike Aviles played hurt and ineffectively, eventually playing in just 36 games.  Alex Gordon and Coco Crisp played in just 49 games a piece, Jose Guillen played and played poorly in only 81 games.  Mike Jacobs was healthy, but awful.   All of that more than outweighed breakout seasons by Billy Butler and Alberto Callaspo (although Callaspo was simply an atroicous second baseman) and solid contributions by David DeJesus and Miguel Olivo.

As we all fondly remember, Zack Greinke was incredible and Joakim Soria was dominant.  Unfortuneately, little was offered by the rest of the pitching staff.  Gil Meche had a 3.31 ERA on June 16th, but a shredded shoulder a month later.   Hochevar did not ‘get it’ and was instead worse than he was as a rookie.   Kyle Davies was firmly establishing himself as Kyle Davies.   Brian Bannister was better, but not good, and Sir Sidney and his plus seven ERA was gone by July.

The bullpen, outside of Soria, was hideous.   Bad enough, that Jamey Wright was the primary setup guy most of the year (or was it R0man Colon?  Does it matter?)

So, the question of the day is:  what makes this 2011 team different than that 2008 squad?

Knowing what we know now about the impending demise of Gil Meche, the big difference between the two teams is Zack Greinke.   There is no one on the 2011 staff that projects as an ace or even a true number one.   That said, the 2012 rotation numbers two through five could certainly be better than the 2009 staff, but that is a pretty low bar.

The two bullpens are similar, with the 2011 group offering more arms with more promising arms in the minors.   Dayton Moore decimated the 2009 pen with his off-season trades so, assuming he does not duplicate that maneuver this off-season, one can reasonably believe the 2012 bullpen will outdo the 2009 assortment of awful.

When it comes to position players, Billy Butler is Billy Butler and Alex Gordon certainly seems to have ‘gotten it’.   Eric Hosmer is likely to do something close to what Zack Greinke did from 2008 to 2009, don’t you think?   While no one would be surprised by a Melky Cabrera/Jeff Francouer regression, they would have to slide a LONG ways to duplicate the Mitch Maier/Jose Guillen/Josh Anderson crapfest that occupied two-thirds of the 2009 outfield.  

The Royals would kill for Johnny Giavotella to do what Alberto Callaspo did in 2009 (minus the pyschoctic episodes on road trips), but that looks a tad optimisitc at this point.   Alcides Escobar versus Yuniesky Betancourt?  Well, what more needs to be said?  Mike Moustakas versus Mark Teahen?  Not a sure thing, but I’ll take my chances.  Salvador Perez versus Miguel Olivo?  All things considered (ya know Miguel didn’t suck), let’s call it even…hopefully.

You like the chances of this September 2011 Royals team to improve in 2012, simply because they are young.   Comparing the two lineups, the 2011 team boasts a lot more potential than the 2008 team does, but hindsight is 20-20. 

If you put yourself back in 2008, there was a real reason to believe that team was on the verge of something.   There was no way of knowing that Meche would be hurt or Gordon or Aviles.   The injury to Crisp was not a surprise, that was the risk in acquiring him, but it was something of a surprise to have Jose Guillen and Juan Cruz actually drop off a cliff in 2009.   A lot of people sensed danger in the Mike Jacobs acquisition and they were right, but that one move should not have crippled the team.

Was it bad luck or bad decisions or bad managing or bad management in 2009?  Or was it all of that?  More importantly, will 2012 be different or more of the same?