Considering they are 20 games under .500 and well out of the race for anything but not finishing last, the Kansas City Royals have given us a heck of a September.  As I mentioned on Monday (and it was hardly a unique thought), we all should be somewhat wary of getting too excited about things that happen in September.   Especially this year when the Royals are not playing anyone that has something left to play for.

That said, one can look at this Royals team and certainly see the potential to be better in 2012, maybe even dramatically ‘look whose on Sports Center again tonight’ better.   The leap from 70 wins (or wherever this team ends up) to 90 wins is not a small one, however. 

A short time back, I did some preliminary research on teams that had made leaps from bad to good in one year.   At the time, my intent was to discuss a group of them in one generic column, but as the Royals played better and the fanbase became more excited, I thought it might be more interesting to detail several of these teams in separate columns and see what sort of comparisons we could draw to the 2011 and 2012 Royals.

The three teams that have caught my eye are the 2005/2006 Detroit Tigers, the 2008/2009 Tampa Bay Rays and today’s team:  the 2000/2001 Minneosta Twins.   What all three of these organizations have in common is that they were basically bad for a long stretch of time and improved rather dramatically into contenders seemingly out of nowhere.   There are others, to be sure, but hopefully by the time I am done with these three reviews we might have some sort of feel for what sort of improvement is at least theoretically possible for our 2012 Royals.

Now, I know everyone is tired of hearing about how the Minnesota Twins just ‘do things the right way’.  In fact, it has been beaten into us for so long that I am even tired of the sarcasm and snark that follows that mantra.  You know it has gone on too long when the people making fun of something stupid have become as annoying as those who beat the dumb statement into our brains in the beginning.

Anyway, the 2000 Minnesota Twins won just 69 games, marking the eighth straight season in which they did not get over .500.   They had won just 63 games in 1999 and only 70 the year before that:  the Twins were not good and had not been good since winning 90 games in 1992.   In 2001, however, the Twins went 85-77 and were tied for first as late as August 11th.   They faded, mostly courtesy to going 2-7 versus the division winning Indians down the stretch, to finish 6 games out.   The Twins took another step in 2002, going 94-67 to win the Central and a playoff series and would go on to be .500 or better in seven of the next eight years.

Back to the year 2000.    Minnesota’s average age for position players was 26.5 and for pitchers was 26.6.  They were not crazy young, but they were young.   They were 13th in runs scored and 10th in team ERA.   Frankly, the Royals looked like a far better bet to make a leap into contention than Minnesota did back then.

According to Baseball Reference, this was the most common Minnesota lineup in 2000:

  • C – Matt LeCroy
  • 1B – Ron Coomer
  • 2B – Jay Canizaro
  • SS – Christian Guzman
  • 3B – Corey Koskie
  • LF – Jacque Jones
  • CF – Torii Hunter
  • RF – Matt Lawton
  • DH – David Ortiz

The Twins used six different catchers for 15 or more games this season, but called up 23 year old A.J. Pierzynski to start 27 of their final 41 games.    After seeing Doug Mientkiewicz flail away at a .229 clip over 118 games in 1999, Minnesota relied on Coomer at first.  However, Dougie mashed in AAA this season (.334/.406/.524) and went 6 for 14 in the final three games of the 2000 season – the only three major league games he appeared in.  Luis Rivas, at the grand old age of 20, got 64 September plate appearances in place of the forgettable Canizaro.  

In the outfield, Torii Hunter had a curious run.   After spending the entire 1999 season in the majors, Hunter found himself back in AAA by June of the following year – courtesy of a .207 batting average.   He returned on July 29th and mashed his way back to a respectable .280/.318/.408 line by season’s end.   Basically, Hunter went down a prospect and came back as Torii Freaking Hunter.

As for the rest of the lineup, Guzman was a 22 year old shortstop who played everyday, showed excellent speed and flashy, if inconsistent defense.   Koskie had an outstanding age 27 season, Lawton (28) was way better than I bet you remember (.305/.405/.460) and Jones was solid at age 25.   Although the positions don’t match up exactly, the comparison of those four to Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francouer can be made.   The Royals probably win that match-up, by the way, but there is a great deal of similarity in both age and production.

The next season, the Twins would trot out basically the identical lineup they ended 2000 with:

  • C – Pierzynski
  • 1B – Mientkiewicz
  • 2B – Rivas
  • SS – Guzman
  • 3B – Koskie
  • LF – Jones
  • CF – Hunter
  • RF – Lawton
  • DH – Ortiz

With the exception of Guzman (acquired with three other players for Chuck Knoblauch prior to the 1999 season) and Ortiz (acquired in a minor trade way back in 1996) every other regular was a Twins draftee or original free agent signee (Rivas).  They were not an offensive juggernaut in 2001, but did manage to move up to 8th in runs scored on their way to improving to 85 wins.  In 2002, basically the same group (save for Dustan Mohr & Bobby Kielty taking over for Matt Lawton in right) was the position player component of a division winning team. 

As an aside, the super utility man on all three Twins’ teams discussed above was Denny Hocking, who appeared in over 100 games in all three seasons.   Denny, of course, ended up on the 106 loss 2005 Royals that featured a who’s who of utility infielders (Tony Graffanino, Joe McEwing, Andres Blanco…)

Of course, position players are pretty much one half of the equation.   The 2000 Twins featured a starting rotation of Brad Radke, Eric Milton, Joe Mays, Mark Redman and a truly awful combination of Sean Bergman (9.66 ERA) and J.C. Romero (7.02 ERA).   Although just 27, Radke was already finishing off his sixth major league season and his fifth straight 200+ inning campaign and finished with an ERA of 4.45 (261 hits in 226 innings).   Milton was 24 during the season, throwing 200 innings for the second straight year, albeit with an unimpressive 4.86 ERA.   Mays was bad, but young (also 24) and Redman was tolerable, but not great (4.76 ERA in 151 innings).

The Twins’ bullpen was headed by LaTroy Hawkins, Bob Wells and Eddie Guardado, all of whom handled closer duties at one time or another during the season.   None had particularly impressive years.  Twenty-one year old Johan Santana toiled out of the pen and also started five games, but was not good at all.

Imagine the 2011 Royals with a average at best bullpen (probably not even that good, frankly) and you have the 2000 Minnesota Twins pitching staff.   Sure, Kansas City does not have a couple of innings horses like Radke and Milton, but even Kyle Davies was better than the fifth starters the Twins trotted out that year.   The construction may have been different, but the pitching staffs as a whole, were probably quite similar in overall production.

The Twins top three pitchers all stepped forward in 2001.  Radke threw his usual 200+ innings, but this time with an ERA just below four (think 2007-2008 Gil Meche, or maybe just think Brad Radke), while Milton also improved his ERA by half a run while tossing 200 innings himself.  The biggest improvement, however, was the dramatic rise of Joe Mays. 

Mays threw 233 innings with a very small 3.16 ERA – more than two runs lower than his 2000 mark – in a come out of nowhere magical season.   Mays would not only regress the following season, but would never come close to throwing major innings or being anything less than awful for the remainder of his career.    For the 2001 season, however, Joe Mays was an ace:  albeit one who struck out less than five batters per nine innings.

The rest of the rotation was not very good.  Twenty-two year old Kyle Lohse threw 90 indifferent innings (think Danny Duffy with less strikeouts but not as many walks).   Mark Redman was swapped out in favor Rick Reed during the season with below average results, while J.C. Romero was granted 11 more starts with only marginal improvement (6.23 ERA).

In the pen, Latroy Hawkins saved 28 games, but did so while walking more than he struck out.   Eddie Guardado eventually took over  and was better and on his way to being  the Guardado that would lock down the 9th inning over the coming seasons.   The rest of the group was not great, not even good, probably not even average – heck, they were neither young, nor good.

Still, this staff took a team that was average offensively to 85 wins in 2001 and would basically take them to a division title in 2002.  However, they would do so in a different fashion.

Milton would regress to his 2000 numbers, Mays would implode and Radke would only throw 118 innings.  However, Lohse threw 180 innings to a 4.23 ERA at age 23 and Reed found the fountain of youth at age 37:  going 188 innings with a sub-four ERA.   It was Reed’s best year since 1998 and he would be retired just a season later.   Also joining the rotation on a part time basis was 23 year old Johan Santana, who would post a sub-three ERA and strike out 11 batters per nine innings over 14 starts and 13 relief appearances.   The 2002 bullpen, reconfigured with Guardado as the full-time closer and Romero and Hawkins setting up was an abosolutely lock down unit.   In a lot of ways, the 2002 Twins pitching staff is what you can envision the 2012 Royals unit becoming. 

The progression that Lohse made from 2001 to 2002 could very well be what we could see in Danny Duffy next season.   While there is very little similarity between Rick Reed and Luke Hochevar, one wonders if Hochevar could post a ‘Reed like season’ in 2012.   Could Felipe Paulino play the role of Eric Milton?  Could Mike Montgomery come up mid-season and pull a ‘Santana’?  That’s not saying that Montgomery is the next Santana, just that it is not completely unheard of for a young pitcher to string together 11 really good starts in his rookie season.

The Twins basically won 85 games in 2001 and 94 in 2002 with three decent starters and, frankly, fourth and fifth starters no better than what the Royals have trotted out the past several years.   At the same time, should Joakim Soria revert to dominant form, Kansas City is likely to have a bullpen every bit as good and probably even deeper than the Twins’ 2002 unit and certainly better than the 2001 squad.

All that, with an offense that features four rookies and is still sixth in the American League in runs scored.   It makes one wonder if the Royals’ 2011 season was a hybrid of what the Twins did in 2000 and 2001 and, if so, then could Kansas City really, really contend in 2012?   Or do they still need to take an interim step on the journey to 90+ wins?

Logic and a fair part of history, tells us that 2012 is likely to be a stepping stone on the way to contention in 2013.   A jump of 15 or 16 games is doable, but 25 or 30? That’s a heck of a leap.   A leap, by the way, that the other two teams we will discuss next week actually made.