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June 16, 2006
At some point, an extreme performance can't simply be chalked up to simple sample size issue. Any team can play .250 ball for a week, or two weeks, or even a month. But it is now the middle of June, and as I write this the Royals have won barely one-quarter of their games--only a narrow victory over the Angels on Wednesday kept them from falling back to exactly .250--over a span of 64 games, or 40% of the season. "On pace" is an overused term in sports, but when we say the Royals are on pace to finish 43-119, equaling the 2003 Detroit Tigers' AL record for losses in a season, that is a pace not to be taken lightly. This team doesn't just suck; it sucks at a truly historical level.
With the Bengals having turned things around with astonishing speed, from the worst record in AL history to the best record in the league in three years, how do these Royals compare with that sadsack Tigers squad of not so long ago?
Record: The Royals are 17-47 through 64 games; the Tigers were 16-48 at the same point in their season. Again, the Royals are on pace to exactly match the Tigers record.
Run Differential: The Tigers allowed 928 runs, which wasn't even the worst total in the league--the Rangers allowed 969. On the other hand, the Tigers scored 591 runs, more than a hundred runs fewer than any other AL team (the Tribe scored 699).
The Royals have scored 250 runs and allowed 407, both the worst figures, in either league. Their run differential of -157 projects to 397 over the course of a full season, a margin significantly worse than the Tigers' differential of -337.
By comparison, even the 1962 Mets were only at -331. The modern major league record for worst run differential is held by the 1932 Red Sox, who went 43-111 courtesy of a -349 run differential.
All of which is to say that the 2006 Kansas City Royals are on pace to shatter the record for worst run differential since 1900. On the bright side, the all-time record held by the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (-723!) appears safe.
Age of roster: Of the 12 Detroit Tigers to bat at least 200 times that season, only two (Bobby Higginson and utilityman Shane Halter were over 30. Seven were under the age of 27, and therefore (statistically speaking) likely to show future improvement: Brandon Inge, Craig Monroe, and Alex Sanchez (all 26), Carlos Pena and Eric Munson (both 25), Ramon Santiago (23), and Omar Infante (21). The pitching staff was even younger: of the 16 Tigers to throw at least 20 innings, only two were 27 or older: Jamie Walker (31), and Steve Sparks (37, or about 27 in non-knuckleballer years). Ten men started at least one game on the mound for the Tigers, all of them 26 or younger.
Three years later, many of these young players are still members of the team and contributing to a contender, including everyday starters Monroe and Inge, Infante and the since-reacquired Santiago on the bench, and three-fifths of the Tigers' Opening Day rotation (Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, and Nate Robertson). Walker is still around as a LOOGY par excellence; Chris Spurling and the just called-up Wil Ledezma were both Rule 5 carries that year.
By contrast, 16 Royals have batted 50 or more times this year. Only six are under the age of 31, and only four (John Buck, Mark Teahen, David DeJesus, and Shane Costa) have yet to turn 27. Put it this way: Mike Sweeney is actually only the seventh-oldest of those 16 players.
Things are better on the mound, where of the 14 Royals who have managed to hurl ten innings or more, only five are in their 30s. Still, there is little question that the Royals' roster is considerably older, with considerably less upside, than the Tigers' roster was.
Potential star talent: the Tigers' list of potential impact players on their roster began and ended with Bonderman, a 20-year-old who jumped straight from A-ball to the majors and survived intact. While he has still to fulfill all of his potential, he has stayed healthy (a feat in itself) and has a 4.01 ERA for the Tigers this year, a number that looks even better when you consider he has yet to allow an unearned run. His 82 strikeouts rank fourth in the league.
The Royals' list would look better if we include Zack Greinke, who is back on the mound for Double-A Wichita and may make an appearance with the big club by the end of the month. Greinke, like Bonderman, reached the majors at age 20, and his rookie campaign compares with any of Bonderman's work. Of course, his sophomore season was a disaster. Their styles are radically different--Greinke's Maddux to Bonderman's Clemens--which makes comparing them difficult, but right now Bonderman has the edge.
The Royals also have DeJesus, a quality center fielder just entering his peak at age 26, and a trendy pick for a breakout this season before he missed nearly two months with hamstring problems. On the other hand, the Tigers had Pena, whose breakout season as a power-hitting first baseman never came, but was held in about the same regard as DeJesus is now.
At best, a comparison of potential stars is a wash for the Royals.
Minor league depth: The Royals do rate an edge here. While the Tigers put a relatively young team on the field, they did so at the expense of their farm system, which was almost completely bare. Not counting the players who made the major league roster that year, the highest-rated prospects by Baseball America going into the 2003 season included Preston Larrison, Scott Moore, Nook Logan, and Brent Clevlen. Larrison washed out, Logan's a pinch-runner, Moore was dumped on the Cubs in the Kyle Farnsworth deal, and only Clevlen remains as a decent prospect. By comparison, the Royals have consensus Top-10 prospect Alex Gordon in addition to Billy Butler and Justin Huber.
The Tigers did have one ace up their sleeve in an unheralded 11th-round draft pick the year before who gained velocity shortly after he signed. Joel Zumaya might be the hardest thrower in baseball today.
Field Manager: The Tigers had Alan Trammell. The Royals have Buddy Bell. Debating the relative merits of the two would be like debating the relative heights of Verne Troyer and Eddie Gaedel: it's a lot of wasted effort, and at the end of it you're likely to feel a little unclean.
Front office management: While the Tigers hit rock bottom on the field in 2003, their renaissance can actually be traced back to the previous season, when owner Mike Illitch brought in Dave Dombrowski to be team president, and Dombrowski canned GM Randy Smith and assumed Smith's role six games into the season. Dombrowski had already built a World Champion in Florida, and a potential World Champion with the 1994 Expos.
Dombrowski was probably the most underrated General Manager in the game at the time he was hired by the Tigers, and is probably the most underrated General Manager in the game today.
The Royals just fired their version of Randy Smith, and ultimately whether the widely-acclaimed Dayton Moore turns out to have executive skills comparable to Dombrowski will determine whether the Royals can turn their franchise around as expertly as the Tigers have. But at the moment, the Royals' overall situation does not appear to be as bad as that of the 2003 Tigers.
It looks worse.
When GM Terry Ryan was staring out at the snow banks last winter dreaming how the 2006 season would progress, the past six games were probably what he had in mind. After a four-game losing streak dropped Minnesota to 25-33, the Twins won five out of six through Wednesday, getting a vintage 13-strikeout performance from Johan Santana and seven one-hit innings from freshman assassin Francisco Liriano along the way. The key to the modest resurgence, however, has been the offense, which has climbed part of the way out from six feet under. In the past seven games, the Twins have scored 47 runs, 6.7 a game, after scoring 4.4 per in their first 57 games, and offensive awakenings from several key cogs has brought new hope to Twins fans--depressed by the squad's 1% chance at the playoffs--that Minnesota can resume playing October baseball as soon as next season.
Leading the charge is Justin Morneau, who has emerged from his lengthy hibernation. With 12 hits and four homers in the last five games, Morneau has his OPS up to 847 and appears back on track to becoming an elite masher. Michael Cuddyer is experiencing a breakout--yet another data point in the Age-27 career year predictor--and with three homers in the last seven games is hitting .269/.369/.543, finally displaying the ability that landed him in the top-20 of BP's 2002 prospect list. And then there's Joe Mauer, putting up MVP numbers with the bat (on pace to set a record for single-season batting average by a catcher at .376) and the glove (he's thrown out 13 of 32 potential basestealers and been four runs above average defensively) and doing so without trouble from his cartilage-free knee (six stolen bases). In addition to those stalwarts, a pair of Jasons have journeyed from Rochester to bolster the moribund Minnesota attack:
Jason Kubel: "Check back in a year, but don't be surprised if he makes an impressive comeback in 2006." --BP 2005
On May 22, realizing one of the organization's best hitters was languishing in Triple-A while the likes of Rondell White and Lew Ford hacked the parent club into the ground, the Twins recalled Kubel. After an 0-8 start to his second 2006 Twin Cities tour, Kubel hit his first homer of the year on May 30, and since then has raked at a .373/.396/.647 clip, with four homers in 54 plate appearances, continuing where he left off before a horrific knee injury (he tore his ACL, MCL, PCL and patellar tendon) sidelined him for all of 2005. Manager Ron Gardenhire likely won't have Kubel sacrificing again--after he bunted Torii Hunter from first to second in the eighth inning of a tie game on Tuesday, Kubel ended things in the 13th with a walk-off grand slam to beat the Red Sox, showing the skill that kept him on the BP 2005 Top 50 Prospect List despite the fact his blown-out knee had already severely muddied the future. Early this offseason, it appeared Kubel's injury might keep his bat out of commission, but the recent explosion says otherwise, and Kubel has already stolen two bases in the majors this year--both in close games and neither on the back end of double-steals--and two more in the minors, indicating the improvement in his health. He might never return to the point of being a solid outfielder, as he's been sub-standard in the corners thus far, but even as a DH he could be an anchor in Minnesota's lineup for a few years.
Jason Bartlett: BP has been pushing Bartlett for President for quite some time, and on Wednesday he got the call from Triple-A, starting at shortstop in his first game and promptly showing the club what it was missing with two hits. Hopefully, the move signifies Minnesota's insane obsession with Juan Castro and Nick Punto at shortstop is over (mercifully, Castro has now been traded to the Reds). Bartlett is clearly the Twins best option offensively. He had a solid 779 OPS in Rochester and, comparing his PECOTA-projected -.024 MLVr with the -.351 Castro has garnered in 164 plate appearances, the Twins can expect to gain about 1/3 of a run on offense over what they received from Castro by starting Bartlett. Contrary to how the Twins approached their personnel, Bartlett is also the superior defender: in 68 games for Minnesota last year, he was a wizard-like 14 runs above average at shortstop, and PECOTA projected him at nine runs above average this year, the best defensive rating of any Minnesota position player.
Bartlett can't start at two different positions, though, and the release of Tony Batista this week leaves third base an open wound. Rather than humoring the likes of Terry Tiffee, Luis Rodriguez and Punto for the rest of the season, the optimal configuration would be to move Cuddyer back to third, his original position, when Shannon Stewart returns to left. Concerns about Cuddyer's defense at the hot corner are legitimate but irrelevant considering his returns with the glove in right this season have actually been worse, in terms of RATE and RAA, than his career averages at third. Alas, even that setup would leave open one spot at DH or in right to be filled by White, Ford and their ill-hitting ilk. No matter the arrangement, Minnesota is one bat short of fielding nine quality major league hitters.