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What team has been the worst in the American League Central since July 15?

The usual answer to any question that includes both the words “worst” and “American League Central” is “Kansas City Royals,” but that may be changing. Over the last two months, the Royals have matched the division-leading Detroit Tigers step for step, and hung close to two other squads:

Since July 15

Minnesota Twins      37-20
Cleveland Indians    27-28
Chicago White Sox    27-29
Detroit Tigers       26-31
Kansas City Royals   25-30

I’ve been picking on the Tigers-whose lead in the division is down to just one game heading into this weekend’ series with the Orioles, and whose hold on a postseason spot is nearly as tenuous-but that’s not the point I’m looking to make today. No, I want to step away from the pennant races for just one day and point out a pretty good story that’s gone unnoticed. For two months, the Royals have been playing some very good baseball; not great, mind you, and not enough to make them relevant, but a three-game series in Kansas City is no longer reason to worry more about where to get your barbecue after the game than what will happen during it.

It would be overly simplistic to trace the Royals’ reversal of what looked like a historically bad season to the change in the front office, of course. On May 31, the Royals fired GM Allard Baird, who’d presided over the ugliest period in franchise history, and replaced him with the longtime Braves executive. At the time of the firing, the Royals were 13-37, on pace to lose 119 games, which would have tied the American League record. With Moore in place, they’ve gone 44-53, not a contender’s mark, to be sure, but far better than they’ve played since the 2003 team got off to a hot start to the season. Outscored by 124 runs in the season’s first 50 games, they’ve been outscored by just 57 since.

Dayton Moore didn’t turn over the roster in his first days on the job, but he did make a couple of significant moves that drove the team’s success in the second half. On June 3, he-well, technically Muzzy Jackson, who covered for Moore during the week between Baird’s firing and the draft, but we’ll give Moore this one-recalled third baseman Mark Teahen from Omaha, where he’d been sent a month prior after opening the season with a .195/.241/.351 line. On top of last year’s disappointing .246/.309/.376 season and the presence of 2005 first-round pick Alex Gordon, Teahen’s future with the Royals seemed bleak. Once back in Kansas City, though, he hit over .300 with a good walk rate and excellent power. Factoring in defense, Teahen was one of the two best third basemen in the American League this year, and the best between his recall and the surgery that ended his season two weeks ago.

Teahen’s turnaround was the most dramatic and the one with the greatest impact, but other players who were off to slow starts played better after the changeover. David DeJesus barely played in the season’s first two months, but has come on to be a source of OBP and doubles power since. Emil Brown, one of Baird’s best pickups, hit much better after the GM was let go. John Buck, another Baird guy, had his only good month of the year in June. The Royals’ comeback isn’t just a matter of replacing Baird; his players have been a significant part of the improvement.

What Moore did do was make a series of seemingly minor moves that shored up the talent and removed some of the dead weight from the roster. He acquired Joey Gathright from the Devil Rays to play center field, moving DeJesus to left in an attempt to improve the outfield defense. Gathright had a brutal July, but has shown signs of being a low-cost center fielder with plus defense, decent OBP and lots of speed. Moore traded two failed prospects from the Baird era for Ryan Shealy, a project who could be a cheap version of Richie Sexson for a few years. He churned through pitchers, getting an almost-free Todd Wellemeyer (3.69 ERA, but 30/29 K/BB in 46 1/3 IP) and stumbling on a reasonably effective minor-league veteran, Joe Nelson, who’s been the team’s best reliever since the middle of August. Moore recalled Luke Hudson, who aside from one nightmare inning in Cleveland in August has provided quality starts.

Recognizing that the paper-thin organization needed to accumulate talent in bulk, Moore jettisoned every veteran he could in exchange for prospects and upside, sending away Tony Graffanino, Matt Stairs and Elmer Dessens for potential help. The Dessens trade brought in Odalis Perez, a disappointment with the Dodgers who has shown flashes of his 2004 form-including close to a 3/1 K/BB-in nine starts for the Royals.

There is no question that the Royals under Moore have put a better baseball team on the field. Without any grand gestures, Moore has made the small changes that have upgraded the defense, improved the bullpen, stabilized the rotation and made the lineup more dangerous. We’re still in the silk purse/sow’s ear stage of things, so expecting this to be a linear process-wild card in 2007!-is a mistake. However, this team, this organization, is no longer a joke or a three-day speed bump on the way to Arlington. All those small changes add up to real wins on the field; the Royals, a legitimate 110-loss team on Opening Day, now look more like a 95-loss or 100-loss team.

Moore still has to work on assembling a rotation, at improving a very poor situation up the middle–Angel Berroa is probably the worst player in baseball-and fairly or not, turning around an organizational and citywide mindset that the team can’t compete. No owner clamored for revenue sharing more than David Glass did, and none is faster to point out revenue and payroll disparities today. It’s looking inward, to the things the Royals can and should do better, that will advance the process of putting a winning team on the field. Asking for handouts is just a distraction from the real challenges facing this team. But for the first time in a very, very long time, they seem up to those challenges.

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