Thursday, June 24, 2004

What Went Right and What Went Wrong?

The Twins pulled out a very nice 4-2 win over the BoSox on Wednesday night, but because the power was out at my house for most of the evening, I wasn’t able to catch the game on TV. Instead of a game recap (which I’m sure you’ll be able to find at one or more other blogs), I wanted to discuss a topic that has always intrigued me: the difference between the 2002 Minnesota Twins and the 2004 Kansas City Royals.

As most baseball fans already know, Royals GM Allard Baird has announced that he is willing to trade almost every veteran player on the Royals’ roster before the trading deadline. 2004 has been a complete nightmare for the preseason’s ‘chic’ pick in the AL Central. The Royals, who most believed would challenge the Twins and White Sox for a playoff spot this season, currently sit in last place at 28-40, 10 games behind the first-place Twins. For all intents and purposes, this season is over for the Royals.

Before this season began, many people (including myself) likened the 2003 Royals to the 2001 Twins. Both teams were relatively young; both were perennial losers in the latter part of the 1990s; and both emerged as surprise contenders in the weak AL Central only to come up short in September. In case you don’t remember, the Twins finished with a record of 85-77 in 2001, and the Royals finished 83-79 in 2003. I distinctly remember many “experts” being cautiously optimistic about the Twins’ chances in 2002, but we all know that they far exceeded anyone’s expectations. With that precedent already in place, many of these same experts were quick to anoint the Royals as the favorites in 2004. They had kept nearly every piece from 2003, and even added a few new ones: veteran slugger Juan Gonzalez, ageless catcher Benito Santiago, and steady reliever Scott Sulivan. They also brought back 2003 mid-season acquisitions Brian Anderson, Kevin Appier, and Curtis Leskanic.

So what gives? Logic says that the Royals should have been a better team in 2004 than they were in 2003. Now, I fully realize how “flukey” their good record was in 2003 when you look at such things as the Pythagorean standings (more on them tomorrow). But that argument has been done to death, and quite frankly, I’m sick of it. Instead, I would like to briefly compare, position-by-position, the 2002 Twins and 2004 Royals.

Catcher: A.J. Pierzynski vs. Benito Santiago
When I saw that the Royals had signed Santiago this past off-season, I wasn’t exactly sure what the move would accomplish. I don’t know exactly what the Royals were expecting to get out of the 38 year-old catcher (perhaps just veteran leadership?), but it’s safe to say that he has been just average this year (.763 OPS). He recently broke his hand and is out 8 weeks, so the Royals won’t even be able to trade him! A.J., on the other hand, blossomed into one of the game’s best young catchers in 2002, as he was one of the team’s better hitters. The biggest difference between the two is the sticker price: A.J. made the minimum while Benito will cost the Royals $4.3 million over the next two years.
Advantage: 2002 Twins because of age, potential, and money

First Basemen: Ken Harvey vs. Doug Mientkiewicz
Although the two were originally slated to share the 1B/DHing duties, I have chosen Harvey over Sweeney for this spot because Sweeney’s injuries have forced him to DH more. Harvey has been a pleasant surprise this year, hitting .350 with a .897 OPS. There aren’t many bad things you can say about those numbers. Dougie Baseball, on the other hand, had a mediocre 2002 season as he hit .261 with just 10 HRs and 64 RBIs. Both made (or are making) around the minimum as 2nd or 3rd year players. Mientkiewicz is far superior defensively, as he won a Gold Glove in 2002.
Advantage: 2004 Royals, as Harvey is a young player having a breakout season; although had I done this analysis before April I may have gone the other way.

Second Basemen: Luis Rivas vs. Desi Relaford/Tony Graffanino
Ouch. The competition at this position isn’t all that fierce. Rivas was injured early in 2002 and never really got on track following his stellar 2001 season. Relaford was a key part of the Royals’ 2003 success, but he’s having a terrible 2004 (.197 BA). Graffanino is a role player who has played well in limited duty at 2B, but there isn’t a whole lot of potential there. This is a tough one to pick.
Advantage: Draw. Rivas at least showed signs of potential in 2001 and 2002, but despite Graffanino’s decent 2004 performance, he is what he is And pretty much everyone knew Relaford was a fluke in 2003.

Third Base: Corey Koskie vs. Joe Randa
Joe Randa’s lack of power this year is one of the main reasons why the Royals have been so terrible, as he has just 2 homers in 229 at-bats this year. The Royals were counting on him to produce, and he has flopped miserably. Now Koskie wasn’t a ball of fire back in ’02 (.815 OPS but just 15 HRs and 69 RBIs) following his breakout 2001, but Randa isn’t on pace to even come close to those numbers. And Randa makes a lot more money ($3.25 mil) than Koskie did ($300K).
Advantage: Big-time 2002 Twins. Koskie is simply far better all around than Randa, in almost every facet of his game. And the price was right.

Shortstop: Angel Berroa vs. Christian Guzman
The Royals were really counting on Berroa, 2003’s AL ROY, to step it up in ’04 and anchor the infield. He has struggled with injuries and sickness and has been very underwhelming (.686 OPS in 218 ABs) thus far. However, Guzman also had a disappointing 2002 after his All-Star 2001 season, so this is a tough matchup to call.
Advantage: 2004 Royals. We have the value of 20/20 hindsight on this one. Guzman has yet to live up to his potential, while Berroa, despite his weak performance thus far, has at least shown flashes of brilliance. However, both teams counted on much more from their shortstops. The Twins were able to survive, while the Royals obviously haven’t.

Outfield: Jacque Jones/Torii Hunter/Dusty Kielmohr vs. Matt Stairs/Carlos Beltran/Juan Gonzalez
Each of these two contestants have their strengths and weaknesses. The Twins’ foursome (including the infamous Mohr/Kielty platoon) was young, cheap, hungry, but somewhat unproven entering 2002. The Royals’ ideal OF consisted of three veterans, including the superstar Beltran. Stairs has actually played quite well (.802 OPS and 10 HRs), but Gonzo was a complete (and predictable) failure. Baird knew he was taking a risk when his signed the oft-injured Gonzalez for $4 million this off-season, but like almost everything else, it turned out quite badly for our foes down the interstate. Gonzalez only had 17 RBIs before he was injured, and it appears the Royals are stuck with his contract. Baird also passed up myriad chances to trade Beltran this off-season in anticipation of the 2004 “pennant drive that never was”. While he has been his normal productive self, he almost certainly will be traded within a few weeks. In ’02, Jacque and Torii cost a fraction of what Gonzo and Beltran will make this year, and I guarantee the latter won’t come close to matching the production of the former.
Advantage: 2002 Twins. The Gonzalez signing was a dumb risk, and you don’t win championships with a bunch of “maybes” (a common theme with the 2004 Royals). Beltran is still very good, but even he’s not worth what the Royals will pay him this season.

Starting Pitching: Radke/Reed/Lohse/Milton vs. Anderson/Gobble/May/Affeldt
Here we are at last. This is the category that separates the pretenders from the contenders. The big question surrounding the 2004 Royals was: “Will their starting pitching come through?” The answer, as we all know, has been a resounding “NO!”. Brian Anderson was supposed to be the ace of this “staff”, yet he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his solid 2003 was a fluke with a 7.00 ERA so far this season (and we’re in late June!). The Royals gave Darrell May a big contract this winter following a very good 2003, but he has an ERA of almost 6.00 this season. Young Jimmy Gobble has been the Royals’ best starter, but even he has been mediocre (4.54 ERA w/4 wins). Affeldt struggled with injuries and was moved to the bullpen, but he has been surprising bad this year as well (1.65 WHIP), especially for someone so talented.
I fully realize the Twins starting rotation in 2002 wasn’t the world’s greatest by any means, but at least they had a few guys (Reed, Radke, and Milton) who had proved themselves at the big league level for more than one year. Sure, all four were pretty middling in ’02 (except Reed, who had a pretty good regular season), but they were good enough.
Advantage: 2002 Twins. This is the X-Factor. The Royals took an awful risk with their 2004 rotation, and it failed miserably. The Twins played it safe (despite the added costs) and it paid off in the long run.

Bullpen: Guardado/Hawkins/Romero/Jackson/Fiore vs. Sullivan/Grimsley/Leskanic/MacDougall
This is a no-brainer, for obvious reasons. The 2002 bullpen was quite possibly the best in franchise history (especially with wunderkind Johan Santana). Many thought the Royals’ bullpen would be solid this year, and if you look at individuals, it hasn’t been all that terrible (Sullivan and Grimsely have been pretty decent). But the collapses of Leskanic (since released) and MacDougall have been crippling. MacDougall was an All-Star last season, but he has only pitched 3.1 big league innings this year. What was perceived as a potential strength before the season has turned into yet another weakness for the Royals, while exactly the opposite was true for the 2002 Twins.
Advantage: Big-time 2002 Twins. There is little explanation even needed here. The Royals tried to go with proven bullpen arms, but they have simply not lived up to expectations. The Twins went with unprovens, yet it turned out spectacularly. Go figure. Had you compared these two teams before their respective seasons, the verdict might have been a little closer, but I still don’t like cobbling a bullpen together with a bunch of overpriced middle relievers. The Twins went for a blend of young arms and veterans, which seems to be a much better recipe for success.

Well, there you have it. I realize this rudimentary analysis was done with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but as you can see, the rest of the country should have realized before the season began that the 2004 Royals would never hold a candle to the 2002 Twins. If you have any thoughts of your own, feel free to drop a note in the comments section below, or e-mail me at Thanks for stopping by Twins Chatter and have a good day.