As 2011 predictably circles down the drain, Royals fans have already begun to look towards next season. There has been a lot of interesting discussion here about what Dayton should do over the next twelve months to get the Royals in position to become a contender in time for the "best system in the history of whatever" to make an impact. It may be instructive to see what other small-market franchises in our position have done to make "the Leap" from pretender to contender.
There are a number of examples of small-market teams mired in a long stretch of losing baseball that suddenly made the leap to contender. What follows is an examination of what transactions contributed to transforming these clubs from a losing team to a winning team.Oakland Athletics
Leap Year: 1999. They finished 87-75, seven games out of the wild card, and eight games out of the division lead. That season snapped a streak of five consecutive losing seasons and two straight last place finishes.
How Much of the Team Was Home Grown? 15.8 of the team's 34.9 WAR (45.3%) were drafted or signed as amateur talent by the Athletics. Most of the homegrown talent was hitters - Jason Giambi, Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada and Ben Grieve. The pitching talent was not quite ready for the big leagues, but would make an impact in later years with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder.
Who They Acquired: IF Tony Phillips, IF Olmedo Saenz, OF Tim Raines, DH John Jaha, P Doug Jones
Who They Dumped: 3B Mike Blowers, IF Rafael Bournigal, IF Dave Magadan, IF Bip Roberts, IF Ed Sprague, LF Rickey Henderson, P Mike Mohler, P Jay Witasick
The Athletics dumped a bunch of old veteran bench players and brought on some new veteran bench players. But the thing you will notice about almost all of these old veterans is that they all demonstrated an ability to draw walks. The biggest acquisition turned out to be signing John Jaha, an oft-injured, 33 year old former Brewers first baseman. Jaha was signed for $525,000 and ended up hitting 35 home runs and posting a .970 OPS.
Rookie third baseman Eric Chavez joined the lineup in 1999, replacing Mike Blowers. He and Jaha were the only new regulars however, as the Athletics played seven of the same starters they had in 1998 until they acquired second baseman Randy Velarde mid-season to start over Scott Spiezio.
The pitching staff to begin the year was almost the same as in 1998, although Doug Jones proved to be a nice addition to the pen. That mid-season, the Athletics would shake up their pitching staff with a number of trades, acquiring Kevin Appier, Omar Olivares and Jason Isringhausen in separate trades, while dealing Kenny Rogers, Blake Stein and Billy Taylor.
So How Did They Improve?: The offense improved considerably, scoring nearly 100 more runs than the previous season, finishing fourth in the league. The club drew 140 more walks, topping the league with 770. They also hit 86 more home runs, finishing second in the league with 235.
First baseman Jason Giambi went from being a pretty good hitter to an MVP-type hitter. Shortstop Miguel Tejada went from a disappointment to a pretty good hitter. Third baseman Eric Chavez represented a big improvement over the washed up Blowers. Jaha essentially replaced Rickey Henderson in the lineup, provided much more power than the future Hall of Famer. The bench was also much stronger with Tony Phillips and Olmedo Saenz serving as valuable bats.
The pitching was about the same, giving up just 20 fewer runs than the previous season. They still had crummy pitchers like Mike Oquist and Jimmy Haynes, and had to release Tom Candiotti in June due to ineffectiveness. But former minor league free agent Gil Heredia stepped up to have a solid season, rookie Tim Hudson was sensational in 21 starts, and mid-season acquisitions of Omar Olivares and Kevin Appier lent some stability. Despite the team's success, General Manager Billy Beane was unafraid to deal successful veterans like Kenny Rogers and Billy Taylor in order to net younger, cheaper talent (Terrence Long and Jason Isringhausen).
What Happened After That? Read Moneyball! The Athletics would win the first of four straight division titles, twice winning 100 games. Some young pitching stars like Barry Zito and Mark Mulder would emerge to join Hudson and the good young hitters. But in the winter after their successful 1999 season, the A's would lay low, adding only crummy reliever Scott Service and the infamous Jeremy Giambi to their roster, instead letting the young talent emerge. That young talent would win 91 games and the Western Division title in 2000.
Leap Year: 2001. They finished 85-77, just six games back of the Indians, snapping a streak of eight straight losing seasons. They had won just 69 games the previous season.
How Much Was Home Grown? 18.6 of the 29.7 team WAR (62.6%) were home grown. Seven of the nine position player starters were homegrown Twins - and shortstop Cristian Guzman and designated hitter David Ortiz had been minor league acquisitions from the Yankees and Mariners respectively. Four of the six starting pitchers (Brad Radke, Mark Redman, Kyle Lohse, JC Romero) had been home grown while Eric Milton (Yankees) and Joe Mays (Mariners) had each been minor league acquisitions as well.
Who They Acquired: OF Quinton McCracken, P Hector Carrasco
Who They Dumped: C Chad Moeller
This was an EXTREMELY quiet off-season for the Twins. The 2000 team hadn't finished particularly strong, finishing 21-33 down the stretch. Yet they patiently (and perhaps cheaply) went into the next season with almost exactly the same team. Six of the nine starters were the same, with the only changes being the emergence of young players like catcher AJ Pierzynski, 1B Doug Mientkiewicz and 2B Luis Rivas replacing 2000 starters C Matt LeCroy, 1B Ron Coomer and 2B Jay Canizaro.
The pitching staff was virtually unchanged, with the addition of reliever Hector Carrasco being the only off-season pickup. Once the club was in contention, they did pull two trades, sending pitcher Mark Redman out of town for closer Todd Jones, and picking up pitcher Rick Reed for outfielder Matt Lawton.
So How Did They Improve?: The offense improved with Mientkiewicz and Pieryznski serving as significant upgrades. Cristian Guzman improved his OPS from .687 to .814. Torii Hunter and Corey Koskie had similar numbers as in 2000, except they were hitting a lot more home runs now. The offense posted the exact same OBA in 2001 as it had in 2000, but while it had been the 13th best OBA in 2000, it was the 5th best in 2001. The team slugging percentage went up quite a bit to become the 8th best in the league, and overall, they went from the 13th best in runs scored to 8th in the league.
The pitching went from bad (5.14 ERA, 10th in the league) to mediocre (4.51 ERA, 7th in the league). This despite allowing almost the same number of home runs and actually striking out fewer hitters. They did decrease their walks significantly, finishing second in the league in walks allowed, demonstrating their organizational philosophy.
The team also exploited an extremely weak Central Division that year. They finished 42-15 against Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City, going just 43-62 against everyone else.
What Happened After That? Despite their 2001 success, the Twins had another extremely quiet winter the next year, adding no players of consequence. Nonetheless, they would win 94 games and clinch the first of six division titles over the next nine seasons.
Leap Year: 2003. They surprised the baseball world by winning 91 games and sneaking into the playoffs as a Wild Card, then marching past the Giants, Cubs and Yankees to win their second World Championship. Their magical season snapped a streak of five straight losing seasons, including a 108 loss season following their 1997 World Championship.
How Much Was Home Grown? Just 4.3 of the team 36.2 WAR (6.7%) was homegrown. The vast majority of talent had been acquired in trades (20.9 WAR) - and most of the players were only minor leaguers when acquired by the Marlins in trades including AJ Burnett, Brad Penny, Dontrelle Willis, Carl Pavano, Derrek Lee and Mike Lowell.
Unlike some of these other examples, the Marlins were actually decent before they made "the Leap", winning between 76 and 79 games the previous three seasons. The had steadily increased payroll since bottoming out in a firesale following the 1997 Championship, but their $41 million payroll in 2002 still put them 6th from last, behind even the Royals.
The team did dump some player salaries in the winter before 2003, sending outfielder Preston Wilson and catcher Charles Johnson and their combined $13.5 million in salaries to the Rockies in a three-team deal that would send high priced pitcher Mike Hampton to the Braves, and light-hitting speedster Juan Pierre and his arbitration-controlled salary to the Marlins. But they would also add high priced talent, trading for Tigers left-hander Mark Redman and his $2.1 million salary. The biggest surprise was when they landed future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Rodriguez was seeking a lucrative multi-year deal, but the catcher had a recent history of injuries and found offers few and far between. The Marlins offered a one year $10 million deal, giving Ivan the opportunity to re-establish his value.
So How Did They Improve? The offense improved a bit, scoring 52 more runs and going from bad to mediocre. They improved their slugging percentage from .403 to .421 largely by replacing offensive black holes at catcher (Charles Johnson) and shortstop (Andy Fox) with good players like Ivan Rodriguez and young shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Curiously, the team drew 80 fewer walks, finishing 13th in the league in 2003.
The outfield actually got worse as the team had dealt slugger Cliff Floyd in the summer of 2002 and Preston Wilson and Kevin Millar over the winter. The replacements were clear offensive downgrades in veteran Todd Hollandsworth, slappy speedster Juan Pierre and young, but inconsistent right fielder Juan Encarnacion. Mid-season the team received a jolt from rookie sensation Miguel Cabrera, but his numbers still did not represent an upgrade over what the team had received from its outfielders the season before.
The pitching gave up 71 fewer runs, significantly reducing the number of walks and home runs allowed. Interestingly, the club's most successful young 2002 pitcher - AJ Burnett, would miss most of 2003 with injury. But other young pitchers like Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, and Carl Pavano would pick up the slack with a 3.91 ERA in 87 starts. Redman would also have a solid season, but another lefty - Dontrelle Willis - would come out of nowhere to electrify fans with his high leg-kick and 14 wins. Overall their starters posted a 3.91 ERA, while the pen would stabilize that summer with the acquisition of closer Ugueth Urbina in exchange for a former first round bust named Adrian Gonzalez.
What Happened After That? Jeffrey Loria continued his era of evil. The team immediately traded many of its higher priced talent - Encarnacion, Redman, first baseman Derrek Lee. They let Rodriguez, Urbina and reliever Braden Looper leave through free agency. Their 2004 team payroll was actually $7 million less than their 2003 Opening Day payroll. Still, the team was in the Wild Card hunt until September and won 83 games.
Leap Year: 2005. They finished 81-81, a fourteen win improvement. It broke a streak of twelve straight losing seasons in Milwaukee.
How Much Was Home Grown? 9.1 of the team's 31 WAR (29.4) was attributable to home grown players - most of that to long-time vets Geoff Jenkins and Ben Sheets. The club had a core of young players, but many of those were too young to make a significant contribution in 2005.
The Brewers made one signature move that winter, trading speed for power by sending Podsednik to the White Sox for slugger Carlos Lee. Podsednik had led the league in steals that year, but posted a crummy .677 OPS. He was cost-controlled, while Lee made $8 million per year. The White Sox were also looking to hit fewer home runs and "diversify" their offense, so the deal was struck, much to the Brewers benefit.
The club also dealt All-Star closer Danny Kolb and his 39 saves to the Braves for a pair of minor league arms that didn't pan out. They replaced Kolb with Derrick Turnbow, who they claimed off waivers from the Angels. Turnbow would post his own 39 save season in 2005, with a 1.74 ERA to boot.
So How Did They Improve? The offense dramatically improved with Lee in the lineup, scoring almost 100 more runs, going from 15th in the league to 6th. Their on-base percentage jumped ten points and their slugging percentage went from .387 to .423. They also stole 50 fewer bases with Podsednik in Chicago. Free agent catcher Damien Miller enjoyed a solid season, a huge upgrade from the performance of Chad Moeller and Gary Bennett the previous season. Rookie shortstop JJ Hardy posted a respectable .711 OPS, an improvement over Craig Counsell. The team also mixed and matched different players at third base, with Russell Branyan, Wes Helms, Jeff Cirillo and Bill Hall all spending time at the hot corner. The result was all four had solid seasons as occasional regulars, and the bench was much deeper.
The pitching staff gave up sixty fewer runs in 2005. 26 year old left-handed starter Chris Capuano broke out with an eighteen-win season with a 3.99 ERA, but the rest of the rotation was much the same as in 2004 with ace Ben Sheets missing twelve starts in 2005. The club did acquire starter Tomo Ohka mid-season in exchange for second baseman Junior Spivey, who was expendable with the emergence of rookie Rickie Weeks.
An overhaul in the bullpen made up much of the improvement in the pitching staff. The Brewers were able to piece together a pen full of rejects with terrific results. Waiver claims like Derrick Turnbow and Matt Wise had fantastic seasons, and cheap free agents like Ricky Bottalico and Julio Santana proved to be respectable.
What Happened After That? With hot prospect Prince Fielder ready in 2006, the team swapped first baseman Lyle Overbay to the Blue Jays for pitcher Dave Bush and two other players. They also acquired high priced, but oft-injured third baseman Corey Koskie to stabilize that position for them. The team hovered around mediocrity for the next two seasons, but stuck with their young core of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Bill Hall, JJ Hardy and Corey Hart rather than dipping into free agency. In 2008 they won 90 games and made the playoffs as a Wild Card....after firing manager Ned Yost with two weeks to go in the season. By 2008 they had begun to invest in free agent talent, acquiring veterans Mike Cameron and Jeff Suppan and trading for C.C. Sabathia.
Leap Year: 2008. They won 97 games - a thirty-one win improvement - and won the American League pennant. It was the first winning season in franchise history after ten losing seasons.
How Much Was Home Grown? 15.2 of the team's 36.5 WAR (41.6) was home grown, mostly on the hitting side with BJ Upton, Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, while starting pitchers James Shields and Andrew Sonnanstine made up the bulk of the homegrown pitching contributions.
The most notable move the Rays made in the run-up to their Leap Year, was trading disappointing former first round pick Delmon Young to the Twins in exchange for starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Garza was a very talented young pitcher, but was a bit unproven, while Bartlett was a light hitting shortstop in his prime with a reputation as a terrific defender. The Rays were able to sell the Twins on Delmon's potential and RBI prowess after one season with a .723 OPS and 93 RBI. It proved to be a great deal for the Rays as Garza posted a 3.70 ERA in 30 starts and Bartlett helped significantly upgrade the Rays defense while Delmon continued to not get on base and not really hit for that much power.
The veteran free agent signings of Hinske, Floyd, Miller and Percival cost the club $8.9 million combined in 2008, but produced just 1.6 in total WAR.
So How Did They Improve? The 2008 Rays actually scored eight fewer runs than in the previous losing season, slightly improving their on-base percentage, but posting a lower slugging percentage. Rookie Evan Longoria proved to a significant upgrade over Ty Wigginton, Dioner Navarro went from offensive sinkhole to All-Star catcher, and Cliff Floyd provided some offensive stability at designated hitter over the mish-mash of weak bats the team employed in 2007. But guys like Carlos Pena and BJ Upton - who had sensational 2007 seasons - slumped a bit in 2008, and Bartlett, while a great glove, was still a downgrade offensively from the mediocre Brendan Harris.
The pitching and defense, however, enjoyed a remarkable turnaround. The 2007 club allowed 944 runs, worst in baseball. The 2008 club allowed just 671 runs, second best in the league. They only slightly improved in walks and home runs allowed, and strikeouts. But they gave up 300 fewer hits, largely due to a much improved defense. Aki Iwamura moved from third base to second base to replace the lead-gloved Wigginton. Bartlett was a huge upgrade over the statuesque Brendan Harris. And mid-season acquisition Gabe Gross was a huge upgrade over the defensively-challenged Delmon Young.
Pitchers like Andrew Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel all saw their ERA drop once the defense was upgraded, joining solid starters like Scott Kazmir and James Shields. The bullpen turnaround was also remarkable. The 2007 Rays only featured two relievers with at least 50 innings pitched with an ERA below seven. The 2008 club relied on three relief pitchers they had acquired the previous eighteen months in separate small trades - JP Howell (for Joey Gathright), Grant Balfour (for Seth McClung) and Dan Wheeler (for Ty Wigginton) - and the three responded by posting a 2.13 ERA in 214 innings of relief.
What Happened After That? The club spent some money after the season, signing slugger Pat Burrell to a two year $16 million deal. They also dealt the wild, yet successful Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for cheap young outfielder Matt Joyce. The offense improved, but the pitching regressed despite the emergence of rookies Jeff Niemann and David Price, and the club won just 84 games. The team bounced back in 2010 to win 96 games and the Eastern Division title despite the tenth lowest payroll in baseball.
The clubs generally had about 40% of their team value homegrown, with more hitters than pitchers making up that value. In most cases, the team had a core of good young hitters contributing at the MLB level with a group of young pitchers coming through the minors behind them. This bodes well for the Royals who already have a homegrown core of hitters in Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, with a cavalry of pitchers in the minor leagues ready to move up in the next few seasons.
For these clubs, generally the rest of the value of the team was acquired in trades. There were a few examples of clubs trading for expensive Major Leaguers - Carlos Lee, Mark Redman, but generally these clubs traded for young minor leaguers with upside potential.
What these clubs did not seem to do was sign big free agents to multi-year deals. No clubs profiled signed a free agent to longer to a two-year contract. The only high profile free agent signings were the Rays signing of Pat Burrell and the Marlins signing of Ivan Rodriguez. More generally these clubs used free agency as a way to fill out bullpens and benches, or find low cost values such as John Jaha, Gil Heredia, or Russell Branyan.
While it may be fun to think about the Royals pursuing high priced free agents to take them from the cellar to contention, more likely the Royals path to contention will be paved by low-priced talent exceeding expectations. Several of these clubs had low-regarded talent perform much better than expected - Heredia, Joe Mays, Doug Davis, Chris Capuano, Dontrelle Willis, Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist. If the Royals are to become contenders, it will be more likely it is from a guy like Felipe Paulino being a solid MLB pitcher in their rotation than a guy like C.C. Sabathia.
Dayton Moore has put the Royals in a good position to make the leap by supplying them with a solid core of homegrown talent. Whether or not they can make the leap to contention will depend much on the trades he makes to acquire young talent. While it may be disappointing if the Royals have a quiet winter, it is also entirely possible that the moves he has made to put the Royals in contention have already been made - and we're just waiting for those players to take their performance to the next level.