2016 Twins comparable to Kansas City’s 2004 flop
NEW YORK -- The Twins aren't the first team to take a big step forward only to have those high hopes dashed with a miserable follow-up campaign. They're merely the latest.A dozen years ago in the American League Central, for instance, the Kansas ...
NEW YORK - The Twins aren’t the first team to take a big step forward only to have those high hopes dashed with a miserable follow-up campaign. They’re merely the latest.
A dozen years ago in the American League Central, for instance, the Kansas City Royals staged an epic flop just when they thought they were ready to take off.
That’s why Tony Pena winces at the mere mention of 2004.
The former all-star catcher was in his second full season managing the Royals. Coming off an 83-win season in 2003, a 21-win improvement over the prior year, a proud franchise was convinced it hadn’t just put a halt to a run of eight straight losing seasons but that it was ready to take that next step forward.
“We thought we were going to be better,” says Pena, now first-base coach for the New York Yankees. “I’m sure the Twins were thinking about the same thing.”
Pena’s Royals didn’t start 0-9, but they did struggle early amid a series of key injuries. They went 7-14 in April, followed that with a 10-17 May, and by the time June rolled around, trade rumors were already flying in regards to star center fielder Carlos Beltran.
By June 24, Beltran was traded to the Houston Astros in a three-way blockbuster with the Oakland A’s, and that’s when the bottom fell out for the 2004 Royals. An eight-game losing streak quickly followed.
By season’s end, they had sagged all the way to 58-104, making them the worst team in franchise history to that point.
It would take the Royals eight more losing seasons and three more managers after Pena, who resigned after an 8-25 start to a 2005 season marked by 106 losses, to finally make the jump into annual contention.
Patience is a must
The Twins, of course, hope this season is merely an aberration under second-year manager Paul Molitor. After improving by 13 wins in his debut, they entered last weekend’s series at Yankee Stadium on pace to finish 52-110.
The Twins have had their share of injuries, just as Pena’s 2004 Royals did. They also have seen key young players such as Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios and Eddie Rosario struggle just as those Royals did with rookie right-hander Zack Greinke (3.97 earned-run average) and shortstop Angel Berroa, the reigning AL rookie of the year.
“This is a tough place for development,” Pena says. “It’s tough when you have a lot of younger players. Sometimes it takes time to develop them. You need to be patient.”
Even the Royals’ veterans struggled that year. First baseman Mike Sweeney, in his age-30 season, saw a four-year run of all-star appearances end amid the start of his rapid decline.
“We had some injuries, too,” Pena recalls. “Juan Gonzalez got hurt. Benito Santiago got hurt. Whenever you lose that many players - key players - it’s tough to play baseball.”
These Twins have experienced similar injury setbacks with the likes of Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, Trevor Plouffe, Kyle Gibson and Miguel Sano.
“That was a different core than the Twins have,” Pena said. “We had more veterans at that time than this Twins team has.”
And yet the sense of disappointment was similarly unavoidable - in the clubhouse, on the field, among the fan base.
After seeing home attendance at Kauffman Stadium jump by 36 percent in 2003, when the Royals finished third and were just seven games out of first, their 2004 gate slumped by 6.7 percent. The Royals posted the second-lowest average home attendance in the AL.
The Beltran deal was merely the latest kick in the teeth for Royals fans, coming on the heels of deals that sent away fellow young outfielders Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, both in 2001. All of those financially driven deals were orchestrated by general manager Allard Baird, who eventually gave way to Dayton Moore in 2006.
Baird, as a special assistant in the front office, went on to help the Boston Red Sox win their two latest World Series titles in 2007 and 2013.
“At that time the Royals didn’t keep anyone, actually,” says Beltran, now playing right field for the Yankees. “In 2004, we didn’t start the season well, and I knew at one point I was going to be traded.”
Things deteriorated quickly after Beltran was dealt.
“Every year, when you show up to spring training, you feel you’re going to be able to compete,” he said. “At that time, the Royals had a different mentality than what they have now. Now they’re keeping guys together, which is great. It allows the guys to get to know each other and be around each other for so many years, from the minor leagues all the way to the big leagues.”
‘Give them time’
While the Royals were able to avoid 90 losses just once in the eight seasons that followed their 2004 collapse, neither Pena nor Beltran believe the same wilderness period awaits the Twins.
After taking three of four games at Target Field in a competitive series two weekends ago, the Yankees saw firsthand what the Twins are experiencing.
“You just need to be patient with young players,” Pena says. “Sometimes young players are going to learn how to play the game in the big leagues, and they’ll see it’s a little bit different. You’re going to see a lot of mistakes. You see a lot of base-running mistakes. You see a lot of swing and miss. You see a lot of throws to different bases, and you need to continue to teach at the big-league level.”
The key, Pena says, is that the Twins have managed to accumulate impressive young talent.
“The Twins have some good young players,” Pena says. “Give them time. They know how to do it. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and they have great people around the organization and great baseball people. The Twins have been building ballclubs around young players forever.”
Beltran, 39 and seemingly headed for Cooperstown with 69.2 career wins above replacement, sees better days ahead for the Twins, as well.
“I think the Twins are an organization that’s going in the right direction,” Beltran says. “They have great talent. They just have to be able to try to keep this talent together and try to make it the way it was when Torii (Hunter) was there and they were able to keep that team together for a long time and compete.”
Beltran, the AL Rookie of the Year in 1999, remembers those teams well.
“They had (Joe) Mauer and (Justin) Morneau and a good core of players that knew how to play the game the right way,” Beltran says. “They could impact players in the clubhouse in different ways.”
He sees the same sort of promising core being assembled now.
“They way I see the team, they’re not far away,” Beltran says. “They have (Brian) Dozier, who’s a good player. They have Sano. They have the center fielder (Buxton) who’s very talented. Right now maybe he’s struggling a little bit, but you’re going to learn by playing every day.”
And Beltran, who plans to represent Puerto Rico at the World Baseball Classic again next spring, remains a big fan of two of his former WBC teammates currently playing at Triple-A Rochester: Rosario and Berrios.
“Eddie is a player; he grinds,” Beltran says. “I know he struggled this year, but it happened to me, it happens to a lot of guys. The league adjusts to you; all of a sudden you have to make your adjustments.”
Rosario, hitting .354 through 32 games for the Red Wings, appears to be doing that now.
“Berrios is talented, man,” Beltran says. “I love Berrios. I love the kid. He works so hard and he has a lot of passion and a lot of tools. He’s a kid that needs a little guidance, but when that guy figures it out, he’s going to be a good pitcher for this organization for a long time.”
Beltran shakes his head and smiles at the thought of one of the most promising young arms to come out of Puerto Rico in many years.
“I would try to develop that kid as much as I can,” he says, “because I know that kid will be successful.”