(From "Paths Of Victory," The Bootleg Series Vol. 1)
Now that there's been a little time to reflect on it, I thought I'd explore What Fourth Place Means To Me. The Royals blitzed through September with an 18-8 mark, and managed to escape the cellar by one game over Detroit. It was the first time since the magical season of 2003 that KC did not finish last. Closing the season with such a good month allowed the Royals to reach the modest 75-win mark for the first time since 2003, only the second time since 2000, and only the third time since 1996.
Of course, most fans do not celebrate finishing fourth in a five-team division. But most fans have not endured the unending parade of suck that Royals fans have over the last four seasons. This team lost 310 games from 2004-2006, and 403 games from 2004-2007. Yep, an average of 101 losses over a four year period. The Royals finished a total of 138 games out of first in those four years. Heck, they finished a total of 48 games out of fourth place those four years! Damn right I'm happy not to finish last this year!
So there are two things to get excited about if you're a Royals fan: modest improvement to 75 wins, and an 18-8 September. I'd like to think that these both mean certain improvement in 2009, but I'm not sure I can say that. I looked through baseball-reference.com to find all the times since 1995 where a team improved by 20 games from one season to the next. I picked 20 because if the Royals want to win the division next year, a 20-game improvement is probably needed. OK, I found 19 such seasons. In only two cases did those teams have a winning September the year before their big leap: the 1997 Cubs went 13-12 and the 2000 Astros went 17-12. The 1998 Cubs were helped by Sammy Sosa's 66 homers; I can't imagine any Royal hitting 66 bombs next year. That Astros team was another oddity: their pythagorean record was actually 81-81, yet they only went 72-90. It's not a big surprise that they bounced back strongly the next year. The Royals' pythagorean record was 72-90, so I wouldn't expect a big bounce next year based on that.
Only two more of those 19 teams had even a .500 record the previous September: the 1998 Diamondbacks and the 2003 Cardinals. That Cardinal team ended the year at 85-77, then went 105-67 in 2004. The Royals aren't close to that caliber yet, so throw out that comparison. The Diamondbacks went 65-97 in 1998, their first year as a franchise. Then they added Randy Johnson, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez in the offseason and went 100-62 in 1999. I think Dayton Moore will do something this winter to make the Royals better, but I don't believe he'll be going on a shopping spree like that.
The road to where the Royals want to be will not be paved with quick fixes in the free agent marketplace. They will have to develop a lot of talent, and use surplus talent to trade for positions of need. For now, we have to hope that the excellent September the Royals had is a sign that the talent is developing at the major league level.