Friday, January 8, 2010

Presenting the 2010 Boston Royals

The 2010 Red Sox are the new Kansas City Royals. Not the current paupers of the midwest who are little more than a AAAA team, but the always contending, artificial turf swarm of black flies from the mid 1980's. The Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Charlie Liebrandt, George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson Royals.

Other than Ken Brett's kid brother, who always seemed to be hitting around .580, they didn't terrify you offensively. Well ok, Steve Balboni could take you deep, but more often then not he spent his at bats pounding outside pitches into the infield grass for a quick 4-6-3 double play.

The Royals' pitching staff was a monotonous buzzsaw. They would come into Fenway in those powder blue uni's with the utterly unassuming manner and very casually toss three-hitter after four-hitter after shutout, then leave town to do the same thing to Baltimore, Toronto and Detroit before heading back to their Fountain Palace next to I-70.

In odd numbered years, (1985, 1987 and 1989) Saberhagen was a combined 61-22, plus 2 Cy Youngs, a World Series MVP, an All-Star appearance, a Gold Glove, and an earned run championship. In even numbered years, he was Clark Kent, but that's when they'd retool for their next run. During the mid-late 1980's, Kansas City didn't blow you out, but they pissed you off game after game, and when you thought you'd had enough, Dan Quisenberry would casually stroll out of the darkness beyond the outfield fence and shut you down in the 9th inning on 10 pitches. He led the AL in saves 5 out of 6 years. "Quiz", as he was known, was Mariano Rivera before there was a Mariano Rivera.

Defensively, the Royals were routinely in the top 10% of the league in fewest errors, best fielding percentage and most reliably sound fundamentals. They never beat themselves, and seemed to never lose a 3-game series for four or five years straight.

That's what Theo Epstein has built at Fenway for this year. Jacoby Ellsbury, who's probably the fastest man in the game today, is going to play the smallest left field in baseball, because there's a Gold Glove-caliber centerfielder next to him in Mike Cameron. When JD Drew is healthy, he plays right field as well as anyone, giving Boston a trio that can cover outfield ground in Boston, Detroit, Seattle and New York with equal ease.

Speaking of Seattle, adding Adrian Beltre (late of the Mariners) at third has pissed off every woman in New England, since Mike Lowell will soon be jettisoned for a case of baseballs and a keg of beer to be named later. Nevertheless, even Lowell is on record saying Beltre's the best 3B he's ever seen. That from a guy who, according to the numbers, is one of the 10 best third basemen of all time. As thoroughly classy as he is (and has always been), Lowell can't do it anymore, and Theo didn't have any choice. As a glove man, Beltre's the best, and perhaps the finest defensive player at any infield position in the majors. I think he's going to prove to be an offensive black hole, but for 2010 at least, it's his job to prove naysayers wrong. Marco Scutaro is a worthy successor to Alex Gonzalez at short, and has better range than any shortstop in the business, with a deadly accurate arm. Dustin Pedroia and Youk already own Gold Gloves. KMart is an average catcher, but he's the one guy with a glove who's in the lineup for his bat, and can spell Youk at first on occasion.

The rotation is potentially stupid good, and is the only one in the majors with a legitimate shot to equal the 1971 Orioles' legendary modern day mark of four 20-game winners. Lester, Lackey, Beckett, Buchholz and Matsuzaka, with Tim Wakefield (the 2nd winningest starter in Red Sox history) the odd man out. Jonathan Papelbon has actually been using videos of his meltdown against the Angels in last year's playoffs to motivate him for the upcoming season. There are more than enough bullpen combinations to get to Pap, and they all include the closer-in-waiting, Daniel Bard. When the kid puts it together, his 85mph curve, followed by a 102 mph heater, will embarrass hitters on both sides of the plate. Hideki Okajima, at least eight guys answering to the name Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen, Junichi Tazawa, Michael Bowden (who is likely to start in Pawtucket first) and my favorite name in the majors, Boof Bonser. The pitching vat is full. The defensive vat is overflowing. The hitting, not so much, but they won't be blown out often, and there's some solace in that.

This team really can be the 1985 Royals, assuming they can win enough 3-2 and 2-1 games. Jason Bay's bat has not been replaced, so Theo's thinking is that Bay's 36 HR, 119 RBI and .921 OPS will be offset by that many fewer runs being scored against Boston by the opposition. In Theo's World, it's a zero-sum game. You can score, as they did in the Damon/Ortiz/Ramirez heyday, or you can prevent 'em from scoring. He's not entirely wrong, though baseball rules still do require the offense to tally more runs than the other guys in order to be declared the victors. David Ortiz cannot suck this year. 0 for April and May won't be acceptable in 2010. Beltre and Cameron are likely to combine for close to 300 strikeouts, so Ellsbury has to get on base, Dustin Pedroia needs to move him over and Ortiz, Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, and JD Drew are tasked with piling up the RBI. Marco Scutaro has to get hits at the bottom of the order. There won't be much wiggle room when the New York Murderer's Row or the pesky, annoying Rays come to town, but as long as the Red Sox stick to the fundamentals and the deep pitching keeps them in the game, they should be hanging around into October.

Photo credits: Saberhagen: CNN/SI. Brett: Beltre: Mark Garfinkel, Boston Herald. Lester: Lackey:, Beckett: CNN/SI

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taking on water

I posted some time back that the model for the Red Sox in recent years was the old Earl Weaver philosophy of pitching, defense and 3 run homers. The Red Sox are falling fast because they can't manage to excel at any of those three elements with regularity.

The starting pitching has gone from the team's biggest strength to a cause for serious concern. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are legitimate studs, but that's all we've got. John Smoltz was a bust, Daisuke Matsuzaka has been off the radar all year, Tim Wakefield is still hurt, Clay Buchholz remains a work in progress, and Brad Penny is problematic.

The bullpen has sprouted leaks as well. For all his promise and eye-popping talent, Daniel Bard is in approximately the same position as Clay Buchholz. He needs seasoning, and he's not yet the stud he'll develop into. Manny Delcarmen is either lights out or batting practice, and Takashi Saito is more often batting practice than much else. If you can't hit a hard fastball Ramon Ramirez is your man, but everything comes out of his hand at the same speed, and once hitters have locked in on him, he doesn't fool anyone with actual stuff. Then there's Jonathan Papelbon. I know that he's a mythical figure in Red Sox Nation, but looking at him realistically this year, he is not Mister Automatic. He tries to get too cute with sliders and even his devastating fastball. Making the perfect pitch takes precedence over just pitching. Every outing involves about 10-15 more pitches than it should.

The biggest nightmare with this staff is pitching coach John Farrell's fault. For reasons passing understanding, no Red Sox pitcher either understands how or is interested in paying attention to base runners. Brad Penny is the worst of the bunch but Papelbon isn't far behind. Buchholz has the maddening tendency to throw over to first when the runner is standing ON THE BASE. Why would you do this? This isn't a Jason Varitek problem. He has no shot at throwing anyone out when the pitchers allow enormous leads and barely bat an eye when the runner takes off. If it were just one pitcher, I'd say it's an individual issue, but when the Red Sox as a team are among the league's worst at holding base runners, it's endemic, and it leads to big innings and lost games.

The rest of the team defense has declined. There's the black hole at shortstop (I'm looking right at you, Nick Green), Mike Lowell's slowed reflexes at third and some awful play of late in right field. While Kevn Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are gold-glove caliber, the Red Sox sit in the middle of the pack in team defense in the American League: the textbook definition of mediocrity.

Three run homers have happened on occasion, but all too often the team has been completely shut down. This is a bad year for David Ortiz, and it's impossible to know whether it's really the beginning of the end or not, but when your DH is hitting .219, and that's considered pretty good for him, there's a problem. Big Papi has only 64 RBI and a lower slugging percentage than Varitek and Rocco Baldelli. Something is seriously wrong. Jason Bay has been hot and cold, JD Drew has been mostly cold, Captain Tek's strong start has deteriorated again, there's that black hole at shortstop I mentioned earlier.

This team doesn't have what it takes. They're taking on water all over the place. The rotation, the bullpen, the offense and the defense are all, at best, just a bit better than average. After Beckett and Lester, nothing scares you about the 2009 Red Sox, other than their maddening propensity to find ways to lose ballgames they should win. A great win this weekend in Texas was followed by a demoralizing loss. The worst loss of the year took place on Jim Rice Night. The debacle in the Bronx last week probably killed any hope of winning the division. The wildcard is a tossup, but even if they pull it out I wouldn't be too optimistic that come playoff time they're able to do anything to get out of the first round.

They're just not that good.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pittsburgh, PNC, and Pujols

There isn't much to be said for a Red Sox team that's alternating between shaky and complete free fall. This week, my dad and I celebrated my birthday a little early (it's supposed to be at the end of September) by taking a trip to Pittsburgh. Yes, I said Pittsburgh. I told dad I wanted to see a game with him in a park I hadn't visited yet. High on the list of MLB venues I've wanted to see was PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the gorgeous home of the woeful Bucs.

Before you make fun of Pittsburgh, I have to ask: have you been there in the past 10 years? It's a remarkably beautiful and fun city. The architecture is more varied and interesting than most eastern cities. With the steel industry long gone, the air is clean and downtown is vibrant and very walkable. We stayed at the Omni William Penn, which is the city's best, most opulent grande dame hotel. I visited Pittsburgh a couple years back for work, and not only did I enjoy my time at Carnegie Mellon (one of the best schools you'll find anywhere), but I was blown away by the city, and vowed to return. There are vistas from iconic spots like the Mt. Washington neighborhood, where you get a commanding view that can't be described.

We visited the Carnegie Museum of Art, across the street from the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.

Friday night, we walked across the Roberto Clemente Bridge to PNC. Many ballparks now have statues of the local patron saint out front somewhere. Fenway has Ted Williams, PacBell/AT&T has Willie Mays, Detroit has Ty Cobb, and Turner Field has Hammerin' Hank and Phil Neikro. Well, in Pittsburgh, it's the great Roberto Clemente.

PNC is a sort of knockoff of Camden Yards in Baltimore in some ways. You enter through the centerfield gate, a la Eutaw Street. The first view of the field is flat out beautiful.

Unlike Baltimore, where you're in the shadow of a big brick warehouse, at PNC you're walking down a concourse that parallels the Allegheny River. Given the atmospherics of the ballpark, though, it feels a little like McCovey Cove in San Francisco. Camden Yards has Boog's BBQ, and PNC has a BBQ grill named after their old catcher Manny Sanguillen. Dad described the park itself as being "the anti-Fenway". He's not wrong. In Fenway, everything is hunched forward, crowded toward the field. At PNC, it feels open and expansive, looking outward, as if you're encouraged to recline.

It's a good thing the ballpark is so beautiful, since the team is pitiful. They were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards boast one of the better starters in the league in Chris Carpenter, who started Friday night. They also have the best all around player in the game in Albert Pujols. Sir Albert is being protected in the lineup by Matt Holliday, who's the hottest hitter on the planet right now. Just to make the Pirates feel good, Carpenter spotted them a 4-2 lead before St. Louis eased past and won 6-4. The game was never in doubt. There was even a highlight for Red Sox fans. The great Julio Lugo led off the game with a clean single for St. Louis, then fell asleep at first base and was picked off.

Dad and I had seats just 10 rows from the right field line. Those tickets cost (Red Sox fans please stop reading here) $26 apiece. The memorable moment of the game happened about 30-40 feet away from us in the bottom of the 7th inning. A fan in the first row down the right field line reached over the railing to snag a foul ball hit near him, and flipped over onto his neck/head. The first person to reach him was Albert Pujols. What ensued was a 15-20 minute delay to tend to the fan who, people were afraid, may have just been very seriously and perhaps even catastrophically injured. Trainers from both teams, doctors, security personnel and, I read later, even Pirates front office staff, appeared at the man's side to assist. Through that entire time, Pujols never left the man's side. He held the man's hand, spoke to him, soothed him, and when the fan/patient had his head and neck braced and was loaded onto the stretcher, Pujols was still right there. He took the time to comfort the man's son, who was riding on the cart to the ambulance that would take the man to the hospital. Remember, we were in Pittsburgh, not St. Louis. In spite of that, Pujols was right there the whole time while all other players kept their distance, as they normally would.

During the game, Albert had a very quiet 3-5 with a run scored. He's a legitimate triple crown threat again and is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer whenever he decides he's had enough of tormenting National League pitching. This past Friday night I saw what Allbert Pujols is really made of. For that reason alone I'm glad we made the trip to Pittsburgh.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Hope and frustration in Boston

I was at Fenway earlier this week for Jim Rice Day. His #14 was retired up on the right field facade. Lots of goose-flesh moments, including the A's Nomar Garciaparra running over to give Rice a big hug (Jim Rice was Nomar's first hitting coach in Boston, and had a lot to do with both of Nomar's batting titles). On hand were Johnny Pesky, Fred Lynn, Pudge Fisk, Bob Stanley and Dwight Evans. The ceremony was lots of fun.

Then, the game started. Buchholz pitched well enough to win, but Nick Green, Jonathan Papelbon, Terry Francona and Manny Delcarmen combined to kick it all away. It was the most frustrating, infuriating game I've seen at Fenway in a very, very long time. The team has talent to spare, including some superb pitching and fearsome hitting, but no killer instinct, and not a lot of *life*.

Maybe some of that will change with the acquisition today of C/1B/DH Victor Martinez from Cleveland and Casey Kotchman from Atlanta. It will cost them Nick Hagadone, Bryan Price and Justin Masterson, as well as moving Adam Laroche elsewhere. Bummer, Cleveland fans, that you're about to celebrate Victor Martinez Bobblehead Day, and he's outta there!

In terms of a talent pickup, this is good, and potentially smart. What we don't know is if this will light the fire under the team as the Cabrera, Dave Roberts and Doug Mientkiewicz pickups did in 2004. They need a heart transplant as much as a talent infusion. This Red Sox team has to start showing a refusal to lose, and develop a sense of This Is Our Pennant, Dammit.

I hope we start to see it soon, because right now, although they're an undeniably talented team, as currently constituted they're also unacceptably soft.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Serious about pitching

Last night at Fenway, Kenshin Kawakami of the Braves pitched exactly the way Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be pitching, and Dice-K pitched like John Wasdin always did. The solution for Matsuzaka should be simple, but it isn't. He NEEDS to be taken out of the rotation and sent down to Pawtucket to work out whatever's wrong with his head, his shoulder, his arm, his guts, or whatever his problem is. The catch is, he'd have to give his permission to be sent down, since his contract stipulates that he can't be demoted to the minors without his explicit say so. The other alternative is to put him on the disabled list with whatever excuse the Red Sox care to concoct. "Tired arm" always works. That way he can save face and rehab as long as necessary without having been technically shipped to the International League. Trading him not only isn't an option (I don't even think the Yankees would take on a contract that big), but it's not smart. He will return to form, but he should do it away from the pressure cooker of the American League East.

I'm excited for John Smoltz's Red Sox debut in Washington against the laughable Nationals (First in war, first in peace, and now last in the National League!), but I also hope we're about to wave goodbye to Brad Penny, in exchange for someone who will be useful down the road. Penny's pitched exactly well enough to be traded, and he should have a great second half in someplace innocuous, like San Diego or Houston. Besides, dealing Penny would open the rotation for Clay Buchholtz, who's done everything asked of him but sell hot dogs and popcorn in Pawtucket. The kid's been the International League pitcher of the week twice this season, he's 5-0 with an ERA of 1.90, he's got 65 strikeouts and 17 walks in 71 innings, and he'd have already made five or six starts on every major league staff except Boston by now. It's not the kid's fault he's stalled in the most pitching rich organization in the game, but to have Daisuke Matsuzaka be as worthless as he's been while Buchholtz is utterly dominant is a situation that can't continue. It's about winning ballgames, and the Red Sox can't afford to keep Buchholtz down much longer when there's a need and a chance to rectify the situation. The deeper the rotation is, the better the Red Sox will be. Fun's fun, but it's time to put the hammer down and strengthen the team for the second half. We're too close not to do this, and thereby shut the door on the Rays and Yankees.

Friday, June 12, 2009

2009's Tom Seaver

Well that was interesting, wasn't it? We're still having trouble with Tampa Bay, but 8 games into the season series, Boston appears to own New York, and the Red Sox have rented and furnished a room inside the Yankees' heads. Having David Ortiz back in the realm of hitters you don't watch with your fingers latticed over your eyes changes the complexion of the lineup. Jason Bay remains the happiest offensive surprise for 2009. The team is clicking well, and we all know they still have a long way to go.

One of the biggest thrills I've ever had in my baseball watching life took place on an otherwise innocuous, pleasant Tuesday in July of 1986. The Red Sox were in first place by 8 games, and riding a 5 game winning streak, they debuted their newest starter. 41-year old future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver had just been traded by the White Sox to Boston in exchange for Steve (Psycho) Lyons. Seaver made his first appearance in a Red Sox uniform that night, and beat the Blue Jays and Doyle Alexander 9-7. Seaver wasn't terrific in his first Red Sox start. He gave up four runs on nine hits over seven innings, striking out two and walking two. However, Seaver joined a rotation that already included a couple promising young studs: Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst, along with Oil Can Boyd and Al Nipper. For me, seeing the big red #41 in a Red Sox home uniform was a huge thrill. I had always admired him, and now he was ours. Although he finished with a 5-7 record and promptly retired after the World Series to start the clock for Cooperstown, Seaver's presence made a giant difference that year.

This year's Tom Seaver is named John Smoltz. Like Seaver, Smoltz is a slam dunk first ballot Hall of Famer. Also like Seaver, Smoltz may or may not have a lot left in the tank, but he'll act as a stabilizing influence on a rotation that only needs one more quality guy to take the AL East by the throat. I'm even more excited because Smoltzie wears my number: number 29. Along with Rod Carew, I'd say Smoltz is the best major leaguer in history to wear the number. And starting next week against the Marlins, he's ours. We're going to have a rotation of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester (both of whom have shown no-hit stuff already this season), John Smoltz and Tim Wakefield. Something still needs to be done in terms of what to do with Daisuke's predictable unpredictability. Brad Penny's going to be the odd man out, perhaps traded for a shortstop or another solid bat.

No matter how you slice it, that's a helluva rotation. No other team in baseball will get to augment their staff with someone of Smoltz's character, talent and will to win. He's our Seaver, and that really may be good enough, adding to a team that's already applied a chokehold on the Yankees and has demonstrated to the rest of the league that this year, the American League Championship march will have to go through Boston.

Friday, May 29, 2009

At the 1/3 pole

A third of the way through the season, we know the following:

  • Everyone in the AL East is deeply flawed, and nobody as currently constituted can run away with the division.
  • Jason Bay may or may not be a candidate for AL MVP, but he’s far and away the odds on favorite for 2009 Red Sox MVP.
  • Bringing back Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek worked out ok, don’t ya think?
  • When he’s healthy, JD Drew is almost worth his ludicrous contract.
  • Jacoby Ellsbury is beginning to resemble a Grady Sizemore clone, and will soon surpass him and become the best leadoff man in the business.
  • What David Ortiz is going through can’t be termed a slump anymore. Until something else happens, it’s his reality, and therefore the team’s reality. Something has to give.
  • The strength of the 2009 Red Sox was supposed to be its rotation, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Everyone in the rotation has been badly shelled at least a couple times (tonight it was Wakefield), and as a result, there is no true ace this year. We thought we had three. In truth, we have none.
  • Fortunately, the Red Sox have what nobody else in the majors possesses: serious reserve depth in the wings in the form of no-hit kid Clay Buchholz, who’s dominating the International League, and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who may or may not make his Red Sox debut around the time that his old friends from Atlanta show up for interleague competition.
  • Don't forget flamethrower Daniel Bard and Mr. Poise, Michael Bowden. Those two have already proven to be every bit as good as advertised
  • Thank God for Justin Masterson, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen and the rest of the bullpen.

Since the division (and the league) remains up for grabs, the Red Sox have plenty of time and resources available to plug the open holes in the roster.

  • Shortstop: Maybe Jed Lowrie will come back and set the world on fire. I hope so, since the platoon of Julio Lugo and Nick Green is serviceable, but barely more. The offense isn’t much and the defense is abysmal. Jack Wilson’s available in Pittsburgh. GRAB him.
  • DH: Nobody loves Big Papi more than I do, but c’mon. He’s behind on fastballs and completely fooled by offspeed stuff. Nobody’s being careful with him. They don’t need to be. Pitchers go right after Ortiz, and he’s not able to make anyone pay. Below the Mendoza Line with 1 measly home run won’t cut it, no matter what happened from 2004 through 2007. He left 12 men on base IN ONE GAME. That’s usually a stat representing a team’s futility for a game, not one man. Luke Scott in Baltimore, Jack Cust in Oakland, Mike Jacobs in Kansas City and Hank Blalock in Texas may be available real soon now, and worth pursuing.

Not signing Mark Teixiera means the Red Sox have money in the bank. They still have one of the deeper farm systems in the game, and have talent to burn if there’s a long-term advantage to be had. What happens at the trading deadline will determine who wins the American League East, and perhaps who holds the advantage for the AL pennant. With the right moves, it could be Boston.