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