Posted on: April 20, 2011 5:54 pm
Edited on: April 21, 2011 9:52 am

Kansas City Here I Come

At the beginning of the 2008 baseball season, I was chatting with a couple of friends about how well I thought the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would be. They looked at me with a sincere look of confusion. The Devil Rays had gone 66-96 the year before, how good could they be one year later? They finished in last place in the American League East, and still would have to play against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees nineteen times each. They went to the World Series that year, and my friends were more amazed day by day as they continued to be division front-runners and even more when they won the division.
I would like to think that this year's team that will do the same is the Kansas City Royals. They have similar recent history of being terrible. Add that to the the fact that Dayton Moore traded away the only true staff ace that Kansas City has had in years with Zack Greinke, and you have to wonder where this sentiment comes from. The Royals are in second in the American League Central division, trailing only the Cleveland Indians. I truly don't expect the Royals to have the same run as the Devil Rays did back in 2008. I think they have as much of a chance of making it to the World Series this year, as I have of being their opening game starter in that World Series. I do not believe they will win the AL Central, but I believe that they certainly could win that division and make it to the playoffs.
By trading away Zack Greinke, the staff ace, a guy that had won the American League Cy Young Award with them a couple of years previous, that they were again retooling for the future. They did get Alcides Escobar, who potentially has the tools to be a fantastic shortstop and alleviates the club of the woes that they had previous years between Yuniesky Betancourt and others at that position. Perhaps Moore was more aware than any of us would give him credit for. Escobar has been a refreshing surprise for the club. He still isn't a fantastic hitter, but that should improve and keep pace with his defense and baserunning ability.
Luke Hochevar has helped alleviate the loss of the staff ace. He was a first round draft pick from the 2006 draft, so perhaps it was a now-or-never situation to force him to take the reigns of the staff. He certainly has the talent, and with a few years of experience under his belt, he has been a stabling presence at the front of the rotation. His struggles will certainly show during the season as a young pitcher, but he has the talent. Joakim Soria may be the best closer in baseball. His strikeout numbers are fantasic, and he's about as unhittable otherwise as any reliever in baseball. The pressure on him the past couple of years has been immense, as the Royals don't typically get themselves into cushy 3-run save situations, but he has shown his dominant stuff at the end of games for three and a half years now. Jeff Francis may be the best free agent signing by a club this year. He brings an experience of winning that these young pitchers are unfamiliar with at the Major League level. Just a few years ago, he was a staff ace for the Colorado Rockies that went to the World Series. His presence may be exactly what this young staff needs to mentor them through this season. He along with Bruce Chen and Kyle Davies will support Hochevar in this rotation. Robinson Tejeda and Tim Collins have stuff nearly as nasty as Soria. They can sit down batters in the seventh and eighth innings to get Soria those save opportunities.
Billy Butler is hitting as well as he ever has. His plate patience is evident also, as he has an on-base percentage of .493 right now. He finally has some protection in the lineup this year. Alex Gordon has been as fantastic as all that hype about him said he should have been; it just took a few years longer than it was expected. If he can keep this pace up throughout the season, he would probably get some consideration in Most Valuable Player discussions. It's exciting to see him hitting for average and power, and showing more patience at the plate than previous years. Something must have clicked in the off-season, because he has broken out this year like a true superstar. Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera have brought that winning experience to the lineup that Francis brought to the rotation. Both are having solid hitting seasons along with Chris Getz and Wilson Betemit who may finally be realizing some of the potential that was expected when he was drafted years ago. If Kila Ka'aihue can bring his average up and continue to hit for power, the corner infield positions will make a positive impact in games. The catcher position seems the weakest with Matt Treanor, but if Jason Kendall can come back and produce like his normal self, that position will be fine.
Probably nobody expects the Kansas City Royals to seriously contend this year. I really like the team, and I certainly don't expect them to have the same level of success that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays did in 2008, but I am not counting them out of possibly making the playoffs. They have the fortune of playing in the AL Central, which is likely the best situation for this team. They don't have the talent that the Devil Rays had three seasons ago. The Chicago White Sox are a big-market team, and the Detroit Tigers have a history and a fanbase that will allow them to typically spend some money, but I would hardly call them a big-market team. Cleveland has struggled almost as mightily as the Royals, and the Twins may be in the worst situation that they have encountered in quite a few years with Mauer being on the DL already this year. The White Sox haven't done anything to warrant serious discussion about winning anything. The Tigers have some top-end talent, but I don't believe they have a truly competitive roster. Whoever wins the AL Central will be expected to be fodder in the first round of the playoffs. It will be a winner by default, as they will likely have a worse record than any other division winner and possibly the wildcard winner. For this reason, I'm not counting the Royals out.
Regardless of what happens, I am truly hoping that they can have success down the road based on the first signs of success this year. Tampa Bay has made themselves much more relevant for successive years since 2008. With any luck, the Royals can catapult themselves to competitive status. The Zack Greinke trade may have given them a couple of solid pieces to that puzzle; not only did they solidify the shortstop position for years to come, but they also got Lorenzo Cain in that trade along with pitching prospects Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi. Lorenzo Cain is another highly touted prospect that should keep the outfield well represented. I remember the days that George Brett used to man third base, and Bret Saberhagen was the staff ace for the Royals. It was a better time for baseball. Let's hope this is the platform season for us to return to a time that the Kansas City Royals are contenders again.
Posted on: April 13, 2011 3:45 pm

Dice is Plural for Die

That's what Matsuzaka seems to be doing out there on the mound when it's his turn in the rotation. The Red Sox are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place; they can't waive him--he's owed too much money. My guess is that they'd love to waive him, but it's not really a matter of the money that makes them continue to "roll the dice." If Daisuke fails, it was an embarassing baseball move four years ago when they paid over $50M to the Seibu Lions just to be able to negotiate a contract. It was considered a steal when they signed him to six years and $52M, but added to the $50M posting fee, it was merely a solid contract offer. If Matsuzaka fails, this bid by the Red Sox was a big mistake.
But how many tries does one player get? Matsuzaka hasn't been the player they envisioned since his second season. If only those World Baseball Classics counted toward his Red Sox contract. He was voted the MVP of the inaugural and second Classic. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, he just doesn't seem to pitch with the same fervor as he does when it is world competition. Perhaps the level of competition is overwhelming at the Major League level? This would be a valid point, except Japan has won both World Baseball Classics. Apparently their players are at least on par with US players. Also, let's not forget that US players are on many of their home teams' rosters.
Looking back on Matsuzaka's stats over the years, it would be hard to argue that he has earned his contract with the Red Sox. If he had been paid just the $52M from the contract, it still would have been money poorly spent, compound that with the posting fee, and it becomes a mistake of huge proportions. The real winners here were the Seibu Lions who pocketed $51,111,111 just for allowing Matsuzaka to negotiate with the Red Sox. That's enough money for them to pay their entire payroll for over two years!
In 2010, Matsuzaka had an ERA of below 4.00--following only one game! On August 5, 2010 the Red Sox faced the Cleveland Indians. Matsuzaka pitched quite well; he pitched 8 innings, allowed 5 hits, 1 earned run, walked 2, and struck out 6. His ERA after that game was 3.96; it was the only game that he ended with a cumulative ERA for the season of under 4.00. His next start a few days later, corrected that anomaly. It continued to get worse until his second to last start on September 26, 2010 in which he pitched 8 innings, allowed 2 earned runs, walked 1, and struck out 7. He didn't pitch terrible against Cleveland for his first start of 2011, but it certainly wasn't expected to be leaps and bounds better than his second start of this year.
Daisuke Matsuzaka has a no-trade clause in his contract. This is fairly normal, and I'm glad the Red Sox gave in on that demand. It was a reasonable concession as Matsuzaka was excited to play for the Red Sox. He was taking a chance on the situation, and I can certainly understand his desire to make sure that the Red Sox didn't undermine that by trading him away. I imagine that Matsuzaka would not accept an outright assignment to the minors where he could continue to work out his mechanics, timing, or demonic possession that has been affecting him over the past couple of years. I think it's time for the Red Sox to bring Matsuzaka and his translator into the office and tell him that he has an injury and is going on the 15-day disabled list. This way, he can save face, and the Red Sox can explain that it wasn't a mistake to sign him, but he's been trying to work through an injury. Whatever their decision, they have to do it soon. I realize that they don't have many options for starting pitching to turn to, but Tim Wakefield is still on the roster and there are minor leaguers that can give at least comparable results--Felix Dubront comes to mind.
Posted on: April 5, 2011 3:56 pm

Beckett Poised to Jumpstart Red Sox Season

Hopefully Josh Beckett can get the Red Sox started on the path everyone believes they are destined to go down this year. I'm not sure what sign Beckett is, nor do I particularly believe in astrology, but everything seems to be aligned to make this a nearly perfect situation to begin a bounceback year for both Josh and the Sox.
Josh Beckett is a big game pitcher; there is no better proof than his 2003 World Series MVP Award against the New York Yankees. More relevant to Red Sox fans was his pitching against Cleveland in 2007 that sparked a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS. His record in that series was a stellar 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA; this effort garnered him the ALCS MVP Award. He continued that effort with a winning effort in the World Series that year in game one against the Colorado Rockies by pitching seven innings and only allowing one run off six hits, with nine strikeouts.
This game is not of the same magnitude as those previous, but the Red Sox need a jumpstart, and Beckett may be just the person to give it. His psyche still tells him that he's capable of being the ace of that staff, even with great young pitchers in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. He's still got the heart of a champion, and he knows how to carry a team that needs a lift.  
There are other factors that may lead to a breakout game by the Sox. Red Sox hitters aren't accustomed to long losing streaks, and the mix of veterans and young players should lend to a hitters' delight tonight. It's also the Cleveland Indians; this isn't to say that the Indians aren't a good team, it's just to state the obvious that they aren't on the same level as the Sox. They can certainly beat the Sox on any given night, but I'd be willing to bet that out of 100 games, the Sox would win 95 of them with current lineups. This isn't the Indians team of the early nineties when Manny roamed their outfield, and Bartolo Colon aced a staff that annually made them contenders. This is a team working with some young talented players to rebuild.
Josh Beckett will undoubtedly get these young and veteran free-swingers to flail hopelessly at his pitches. He worked on some mechanical issues in the spring, and showed some comfort in his last outing of the spring when he pitched five innings allowing only one hit. Those mechanics are starting to feel more like second nature to him, hopefully that means great things for the Red Sox. They certainly need a shot in the arm at this early juncture in the season. Hopefully one of the most clutch pitchers in recent memory can prove that he's just the guy to give the ball to.
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com