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alcs preview: tampa bay vs boston

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this series features VEB’s adopted team, the tampa bay rays. in looking over their roster, i’m surprised at how few truly homegrown players they feature. what tampa has done is, in some ways, even more impressive than growing their own --- they’ve poached cheap young players from other organizations and knit them into a winning roster that feels homegrown:

pos player how acquired age yrs to
fr. ag’cy
c d navarro

trade (dodgers) for m hendrickson

24 3
1b c pena free agent 30 2
2b a iwamura free agent 29 2
ss j bartlett trade (twins), partial for d young 28 3
3b e longoria homegrown 23 7
lf c crawford homegrown 27 2
cf b upton homegrown 24 4
rf g gross trade (mil) for j butler 28 3
dh c floyd free agent 35 1
sp1 j shields homegrown 26 6
sp2 s kazmir trade (mets) for v zambano 24 4
sp3 m garza trade (twins) for d young 24 5
sp4 a sonnanstine homegrown 25 5

if they want to, the rays will be able to run most of this same team out there in 2011. yet just 3 everyday players and 2 starting pitchers came up through the ranks w/ this franchise, and nearly the whole bullpen comes from outside the organization. i’m not counting some key role players, including rocco baldelli (who starts against left-handers) and ben zobrist; david price will probably be in next year’s rotation, and reid brignac may join the starting lineup at shortstop. so they’re becoming more homegrown, rather than less.

in that respect, tampa bay is aping (roughly) the model that made the kansas city royals so good back in the 1970s. the royals (for those of you who are old enough to recall) got good with other teams’ young players --- amos otis (snagged from the mets), john mayberry (astros), hal mcrae (reds), freddie patek (pirates), darrell porter (brewers) --- and then became a dynasty by rolling in homegrown players like george brett, frank white, willie wilson, and al cowens. beginning in the late 1970s, the royals churned out boatloads of mound talent --- dennis leonard, steve busby, paul splitorrf, rich gale, and dan quisenberry in the 1970s, then bret saberhagen, danny jackson, mark gubicza, et al all in the 1980s. the result: 15 winning seasons, 7 playoff appearances, 2 pennants, and a championship in their first 21 years of existence.

surprisingly, the red sox rely on homegrown talent at least as much as the rays do. they drafted and groomed four of their starters --- at 1b (youklis), 2b (pedroia), ss (lowrie), and cf (ellsbury) --- and acquired a fifth (varitek) from the seattle farm system; he has spent his entire big-league career in boston. they gave 60 starts to homegrown pitchers during the season this year, and the back end of their bullpen for the playoffs (masterson and papelbon) is completely homegrown.

the series is a battle of ballparks, as much as anything. tropicana field was the al’s 4th lowest-scoring park, with an average run total 5 percent lower than average; fenway was the league’s 3d-highest scoring, with an average run total 7 percent above the norm. so the essential questions might be: a) will the red sox offense (2d in the league) be able to score at the trop, and b) will the rays’ pitchers (2d in the league in run prevention) be able to put up zeros at the fens? during the regular season, the answer to question A was no: boston hit just .216 / .303 / .365 at the trop and scored 33 runs in 9 games, or 3.7 per game; the sox went 1-8 in those games. the answer to question B was also no: tampa bay pitchers gave up 6 runs a game in fenway and allowed the red sox to hit .289 / .388 / .452; the sox went 7-2 at home. the rays have 4 games at home, which yields a not-insignificant advantage, and i don’t think they will be intimidated by the red sox: they won both of the head-to-head series played in september, when the division title (and october home-field advantage) was still very much up for grabs.

shields, who will start game 5 (if nec) at fenway, lasted a total of just 4.2 innings in his 2 starts there this season and gave up 11 runs, almost singlehandedly losing both games; but the sox could hardly touch him at the trop, scoring just 2 runs against him in 15+ innings. kazmir was vulnerable in either location --- he only had one decent start in 4 tries vs the red sox this year. the only tampa starting pitcher who thrived at fenway this year was andy sonnanstine; sure enough, he’ll start game 4. if it comes down to game 7, matt garza will face jon lester; garza had a 4.50 era vs the red sox this year, while lester dominated the rays (3-0, 0.90).

the teams are closely matched on paper, but i’m gonna pick the red sox to win for two reasons. one, i think they have more dominant players; the rays have superb depth and balance, but you need game-changers in the postseason and i think the red sox have more of those. and second, the red sox have the better bullpen --- that alone could decide the series.

i’ll be rooting for the rays in my heart, but my head says the sox will win. let’s make it 7 games.