3. Kansas City Royals
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Runs will be scored, and at last there's a bullpen to make them stand up
By Jeff Pearlman
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that as the Royals prepare for the upcoming season, hype, hype and more hype has resulted from the addition of closer Roberto Hernandez, the flamethrowing righthander with 266 career saves. Hernandez, it has been said by the Kansas City front office, will surely lift K.C.'s bullpen from the depths of anti-Mariano Rivera hell. Last season Royals relievers combined for 29 saves and 26 blown saves. Sadly, this was an improvement over the previous year, when K.C. became the first team to blow more saves (30) than it converted (29). "Roberto is very important, but sometimes I think people place too much emphasis on the closer," says pitching coach Brent Strom. "Closing doesn't take the place of sloppy sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Last year we had sloppiness."
Although his signing a two-year, $2.9 million deal with Kansas City generated all the buzz of a Dann Bilardello-Benny Ayala home run derby, Doug Henry's arrival marks only the second time in manager Tony Muser's four-plus years in K.C. that the Royals have had a quality righthanded middle reliever. (Scott Service, in 1998, was the first.) Pitching for the Astros and the Giants last season, Henry held opposing batters to a .207 average, seventh best among National League relievers. Over the final two months, as San Francisco battled to the division title, his ERA was 2.49.
In early December, days before he would reach an agreement with the Royals, Henry met Muser for lunch and a long chat. The two discussed the good ol' days of 1991, when Muser was the manager of the Brewers' Triple A team in Denver and Henry was his closer. Back then Henry was a 27-year-old minor league nobody with an 85-mph fastball and a long record of mediocrity as a starter. "Doug was never considered much of a prospect," says Muser, "but we made him a closer, and all of a sudden his arm got much stronger. His velocity jumped to 91, 92 mph." The next season Henry saved a career-high 29 games for Milwaukee.
Of all the factors that persuaded Kansas City to sign Henry, number 1 was his unselfish pledge to Muser. Asked if he has any interest in becoming a closer again, Henry answers, quite simply, no. "I told Tony that I could close," he says, "but that I'm better suited to hand the ball over to a hard thrower with dominant stuff. When Roberto comes to the mound, I'll happily walk away."
Last year Kansas City placed fifth in the league with 879 runs, and despite trading explosive leadoff hitter Johnny Damon to the A's (in a three-way deal with the Devil Rays) for Hernandez, the Royals will likely be among the league's scoring leaders again. Much depends on centerfielder Carlos Beltran, a 23-year-old phenom who irked many of his teammates by refusing a rehab assignment last August. The ensuing 18-day suspension, as well as DL time for a bruised right knee, limited him to 98 games and a .247 average, a far cry from his Rookie of the Year performance of 1999.
While the starting rotation is still a question mark, the comeback of two-time All-Star Jose Rosado from minor rotator-cuff surgery, as well as a full American League season from Brian Meadows, who came to K.C. from the Padres last July 31, offers hope. If nothing else, with Henry and the bullpen gang doing their jobs, the starters will no longer have to watch 7-1 leads morph into 8-7 heartbreakers.
"I've been here six years, and this is the most secure I've ever felt," says Rosado. "I used to feel I had to go seven, eight innings to make sure we got the win. Now, if I can only go six, I'll hand it over to men who have closed out many big games. If that doesn't make us winners, nothing will."
In other words, Henry is in the spotlight -- at last.
Issue date: March 26, 2001