Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Friday, January 16, 2004

AL East: A Roll of the Dice?

Today I’m sort of extending my last analysis of the Orioles to the big boppers of the AL East. Seeing that our Yankee fan has graced the pages of Talking Baseball, now seems like an appropriate time to examine the age-old question that begins every baseball season in Boston. The question engrosses us Sox fans for months, from the day pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training to late September and (last year) into October:

Are the Red Sox better than the Yankees?

New York has finished in first place for six straight seasons. That is a long time. And after last season’s heartbreaking loss in that fantastic ALCS, I was a wreck, wondering what kind of a miracle it would take to push the Sox past those damn Yanks and into first place.

Boston fans’ greatest hope for 2004 lies in last season’s performance, in which the Red Sox came within – well, let’s not get into that… Aside from that Little debacle, last season was enjoyable, exciting, and positive, for the first time in a while providing Boston with optimism for the future. My optimism hit its peak when I examined the 2003 regular season Adjusted Standings, which provide support for the hypothesis that Boston fronted a better regular season team than the Yankees and that the Red Sox were one of the most unlucky teams in baseball. After adjusting for the opponents’ hitting and pitching, the Red Sox actually come out ahead of the Yankees. That is, eliminating luck for all teams, Boston is the division winner (and best team in baseball), with the Yankees as the AL wild card contender. The average team with Boston's production at the plate and their runs allowed would have won seven more games. The final standings would have looked something like this:

New York……100……62

Yes, this difference is minimal and the Yankees came out ahead in the real standings. But with a new manager and a better relief core, the Sox could turn their luck around. (It would not be surprising to me if Grady Little was fired due to this disparity, which indicates that for whatever reason, Boston underperformed in 2003.) My intention in bringing up these Adjusted Standings is not to prove that Boston was the better team or vice versa, but instead to point out how evenly these teams matched up last season.

Both teams made significant off-season personnel moves, with the Yankees' starting pitching experiencing the most turn-around. New Yorkers were heard griping about Pettitte jumping ship and the Rocket’s reentry onto the baseball diamond, but they should be happy. The Yankees’ revamped starting rotation appears to be just as good, if not better, than the 2003 rotation. With the loss of Clemens and Pettitte, and the additions of Brown and Vazquez, the Yankees actually gain 11 Win Shares. The only real dropoff may come from the loss of David Wells, who is being replaced by a guy who had trouble starting last season, and a guy who hasn’t pitched since the 2002 season. My guess is that one of these guys puts up decent numbers, but the Yankees would have preferred having only one of them starting come Spring Training.

Boston’s rotation received a strong boost from the addition of Curt Schilling. Conservatively, he should boost Boston’s rotation about 15 win shares, but he could account for up to 20. Kim replacing Burkett as the team’s fifth starter should also help, but we’ll consider that a wash. Both teams enter the season with powerful starting pitching from one to five, and injuries will likely determine which rotation comes out on top.

Both teams’ greatest flaws during the regular season were relief pitching, so it’s no surprise that they both made major acquisitions for the pen. The Yankees added Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon, a combined 22 win shares last season, the Red Sox countering those moves with the addition of Keith Foulke’s 21 win shares, who should put up fairly consistent numbers next season. And if Scott Williamson doesn’t get traded and performs as he did in the playoffs, the Red Sox bullpen could be their most improved component. But according to additions and subtractions, the Sox and Yanks are pretty even in the pitching department, with a nearly equivalent number of win shares and talent joining each team’s pitching staff, depending on Schilling’s performance.

The real changes in these teams will be in their offensive productions. While Boston lost one bat and 15 win shares in Todd Walker, they should also be anticipating drop-offs in production from four remaining bats after breakout seasons. They have yet to add much hitting, and instead opted to fill their second base hole with a Gold Glove fielder with a plastic bat. (They made an interesting acquisition in Bellhorn, who I think has a real shot of becoming a regular at second base.) Some guys, like Garciaparra and Ramirez, could have better seasons and offset the loss of production expected out of Mueller, Ortiz, Nixon, and Varitek, but ultimately Boston’s offense should suffer. The Yankees substantially upgraded their offense by adding Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton. While losing Nick Johnson may hurt the numbers Giambi, who's coming off of surgery, puts up by increasing his games played at first base (unless Torre wants to introduce a regular lineup that includes Tony Clark, in the midst of his wirlwind tour of North-Eastern ballclubs), Sheffield and Lofton should add substantial run production for New York.

Considering the Sox were only a slightly better team (if that) last season, they will need their luck to change to pass the Yankees in the actual standings. Whereas each team is virtually matched in high-profile pitching acquisitions, the Yankees’ offense should be more productive than last season, and the Red Sox should expect their run production to wane at least slightly. So this season, although the Red Sox may seem as close as ever and New York faces the probability of more injuries to aging stars, we again should consider the Yankees the team to beat in the AL East and in the majors.

This summer we should see another battle for the AL East, but anything can happen, and last year’s success should provide hope enough for Red Sox Nation in 2004.

But let’s talk the future of the Beasts in the AL East. What will happen after 2004? Dave showed us that the Yankees may be constricted over the next few years, unable to sign big-name free-agents because most of their large contracts are back-loaded. Ah, the perfect time for the Red Sox to strike! Unfortunately, as we know, Boston faces the loss of multiple stars to free-agency after next season. So how will Theo Epstein compete with the Yankees in 2005 and beyond after many key Red Sox become free agents (Varitek, Lowe, Pedro, Nomar)? Maybe he’s beginning a move to further deplete Steinbrenner’s farm system. Take a look at some recent moves:

December 15, 2003: Boston takes Colter Bean, RHP, in the Rule 5 draft, from the Yankees.
January 8, 2003: Boston claims catcher Michael Hernandez off of waivers from the Yankees.

Coincidence? Probably. Interesting? Very. Coming off of Varitek's career year, do the Red Sox really need twelve and a half percent of their 40-man roster to be comprised of catchers, or is Epstein purposefully snatching up promising Yankee minor leaguers? I wouldn't put it past him. (With this glut of catchers, Theo is no doubt not anticipating re-signing Varitek after 2004.)

So next season, when Colter Bean takes the jog from the pen to the mound (even if he pitches like Jose Canseco in 1993, Lucchino would never pay the Yankees to send him back to New York), don't forget to cross your fingers. A little help from Lady Luck could mean the division in 2004.

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