I know it’s early in the year and baseball is a couple months away, but it’s never too early to talk Yanks v. BoSox. The heated rivalry consumes baseball fans across the country and most agree it is the hottest, most covered, most captivating match-up in American professional sports. Anyway you look at it, no matter which team you root for, the NYY, BOS legacy reigns supreme and their yearly series’ make for stellar entertainment.
Looking ahead to the 2011 MLB season, the two AL East juggernauts will surely battle it out all year long for the top spot and playoff positioning. A lot has been made of the giant moves being made by Theo Epstein, GM of the Sox, and he most definitely has improved his squad substantially, no argument there. Signing the most touted free-agent of the offseason in OF Carl Crawford has solidified question marks in their lineup as well as their outfield. In an even bigger move, in my eyes, obtaining 1B Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego really began to shift the balance of power to Bean Town. That being said, before we all immediately pencil in the Sox as AL East champs, let’s remember they still have quite an accomplished adversary to compete with. Let’s dive into the match-up:
The Sox are more than likely going to go with their two aces at the top in John Lester and Clay Buchholz, followed by a mix of aging, under performing starters with John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Daiuske Matsuzaka. Lester and Buchholz are studs, and at 26, they are still progressing and improving. Lester was a top 5 vote-getter for the AL Cy Young last year and Buchholz followed his lead going 17-7 with a 2.33 era (playing in the AL East). Game 3 is where things begin to drop off. Many baseball minds see Beckett returning to form this season and helping solidify this rotation, I have not totally jumped on that bandwagon quite yet. Coming off an injury-riddled, debacle of a year, with a ballooned ERA in just 21 starts, it’s going to be tough for Beckett to find his stride in Boston but an improved offense will surely help his cause. He may not be the dominant pitcher of the mid-2000′s, but he may not have to be with the sticks Epstein has assembled behind him. Lackey is another story. After being a big free-agent signing out of Los Angeles last year, he failed miserably for the Sox in 2010. Going just 14-11 with a weak 4.40 ERA are dismal numbers for a guy that was supposed to be a front of the line starter for the Sox and a solid backbone on the mound. Whats worse is as the season wore on and the Sox began to fade in the playoff race, Lackey, along with a few of his teammates, began to fall out of favor with the Red Sox Nation faithful. Same can be said of Matsuzaka who also had pitiful numbers going just 9-6 with a 4.69 ERA. They aren’t getting any younger and it’s obvious the clock is ticking for the back end of this rotation. They are most definitely going to need some big time performances from each of their starters, seeing as it is simply impossible to out-slug every opponent every night.
Grade: Anywhere from a A to a C+ depending on back end production.
The Yank’s rotation is in a similar position heading into the 2011 season. They have their rock of an ace in CC Sabathia at the top with young-gun Phil Hughes the all-but-surely second starter. The only way this rotation can reach it’s full potential is if playoff lock Andy Pettitte indeed does return. Pettitte is a solid option at 2 or 3 and he solidifies a rotation with plenty of instability. Outside of those top 3 options, its a puzzle of starters including A.J. Burnett, Sergio Mitre and youngin’ Ivan Nova. Sabathia is clearly head and shoulders above the rest on this staff, and he’ll again churn out numbers that have kept him in Cy Young talks every year for the better part of the last decade. They’ll get 200+ IP, roughly 200 k’s, 18-20 wins and countless quality starts. But like the Red Sox, there a serious drop off from the top. Phil Hughes was brilliant in the first half of 2010, earning himself a spot in the All-Star game. After the break however, he was a far below average option for skipper Joe Girardi and it seemed as if he continued to lose confidence all the way through the Yank’s playoff run. If he can maintain the kind of production that made him an All-Star last year, there are 2 formidable front-end studs for Girardi to unleash. Next would be Pettitte, should he chose to return, and there are big problems if he doesn’t. Pettitte shined all season long as well as in the playoffs and provides a leadership intangible that is impossible to quantify but easily displayed. He is vital to the success of not only the starting rotation, but the Yankees 2011 playoff expectations. After Pettitte comes, Burnett, who like Hughes can be lights out or lit up on any given night. It is said constantly, the guy has unbelievable stuff, but having great pitches only gets you a contract, not results. If he can hone his pitches and use them while effectively maintaining his spots, theres no reason he cannot return to the form that earned him the steep contract he currently plays for. In the 5 spot I’m guessing it will be rookie Ivan Nova. The 24 year old was called up late last season and pitched fairly well in 7 starts, but his youth can rejuvenate the aging Yankees rotation. He will definitely need to step-up and produce if New York wants any chance at winning the division.
Grade: Anywhere from B+ to C-
Advantage: Boston. Strictly because of the performances of Lester and Buchholz last season combined with their youth and potential.
Bullpens can make or break a team. Managers have to have locks that they can throw out into any situation to shut it down for their squad. Boston has a good, but improvable pen (speaking in terms of the guys who are going to pitch when it matters, the rest are just fillers for mop up duty and extra-inning marathons). I’ve already written plenty about my disbelief of the contract that RP Jonathan Papelbon received (1 yr., $12 mil), so all signs are pointing to him as the opening day closer. Shaky at best. Paps struggled for most of the 2010 season and his fastball seems to be flattening and he is just simply unable to rear back and blow it by guys anymore. With this in mind, Epstein signed two established late-inning hurlers in former closer Bobby Jenks and former Tampa Bay Ray Dan Wheeler, both good pick-ups. Each will serve as 6 or 7th inning guys to bridge the gap for set-up stud Daniel Bard. Bard makes this bullpen extensively better and provides many options should Papelbon struggle. At just 25 years old, Bard chucks absolute gas (regularly at 96-99 mph) and baffles hitters when he drops in that filthy slider (not to mention a decent 2 seamer, circle change and high 80′s cutter). The guy can bring it and has positioned himself to lock down the 8th inning and potentially be the go-to door slammer if Pap’s fails to perform. The lone, meaningful, lefty is 35 year old Hideki Okajima, who has spent the last two seasons trying to find the magic he had in 2007-2008. His innings have been down and his ERA has been up. Like a few other fellas on the squad, he will first need to earn Terry Francona’s trust back before returning to earlier standards.
Grade: B+ to a C (depending on Papelbon’s performance)
Bullpen arms have been somewhat of a burden for the Yanks over the past few years. Constantly under ridicule and under performing is an understatement. 2011 will feature a slightly new look and with a couple nice acquisitions, could lead to vast improvement. At the back-end, not much needs to be said. Mariano Rivera will walk out to Enter Sandman and shut it down 40 to 50 times. Newly added Rafael Soriano, will be asked to set-up surefire hall of famer, and who better to do it than a guy who successfully saved 45 games in 48 chances, in the AL East, last season. The mid-inning guys are where this bullpen takes a bit of a hit. RP David Robertson showed flashes of brilliance last year, especially when called upon to be the bridge for Mo. He has great stuff and a confidence not many possess in the rest of this pen. Joba Chamberlain has been all but written off of this squad, sadly to say. Long lost are the days of blowing 100 mph heaters by guys and pumping his fists as he strutted back to the dugout. He’s out of shape, in Girardi’s doghouse and he’s lost the support of the New York fan base. It will be sad to see him go out there in “meaningless” innings in an attempt to be the go-to guy again. A big fella who showed so much promise, and such an excitement for the future is all but out of New York. From there comes a couple of seasoned leftys in Damaso Marte and former NYM Pedro Feliciano. Since becoming a Yankee, Marte has been often injured, but when he is healthy and called upon he can be a great match-up for opposing leftys. Feliciano has been somewhat of a revalation in recent years as a set-up man for the Mets and Fransisco Rodriguez. He has obtained 21+ holds in each of the last three seasons and has been able to keep his K/9 up and ERA respectable. If these guys can stay healthy and the starters can get them to the 6/7th, this pen can really shut games down.
Advantage: NYY. Both pens are good, but the combination of Rivera and Soriano is as much of a lock as their is when your talking about baseball.
Overall each team has a lot to prove. The Sox need to return to the elite and have made the necessary moves to do so, while the Yanks need to maintain their run of good fortune and make that next step into a return to the World Series, the city expects nothing less. Each staff will be counted on to keep some of the best hitters in baseball at bay, but rest assured they will also be provided plenty of run support. One thing is for certain, the Yankee v. Red Sox bloodbath should be evermore entertaining in 2011.
So thats my take, let me know what you think in the comments below.