With the Red Sox and Yankees set to open the 2010 baseball season by renewing their rivalry Sunday night at Fenway Park, Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com and Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com answer some burning questions regarding the teams who again figure to battle it out in the American League East -- and perhaps beyond.
Which team improved more in the offseason, and which new addition will make the biggest impact?
Gordon Edes: For all the fretting in New England about the Red Sox losing Jason Bay, the guess here is that the Yankees will miss more the winning presence of Johnny Damon, whose days as a serviceable everyday outfielder are probably over, but he still would have served as a nice "bridge" (Theo Epstein's favorite word) to Carl Crawford next season. And neither Sox fans nor Sox pitchers will miss Hideki Matsui, who was an especially tough out in Fenway Park (.966 OPS). Javier Vazquez will have another chance to prove in the American League that Ozzie Guillen was wrong when he said Vazquez wasn't a big-game pitcher; Sox fans will happily remind him of the slam he gave up to Damon in Game 7 of the '04 ALCS. Curtis Granderson will be a younger, more productive version of new Sox center fielder Mike Cameron, but won't match Cameron's glove. The Yankees have hardly been intimidated by John Lackey, who has only five wins in 16 starts against the Bombers, but Lackey's intensity will fit right into the rivalry. In my opinion, he'll make the biggest impact, and with upgraded defense furnished by Beltre and Cameron, the Red Sox had a better offseason.
Wallace Matthews: Clearly, the Red Sox improved more, for one simple reason. They needed to. From the midpoint of the 2009 season on, the Yankees looked like the best team in baseball, a perception borne out by their dominating playoff run. Despite letting World Series MVP Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon go, they needed only minor tinkering to appear, on paper at least, as good if not better than last year's team. The questions that remain -- can Nick Johnson fill Damon's role in the No. 2 hole and has Robinson Cano matured enough to replace Matsui as a No. 5 hitter -- seem less critical when you realize the key parts of the offense -- Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter -- remain intact and healthy. The Red Sox, on the other hand, needed to make significant improvements in several areas. Losing Jason Bay was a blow; other than defensively, Cameron does not seem to be an adequate replacement. David Ortiz needs to return to his 2004 form, which may be too much to expect from a 34-year-old with weight issues. The one player who could make a significant impact on this rivalry, and thus the Red Sox fortunes, is John Lackey, who pitched well against the Yankees in the ALCS.
Which team's starting rotation is better and why? And rank your top five starters, in order, from the combined Red Sox and Yankees rotations.
Edes: Let's face it, it's a coin flip which rotation is better. Health is going to be the determining factor here, and which team gets the most starts out of its core guys. A third of Boston's games were started by someone other than the team's top four starters last season. The Yankees got 30-plus starts from each of their big four, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain, although the Joba Rules limited Chamberlain to 157 innings, and this year he's back in the bullpen. Phil Hughes still has to prove himself as the No. 5 man, while the Sox are six deep in starters with a track record. My top five, combining the two rotations:
1. Jon Lester
2. CC Sabathia
3. Josh Beckett
4. A.J. Burnett
5. John Lackey
Matthews: Sabathia is the best starting pitcher on both teams, but after him, the Red Sox have it all over the Yankees. I'd take Josh Beckett and John Lackey over A.J. Burnett and a soon-to-be-38-year-old Andy Pettitte every day of the week. Lester and Javier Vazquez is a tough call only if Vazquez pitches the way he did last year as a Brave, not in his first go-round as a Yankee. And right now, either Daisuke Matsuzaka or Clay Buchholz is a better bet than Phil Hughes, the winner by attrition of a rather lackluster competition to be the Yankees' fifth starter. The best rotation you can come up with out of a combination of both staffs is:
Which team will score more runs?
Edes: The Bombers led the majors last season in scoring, averaging 5.7 runs a game, and that's not going to dip much, not with Alex Rodriguez healthy for a full season. Nick Johnson will fit right in as another Yankee grinding out at-bats, though he can't manufacture runs the way Damon did. If Robinson Cano ever learns to hit with men on base, look out. The Red Sox won't score at the same level, but they'll still rank top five in the league.
Matthews: The Yankees outhit Boston last year and are likely to do so again this year, since Big Papi is now just a big guy named David and Mike Cameron has never matched the kind of production Jason Bay gave the Red Sox. For the Yankees, the keys are Johnson, Cano and Nick Swisher, who will be expected to match the surprisingly good season he had in 2009. My gut tells me that Cano is going to grow into the role and become not only a run-scorer but an RBI machine too. The Yankees led the majors with 915 runs scored last year; they might top that this year.
Which team has the better bullpen?
Edes: One of these days Jonathan Papelbon will supplant his idol, Mariano Rivera, as the game's best closer, but Mo at 40 still has the heavyweight title belt in his hands, and won't give it up without a struggle.
The rest of the bullpen is where you might see some separation between the teams, especially now that Joba is back to full-time relief duty. Chan Ho Park pitched very well this spring, newcomer Boone Logan has looked good, Damaso Marte is healthy, and there's additional depth in Alfredo Aceves and David Robertson. This has the makings of a shutdown 'pen. Hideki Okajima is invaluable and underappreciated for the job he has done for the Red Sox, and Daniel Bard may yield nothing but experience to Chamberlain, but Manny Delcarmen's issues this spring and lack of velocity have raised at least a yellow flag. Yanks have the edge here.
Matthews: Assuming he doesn't wake up this year and discover he's 40 years old, there is no one to compare with Mariano Rivera, and that certainly includes Jonathan Papelbon. The problem is getting the ball, and the game, into his hands.
Joba Chamberlain is a huge question mark coming off his failure to win a starting job that was all but handed to him. Despite having a great postseason, Dave Robertson has still pitched only 74 major league innings and has much to prove. Alfredo Aceves is solid and Damaso Marte, the only lefty in the Yankees' bullpen, was horrible in the regular season, great in October. Chan Ho Park was a good acquisition for the Yankees, but you've got to prefer the Red Sox's set-up men: Okajima, Delcarmen and Bard. Wouldn't it great if you could use the Red Sox's bullpen to get the ball to the closer, and then bring Rivera in to finish it off?
What's the biggest strength and weakness with each team?
Edes: The starting pitching, with five proven winners and a sixth pitcher, Buchholz, possessing all the tools to be the same, is the obvious strength of this Red Sox team, complemented by a defense that will make the pitching even stronger.
The potential weakness -- the ability to score runs -- may not present itself if David Ortiz can recapture the respect opposing pitchers had to show him before last season's debacle, when fastballs were thrown past him with impunity in the season's first two-plus months. Big Papi makes the entire lineup better when he's a threat; if there's a fall-off, the Red Sox will be overly dependent on their pitching at least until they make a move around the trading deadline.
Matthews: The Yankees' strengths are twofold. It goes without saying that the personnel is top-notch -- if A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Teixeira and Rivera aren't the best in the game at their positions, they're damned close -- plus they have an organization-wide confidence, and even arrogance in their own abilities. Plus, manager Joe Girardi has shown a deft hand in dealing with some of the more, for lack of a better word, difficult personalities in the clubhouse, especially Cano. Offensively, the Yankees are a powerhouse, defensively they're very good, and their attitude is that they are the best until proven otherwise.
On the other hand, once you get past Sabathia the starting pitching can be erratic, the bullpen other than Rivera is a question mark, and several of the players the Yankees count on the most, like Jorge Posada, are at that point in their careers where a steep drop-off in production is not only possible, but likely. If they hold together, they can easily repeat, but it's a big "if.''
Where do you see each team finishing, in terms of number of wins and whether it makes the playoffs? Who's more likely to win the World Series?
Edes: Both the Yankees and Red Sox will make the postseason (what else is new?). The Red Sox will win the division with 96 wins. The Yankees will fall just short with 94, but in the crapshoot of October, will win the ALCS because A-Rod/Teixeira are close to what Manny/Papi once were. The Yankees will fall, however, in the World Series to the Cardinals, as they get a taste of Planet Pujols.
Matthews: Barring a resurgence of the Tampa Bay Rays -- a not-inconceivable prospect -- the Yankees and Red Sox will finish 1-2 in the AL East again. A hundred wins for the Yankees seems easily within reach; 95-98 for the Red Sox. I am always of the belief that the reigning champion is likely to retain its position unless something unforeseen happens, such as a major injury or a catastrophically bad year by a key player. As a representative of the AL, either team would be my choice to win the World Series no matter who represents the NL. I think that will be the Yankees.
Finally which team do you think gets the better of the season-opening series at Fenway?
Edes: If I were smart enough to predict that, I'd be working for John W. Henry's hedge fund, or whatever he calls it these days. I'll take the home team, two out of three.
Matthews: Judging by last year -- the Yankees dropped two of three to the Orioles, Sabathia got shelled on Opening Day at Camden Yards, and they couldn't find a way to beat the Red Sox until Aug. 6 but still wound up winning it at all -- obviously, it doesn't matter. The Sox can take no solace in even a sweep -- they were up 8-0 in the season series last year -- nor will the Yankees despair if they come up empty at Fenway. Let's figure two of three for the Red Sox, but remember, it's only Round 1.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com and Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com.