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The New York Yankees have the best record in baseball and are peaking as we speak -- and they're only going to get better.
The Yankees will be an offensive juggernaut before the season is over. Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi -- all .300 lifetime hitters -- are batting in the .240-.260 range. I expect these three veterans to hit better as the season progresses. Meanwhile, Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez are already hitting over .300, and their addition to New York's lineup this year makes the Yankees the most potent offensive team in baseball.
When you factor in Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui, you realize how good a lineup the Yankees have. Matsui has become one of the game's best clutch hitters, and this year he's displaying more of the power that he showed in the Japanese league, where he hit 50 home runs one season. Matsui has hit 11 home runs already this year after hitting just 16 homers in his rookie season last year. Posada, though slowed recently by injury, remains one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.
In the pitching department, I expect 27-year-old Javier Vazquez to become the Yankees' ace this year. Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina are both injured, and their return is key for the rotation. But their age -- Brown is 39, Mussina is 35 -- could slow them down later in the season. So once Vazquez adjusts to being in New York, he'll emerge as the ace.
Rivera Still the Best
In the bullpen, Mariano Rivera is still baseball's best clutch closer. He has performed with distinction under playoff and World Series pressure. It doesn't appear to me that the 34-year-old Rivera has lost anything. His poise and command make him the tremendous competitor he's always been.
I've read that Rivera is adding a changeup to his repertoire. If he does, he'll be virtually unhittable. But I don't think he needs to change much (if anything).
New York's middle-inning and setup relief is much better than it was last year, thanks to the additions of Tom Gordon (who was with the Chicago Cubs last year) and Paul Quantrill (with the Los Angeles Dodgers last year).
And we know that the Yankees will add the pitching they need before the July 31 trade deadline. If they do make a trade, I expect it to be for pitching, because they have plenty of offense. Still, I've heard the Yankees might be interested in Kansas City Royals center fielder Carlos Beltran. I'm just not sure where they'd play him.
The Yankees were designed to be a great offensive ballclub, and that will overcome their shortcomings. For example, they aren't a great defensive team, and their starting pitching is better than average but not superb. But that great lineup will make up for lots of those shortcomings.
At the beginning of the season, I thought the Boston Red Sox had the edge over the Yankees in starting pitching -- which I thought would give them the edge over the Yankees overall. But now it looks like the Yankees are the team to beat. Boston trails New York by 5½ games in the AL East.
Even so, I can't help but wonder if too many Boston hitters had career years last season and won't be able to match those numbers this year. In 2003, the Red Sox established post-1900 MLB records for slugging percentage (.491) and for most players with 80-plus RBI (eight). Ironically enough, the previous slugging record was held by the 1927 Yankees (.489).
I expect the Yankees, with their potent lineup, to supplant the Red Sox as the best-hitting team in the American League this year.
Don't Complain About Yankee Cash
Many fans, in Boston and elsewhere, complain about how Yankees owner George Steinbrenner buys the best team possible -- that all he does is buy championships. Complaints about Steinbrenner's ability to add payroll during the season will always arise.
But to me, that's simply part of the game. That's just the way it is. And in most cases, the Yankees haven't just spent money -- they've spent money wisely.
The Yankees, of course, have the highest payroll in baseball at $183.3 million. That's more than the Milwaukee Brewers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins combined.
But the Red Sox have the second-highest payroll at $125.2 million. So they're no stranger to spending in order to improve their ballclub.
It's as if the Yankees are in a poker game, with more money than anyone else -- but it doesn't guarantee that they'll win. In fact, the defending world champion Marlins are living proof that you don't need to spend lots of cash to win the World Series. The Marlins are 26th of the 30 MLB teams in payroll (at $42.1 million).
And remember, with all the money the Yankees have spent in recent years, they haven't won a world championship since 2000.
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.