Two on Two: AL East Preview
The Two on Two series moves cross country from the west coast to the east coast. The AL and NL Central and the AL and NL West were the warmup acts. In week number five, we bring you the AL East, starring the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and their three backup singers.
Patrick Sullivan of The House That Dewey Built and Cliff Corcoran of Bronx Banter join us this week to preview (review?) the division that, to some, is the only one that matters.
Rich Lederer: When anyone mentions the AL East, it is only normal to think of the Yankees and Red Sox or the Red Sox and Yankees. Are the Orioles, Devil Rays, and Blue Jays destined to finish behind New York and Boston forever and ever?
Patrick Sullivan: Good question. For now, Baltimore is the best of the lot but unlikely to catch either team because they are old and have little coming down the pike in the form of young talent. They'll run out of time. Toronto seems forward thinking and all, but I need to see some results. God help Tampa Bay.
Intuitively, the answer to your question is "of course not." Someday, one of the other three will win the division. Right now, however, it's tough to see when.
Cliff Corcoran: I really thought Toronto was going to make some waves last year based on their 2003 performance and the mindset of their front office, but they fell very far very fast and have way too much ground to make up. I do not have any faith in the Orioles putting together a pitching rotation any time soon and agree with Sully that their key players won't last until they do. I think they've been routinely overrated in pre-season predictions in recent years. It's becoming a pet peeve of mine.
I agree with Sully. Not any time soon. O's, Jays, Rays, but a ways back from the Newston Yank Sox.
Bryan Smith: No. Whether it takes a labor stoppage and a salary cap to change things, I don't know. But it won't keep happening. I actually think the Yankees could be in a funk in the coming years. They will be fine this season but in 2006, 2007 or 2008, they will be shelling out a lot of money for what's just not a ton of performance. At some point writing another check just won't be enough, and some creativity will need to be involved. Boston should be fine for quite some time, just maybe not the Yanks.
Cliff: There's something to that, but the Yankees' doom has been foretold for the past three or four seasons and they have yet to do as poorly as the Wild Card. I don't have much faith in their decision making, and it seems they've finally reached their luxury tax threshold, but I'm thisclose to putting them in the Braves' category of I'll-believe-their-demise-when-I-see-it. The thing about how the Yankees do business is that you can't predict three years from now because it's not about who's on the team now or in the minors. So who knows?
Sully: Cliff makes a good point in that many have been predicting New York's demise for some time now. But while previous offseason moves could probably be characterized as "sub-optimal," I think they made some moves this offseason that were patently dumb. I have a feeling that the combo of their inability to accurately identify areas of need along with an apparent disregard of their farm system may start to be problematic.
Rich: Well, I think it comes down to George. Is he willing to eat bad contracts? Will he continue to authorize high-profile free agent signings? Heck, will George even be around in a few more years? If the answer is "no" to any of these questions, I think Yankee fans may need to face reality and recognize the dynasty of the past decade is not a birthright.
Sully: As for George, it's hard to say whether he's an asset or a liability at this point. There seems to be such a pressure-filled environment in that front office that sober reasoning is all but impossible.
Cliff: The last part of that is my exact reaction to Rich's comment. While there is a tendency for both Yankee fans and baseball fans in general to attribute the Yankees' best moves to Brian Cashman and their worst moves to King George, I do believe that it's nearly impossible for a general manager, be it Cashman, Billy Beane, or Branch-freakin'-Rickey, to execute a sound team-building strategy under Steinbrenner and his cronies. When Steinbrenner goes, the Yankees will likely suffer greatly due to a strict reduction in payroll, but they will also be able to hire (or retain, if Cashman's still sane) a general manager who can do as well with less by building a team rather than hitting a player pinata with a money stick.
Rich: Even though we all know that New York and Boston have been the dominant teams in the AL East for some time now, I'm still struck by the fact that the Yankees and Red Sox have finished first and second, respectively, seven years in a row. Has this ever happened in the history of the game?
Cliff: That's actually a pretty easy question to answer. How many teams have finished first seven years in a row other than the current Yankees? Answer: Just one. The Atlanta Braves, ten years in a row from 1995-2004. Who were the second place teams during that span? In order, Mets, Expos, Marlins, Mets, Mets, Mets, Phillies, Expos, Marlins, Phillies. So no.
The AL East finished Yanks-Sox-Jays-O's-Rays from 1998 to 2003. The streak was finally broken last year when the Blue Jays fouled things up by being destroyed by injuries and general ungoodness.
Sully: We in Boston are getting along just fine without a division crown...
Cliff: Doing as well as the Braves, that's for sure. Speaking of which, the fascinating thing about the Braves' winning their division 10 years in a row (13 if you toss out the strike year and go back to '91), is that they have fewer World Championships over that stretch than the Marlins, who also play in their division and have thus never finished first.
The last three World Champions have been Wild Card teams. Though it's worth noting that the Red Sox did win 98 games and the 2002 Angels won 99. If only there was a Wild Card in 1954.
Sully: In seriousness, I think a division title is probably a real motivator for Boston this year. SABR types will tell you that baseball is a game meant to be played out over the long haul and the Yankees have done that better than the Sox now nine years running. A World Series victory, while an exhilarating accomplishment, doesn't quite feel whole without a division crown. I would guess that, to a man, Theo et al share this sentiment.
Cliff: I admire your honesty, but after 86 years. . .the Sox did beat the Yankees head-to-head (even if the series was basically dead even, just in a really freakish way). That said, as a Yankee fan, it's nice to know that the division crown holds some significance in RSN.
Bryan: Boston has got a lot of New York in the past year, but now they want to strip everything from the Yankees. It reminds me of Denzel Washington's character in "Man on Fire," they simply won't stop until all bragging rights are gone from the Big Apple.
Cliff: I imagine this year will be much like the last two. I'm not convinced that either team was meaningfully better than the other in either of the last two years. And I'm not sure I could be convinced that anything has changed this year. It will likely come down to injuries, decisions made by the manager and general manager (I believe that Joe Torre cost the Yankees last year's ALCS by failing to explore his roster options in September), and a simple case of who has the last hot streak.
Rich: Although the Yankees won more games last year, the Red Sox smoked 'em in runs scored and runs allowed. Boston won as many games as one would expect, while the Yankees won 12 more than its Pythagorean record would have suggested. As such, despite the fact that New York won the division, maybe Boston was the better team all along.
Sully: I think the roster the Sox put together at the outset of last year was a one of historical significance, capable of winning well over 105 games. Three factors made the team merely excellent. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe badly underperformed reasonable expectations, and Trot Nixon missed a lot of time. But the team that played from about August 10th through the end of October was one of the best teams of the last decade and pretty clearly better than the Yanks if you ask me.
Cliff: That's an unfair comparison. By August Paul Quantrill and Javy Vazquez were cooked, and Jason Giambi was appearing on more milk cartons than baseball cards. By September, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera were seriously winded, Gary Sheffield had gotten about all that was possible out of his torn shoulder, and Kevin Brown was shaking hands with the clubhouse wall. That's nearly one third of the Yankee roster in bad-to-awful shape. Had all of those men stayed healthy and performed on par with their abilities, the Yankees could have won 110 games last year (which was what I predicted for them prior to the season).
Rich: Woulda, coulda, shoulda...
Cliff: ...so if the Red Sox, at full strength, were one of the best teams of the last decade (a decade which included the 114-win '98 Yankees and the 116-win '01 Mariners, by the way), you'd have to list last year's Yankees with or ahead of them. Except it doesn't work that way. It's a 162-game season for a reason.
Rich: Well, speaking of a 162-game season, we're less than two weeks from Opening Day. Who has the better roster this year?
Bryan: My thinking is that the Red Sox have the better lineup for sure. The Yankees lineup is full of people who will be declining with age, and of course, Tony Womack. Boston's lineup doesn't suffer so many holes.
Cliff: Is there a huge difference between "who has the better roster" and "which is the better team?" I really think these teams are very even. I give you the Red Sox lineup by a hair, but I like the Yankee pen. The rotations are pretty even if the Yanks can keep theirs healthy (though the Sox are the ones with two men on the DL). Sox win on bench, even on defense. I'd say it's even.
Sully: Boston. While both teams are supremely talented, both teams carry considerable risks and, therefore, both will likely rely a fair amount on their respective benches, for better or worse. Boston's bench represents the largest advantage for either club, followed by New York's bullpen.
Bryan: Yes, the bench is impressive. It seems that Theo really focuses on building a deep team, while the Yanks are more top heavy. A 162-game season has to favor the former philosophy.
Sully: Absolutely. Theo is relentless in his pursuit of a complete roster. Jay Payton is an enormous upgrade over Gabe Kapler, as is Ramon Vazquez over Pokey Reese. Doug Mirabelli is probably the 15th best catcher in baseball or so. And boy, do I hope Roberto Petagine returns healthy.
Bryan: Yes, Petagine could be a fantastic signing. His numbers in Japan were .317/.446/.633, and even given the tailoff last season, he's not far from Hideki Matsui when he left the Far East.
Rich: Hideki is primed for a monster season or maybe I should say a Godzilla season.
Cliff: Taking a closer look, I give you Mirabelli, but Vazquez and Payton don't really wow me. I don't know jack about Petagine, but I do know that if Steve Karsay helps Andy Phillips to a roster spot the Yanks could be in much, much better shape on the bench than you might think. He can play 3B/1B/2B and hit with power and patience.
Sully: Payton has a career .285/.335/.443 line. How's the Bombers 4th outfielder looking? Bench players aren't meant to wow, but if they're average, that'll get you somewhere.
Rich: I think Payton is a very capable fourth outfielder. He's better than what he showed in the pitcher's ballparks in New York and San Diego and not as good as he appeared to be in the extreme hitter's park in Colorado.
Bryan: OK, I am going to agree that Flaherty, Phillips, Sanchez, Crosby and Sierra don't really compete. But my question, Cliff, is what's more important, bench or bullpen?
Cliff: Bullpen, no question. Consider it a lesson learned from last year. The Yankees had a great top of the pen, but nothing to support it and distribute work. That's what cost them the ALCS, and they won the division and almost won the ALCS without any bench to speak of. This in a year when they lost Giambi almost completely.
Sully: Well, Kenny Lofton was on the bench. Or was he?
Cliff: Lofton was on the bench last year, Sully, and that points to one problem with the Yankee bench that's larger than the players sitting on it: how Joe Torre uses it. Which is to say, he doesn't. Lofton got on his bad side and, thus, despite the fact that the Yanks really needed him to spell Bernie in center with regularity, he got buried in favor of Ruben Sierra at DH and Bernie in center, which was just awful. They gave away 50 points of OBP every time they played Sierra over Lofton and who knows how many runs on defense (not that Lofton was great shakes but Bernie is a disaster out there now).
Rich: I wouldn't look for a repeat of what the Yankees got out of the bullpen last year. As much as I like Mariano Rivera, he's 35 years old and I would look for his numbers to worsen at least a tad. Tom Gordon was worked extremely hard last year and, in fact, his numbers suffered in the second half as well as in the playoffs. So, while the Yanks' pen might be better than the Red Sox, I think the gap may not be as wide as generally believed.
Sully: As for the pens, the Sox could make up the entire difference with a healthy Matt Mantei. "Healthy Mantei" is oxymoronic-sounding I know, but possible. But Keith Foulke is every bit as good as Rivera, and Mike Timlin and Alan Embree aren't that much worse than Quantrill and Gordon.
Bryan: Not quite sure that's accurate, but I see where you're coming from, Sully.
Sully: The Sox, by mid-May, will have six above-average starters. That will push a very good pitcher into the pen, thereby strengthening it. John Halama, too, has been excellent in relief the last three seasons.
Rich: Bronson Arroyo, for example, could be incredibly effective in the more highly leveraged situations before turning the ball over to Foulke in the eighth or ninth inning.
Bryan: Also, a quick look at the numbers tells that the Red Sox pen was 56 runs better last year. For the Yankees to make up all that and then some, it might be asking a lot.
Cliff: You have to remember some of the disasters that made their way through the Yankee pen last year: Felix Heredia, Gabe White, Donovan Osborne, Esteban Loaiza . . .plus ungoodness like Prinz & Proctor and then there was the fact that Quantrill melted like a piece of cheese after the All-Star break. But Sully's right. We shouldn't underestimate the Boston pen. I think Gordon makes a huge difference, though.
Bryan: So what about the rotations? My thinking is that Wade Miller and Jaret Wright are the difference makers there. Can Wade be the midseason acquisition Peter Gammons keeps boasting of, and can Jaret not sustain the negative Mazzone effect?
Sully: I just don't see any reasonable way to project anything all that great for Wright while I think Miller ought to contribute 20 solid starts. The comparison gets us back to the depth question, though. If Miller contributes nothing the Sox still have a good-to-great rotation. If Wright stinks then its WOTS (Worcester's own Tanyon Sturtze) time in the Bronx!!
Cliff: Actually, I'm liking what the Yanks are seeing from (and doing with) Chien-Ming Wang this spring. I think this kid is ready to be number five if need be. Of course that doesn't work if Brown goes down, too. The Yankee rotation has a wide range of possibilities, but the key is Randy Johnson should rival Johan Santana as the best pitcher in the league. Meanwhile, between Miller, Curt Schilling's still tweaky ankle and the ever back-balky stool-trippy, fight-havey David Wells, the Boston rotation isn't that much of a sure thing.
Bryan: Well, I think you guys are forgetting the inevitable July trades. I think Boston will shore up their bullpen, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Yanks add a starter and get Soriano back to replace Womack. That would make a big difference.
Sully: Tough to forecast trades, though it should be noted that the Sox farm system has made great strides. They probably have 5-8 valuable chips now. Other than Wang and Duncan, not sure what the Yanks could offer.
Cliff: Remember, the Yankees big deadline deal last year was flipping Jose Contreras for Loaiza. I won't factor in deadline deals. And Soriano is never coming back to the Bronx unless he's a 38-year-old Sierra-style pick-up. Though I do hope the Yanks will identify a superfluous reliever and flip him and Womack or Sanchez for Placido Polanco at the deadline.
Sully: Polanco on the Yanks could tip the balance...
Bryan: I think Cliff might take his Polanco obsession to the grave. Anyway, both of you have admitted the Red Sox offense will be better. How many runs does the Boston offense have on them? It was 52 last year, mind you.
Sully: 70...healthy Nixon, SS improvement plus a better bench more than covers for age regression.
Cliff: I'm gonna say it hangs right about 50 still. Yanks could make up some ground with Giambi contributing and Sheffield healther, but I'll give it a status quo 50. Oh and Tino, even if he doesn't hit much, will tear up the OBP the Yanks got from Clark/Sierra last year.
Rich: Remember, Cliff, the Yankees had John Olerud for part of last season, too. He could get on base a little.
Bryan: I'll go with the middle, 60ish. Another good question will be how far is the difference between New York and Baltimore. It was 55 last time, and the Oriole offense is no doubt improved. Will they be an offensive factor?
Sully: Baltimore is a decent bet to win 85 games, in my opinion. I say the O's score 875, right around the Yanks. Sammy Sosa plus improvement from Luis Matos and Larry Bigbie = significant improvement.
Cliff: Sosa's replacing Jerry Hairston Jr. plus a chunk of David Newhan. He created 81 runs last year, Hairston 46 and Newhan 64. I give the O's 20 extra runs maybe -- that's assuming Raffy doesn't implode completely and Javy Lopez and Melvin Mora can keep it up. Besides, with their pitching they'll never reach .500.
Rich: I actually like the Orioles more than most. Although the O's were only 78-84 last year, Baltimore scored more runs than they allowed.
Sully: According to Davenport's W3% at BP, they were an 86-win team last year. I think they improved. To clarify, I think Matos and Bigbie will improve significantly upon 2004. So will Gibbons.
Bryan: The question is definitely pitching. I think Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Matt Riley are all due for some improvement, though, given last year was essentially all of their rookie seasons. Sidney Ponson and Rodrigo Lopez aren't bad middle-of-the rotation starters, but they have no star. They might be able to put something together for 2006, but that's a ways away.
Cliff: Ponson is bad.
Rich: Suffice it to say, the Orioles are all about hitting, not pitching.
Sully: As I said, they were unlucky last year and have improved. A good way to take some money from your friends will be to get some good odds (4-1, 5-1) and bet the O's to win more than the Yanks.
Rich: I think the Orioles have a shot at beating out the Yankees but those odds seem a bit on the skimpy side to me.
Bryan: Well Cliff, what odds would you set?
Cliff: 50-1? Higher? I just don't see the Orioles being a good baseball team, I'm sorry.
Rich: 50-1? Now we're talking, Cliff! You and me should talk afterwards.
Sully: Maybe Rich and I are the only two in the world that like the O's, but I think they have reason for measured optimism for the first time in a while.
Cliff: They were smart enough to sign Steve Kline (grrrr).
Bryan: And dumb enough to trade Denny Bautista for Jason Grimsley. But speaking of their management, was the Sosa acquisition a good idea?
Sully: Yup. Inexpensive and an improvement. That simple.
Rich: Heck, the Tribune is paying for Sosa to play for Baltimore this year. Granted, the guy's not getting any better -- in fact, his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average have declined for three straight years -- but I don't think it's quite time to stick a fork in him. At least not yet.
Cliff: Yeah, I don't really see the downside. It'll make them money and better in the short term.
Bryan: As a Cub fan, I can tell you the downside will purely be a political one. The man is not a "pro's pro," but I'm not sure what difference that makes in the W-L column. Given the cheap price, I say good move. And surprisingly enough, that move alone might have made their offseason better than the one in Toronto. Who has the better roster: Toronto or Tampa?
Rich: I'm not sure. Toronto is an enigma to me. They were 40-41 at home and 27-53 on the road. Will the real Blue Jays please stand up?
Bryan: The old guy is quoting Eminem. I'm trying to find a way how that compares to the Blue Jays, but I got nothing.
Cliff: Toronto easy.
Sully: Toronto. Healthy Roy Halladay, better Miguel Batista, continued good work from Ted Lilly and this team may be ok. David Bush should be good, too.
Bryan: Yes, that's a lay-up question, I think. I'm a bit concerned about whether there will be enough offense, but I think Tampa has that issue too. Toronto's staff is much more formidable.
Rich: If Halladay returns to form, the Jays should be better than the Rays this year. However, I don't think it's a given that Toronto will beat out Tampa Bay.
Cliff: Keep your eye on Russ Adams at short. I liked what I saw from him at the end of last year. Add in Vernon Wells and Corey Koskie, Orlando Hudson is a solid defense-first 2B, Gregg Zaun is a strong-OBP catcher. The Rays' second-best hitter just might be Julio Lugo. Try that on for size.
Rich: Wait a minute now. Aubrey Huff...Carl Crawford...What am I missing here?
Cliff: Okay, third-best hitter, but mind you that Crawford's career EQA is .254 and Lugo's is .252. Crawford is just 23 and should continue to improve, but I would like to see what he does this year before I commit. (I'm leaving out Rocco Baldelli because he's on the DL.)
Bryan: How does Chuck Lamar still have a job? Might he have some info on Tampa ownership that he's blackmailing them with?
Cliff: When Danny Bautista retires and it's a major problem for your team, you know you're in trouble. That said, why they're not giving B.J. Upton a job is beyond me.
Bryan: I agree completely. He's proven at AAA, and they have very little to lose. Throwing as many youngsters out there as possible, like the late-90s Twins might be a good rebuilding idea. That means Cantu, Gomes, etc.
Cliff: Gathright, Young . . .totally. Well, Cantu should start, but that's not enough.
Sully: I agree. I can't wait to see Delmon play.
Bryan: Not a lot of teams have a 1-4 like Upton, Kazmir, Delmon and Niemann. I really think they do have 2008-2010 potential.
Cliff: But can they make it happen? Seems unlikely.
Bryan: Not with current management, that's for sure.
Rich: If not for being in the AL East, this is a team that would have a decent future.
Bryan: OK guys, we've hit on it all. I need predictions now, 1-5. I'll start off by saying Red Sox-Yankees-Orioles-Blue Jays-DRays with the Yankees winning the Wild Card. As for Boston, I see Edgar Renteria having a huge playoff until they LOSE in the World Series.
Cliff: Yanks, Sox, O's, Jays, Rays (of course). Sox Wild Card, sure.
Sully: Sox-Yanks-O's-Jays-Rays. Sox depth, on the bench and in the rotation, catapults them to a second straight World Series appearence.
Rich: I second Sully from top to bottom. He'll like to know that I actually think Boston will win by five to ten games. In fact, I think the Yankees will be closer to third place than first.
Bryan: And Cliff, what do you think will happen in the playoffs?
Cliff: I'm tempted to say someone not from the East makes the Series, but I'll go with Randy Johnson and Matsui propelling the Yanks there for yucks.
Well, surprise, surprise. Sully picks the Red Sox and Cliff the Yankees. Who would have thunk? Interestingly, it's the first time in the Two on Two series that our guests have parted ways. On the other hand, Bryan and Rich agree for the first time.
When you shake it all up though, the Baseball Analysts consensus has the Red Sox winning the division, followed by the Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Devil Rays. The fact that all of us see eye-to-eye on the third, fourth, and fifth place finishers means you can take it to the bank that the standings won't end up quite that way.
How do you see the AL East?