As recently as a year ago, fans of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees could argue for hours about which was the superior team.
Nowadays, that debate should take no longer than three or four seconds. The Yankees are on top of the AL East (for now) with a month to go in the 2012 regular season, and the Red Sox are sinking like a stone towards the bottom. They're barely better than a little league team at the moment (and that's a notion that is debatable).
There's no question that the Yankees are a better team than the Red Sox right now. In fact, it hasn't been this obvious in years. Red Sox fans really have no choice but to bite their tongues and take the abuse raining down from their Yankee fan friends/enemies/frenemies.
Or, they could hold their ground and fire back with this retort: "Oh yeah, well, at least our future doesn't suck!"
This is actually a valid point. There may be no question that the Yankees are a better team than the Red Sox now, but Boston's future certainly looks brighter than New York's at the moment.
The State of Both Unions
The Red Sox are an embarrassment of a baseball team.
They have been all along this season, of course. They were little more than a .500 team when they were playing well, and even when they were playing well, they always resembled the horribly dysfunctional family just around the block that the local police force knows all too well.
The Red Sox are even more embarrassing now than ever before. They've lost seven games in a row and 12 of their last 15 overall. Their first losing season since 1997 is all but in the bag.
Not even Sox general manager Ben Cherington is bothering to sugarcoat things these days. He had no trouble admitting, via the Boston Globe, after the club's Labor Day loss to the Seattle Mariners that the Red Sox are "hard to watch" right now.
So yeah, the Red Sox are bad. Almost bad enough to make last September's collapse look like a fun time.
Here's the thing, though: The Red Sox may be bad, but it's not like the Yankees are an unstoppable juggernaut in their own right. They're staring their very own September collapse right in the face, and it's going to take quite a bit of effort to avoid it.
Presently, the Bronx Bombers hold a slim one-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles for first place in the AL East. The Tampa Bay Rays are just behind them at a mere 2.5 games off the pace. What was once an insurmountable lead is now the slightest of advantages.
Many are still giving the Yankees the benefit of the doubt, and deservedly so. They are, after all, the Yankees. They don't dabble in things like epic September collapses.
What people are ignoring is that the Yankees' apparently sudden mediocrity really isn't so sudden. We're talking about a team that followed up a 20-7 showing in the month of June with a 13-13 showing in July and a 15-13 showing in August. They're 1-2 so far in September.
So realistically, the Yankees have been playing mediocre baseball for two months, not just for the last two weeks.
The reason why the Yankees are playing such mediocre baseball is because all their worst nightmares have basically come true.
Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher are going strong, but Alex Rodriguez was lost for a significant amount of time, Mark Teixeira is presently nursing a bad wheel and Curtis Granderson has been in a bad slump since the beginning of July. As a result, the Bombers aren't doing a whole lot of bombing these days.
The club's pitching staff is also on shaky ground.
CC Sabathia has had to go on the disabled list on two separate occasions this season, and he's failed to dominate when he has been healthy. Andy Pettitte stabilized the Yankees' rotation more than anyone figured he would when he joined the club in May, but he's been out of action since late June, and it's anyone's guess as to whether he'll be able to pitch like he was before if he does come back this season.
Elsewhere, the shine finally wore off Ivan Nova in July, and now he's hurt. Freddy Garcia holds his own, but he flirts with danger every time he takes the mound. Phil Hughes has generally been good, but you never know when he's going to get lit up.
In the bullpen, Mariano Rivera hasn't been missed as much as many people figured he would be, but it's obvious by now that the Yankees' pen isn't nearly as deep without him. The bridge to Rafael Soriano is not unbeatable.
Granted, none of these problems should keep the Yankees from missing out on the postseason this year. If they don't get in via the AL East division crown, they'll certainly get in via one of the AL's two wild card berths. It would take a disaster beyond reckoning for the Yankees to miss out entirely, and they still have too many guys (i.e. The Captain) who simply aren't going to allow that to happen.
But the fact that a collapse is even possible at this point just goes to show that the Yankees are as weak now as they've been at any point in the last two decades. Make no mistake about that.
Boston's dynasty has crumbled. The Yankees' dynasty hasn't crumbled yet, but the cracks are starting to show.
Patching these cracks won't be as easy as it has been in the past.
A couple weeks ago, Boston's future appeared to be a dark, ruinous wasteland with little or no daylight creeping over the horizon.
The main reason it looks so much brighter now is because of their recent mega-trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They lost one of their best players in Adrian Gonzalez, sure, but they also rid themselves of two underachievers in Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford.
Most importantly, they rid themselves of $250 million in salaries. They effectively went from having a very small amount of payroll flexibility to having a huge amount of payroll flexibility.
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Red Sox have only $45.638 million in salaries committed for the 2013 season. Baseball-Reference.com calculates that Boston's 2013 payroll will come in at under $110 million next season with options and arbitration costs mixed in.
These figures obviously don't take potential free-agent signings into consideration, and that's an area where the Red Sox are likely to be active now that they have holes to fill and so much money to spend.
But they likely won't be too active. They got themselves in such a mess largely because of their reckless spending. They won't repeat the same mistakes now just because they can.
I'll go ahead and take a rough guess and say that Boston's 2013 payroll will be right around $130 million in 2013, which would be about $45 million lower than their 2012 payroll. That amount of money will allow them to field a quality team while also keeping their payroll options open for the future beyond the 2013 season.
The Yankees, meanwhile, wish they could be in the same boat as the Red Sox going forward.
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Yankees have $119.125 million in salaries committed for the 2013 season. Baseball-Reference.com figures their payroll will be right around $188 million with options and arbitration figures mixed in.
Brian Cashman will mix and match via free agency and trades, as he always does, but $188 million is actually a pretty good estimate for the Yankees' payroll in 2013. After all, that's precisely where team boss Hal Steinbrenner wants the club's payroll to be by the 2014 season.
The Yankees' new payroll-conscious approach will keep Cashman from getting too wild in free agency. It's highly unlikely that any top free agents (Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, et al) will be fitted for pinstripes this offseason. The Yankees are more likely to focus on bringing back Nick Swisher and then finding ways to shed payroll, or just letting him go and then focusing on finding bargain buys.
Either direction will work for Cashman, but there's no way he's going to be able to clear as much payroll space as the Red Sox just did. The Dodgers have enough money on their hands now, and there simply aren't any teams out there that can take on the contracts that are weighing the Yankees down.
What's scary is that these contracts promise to be even more of a burden in the years to come.
Where's All the Money Invested Now?
If the Red Sox don't make a major free-agent signing this winter, the most expensive player on their roster in 2013 will be John Lackey. He'll be on the books for $15.25 million.
That's obviously not ideal, as Lackey will be making a comeback from Tommy John surgery while simultaneously looking to prove that he's a lot better than the pitcher who has a 26-23 record and a 5.26 ERA as a member of the Red Sox.
But beyond Lackey, the only players on the Red Sox who are guaranteed over $10 million next season are Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia. The only one of their players who could get a pay raise to over $10 million in arbitration is Jacoby Ellsbury.
If this is how things work out, the Red Sox will be investing the bulk of their payroll space in the right players. Lackey may be a lost cause, but Lester is still young and talented, and Pedroia and Ellsbury are both MVP-caliber players when they're healthy.
The Yankees, on the other hand, will be investing the bulk of their payroll space on four players who may not be worth it.
In 2013, Alex Rodriguez will make $28 million. Given his age, his declining skills and his proneness to injuries, there's no way he's going to be able to provide good value for that kind of money.
Mark Teixeira will make $22.5 million in 2013. That's the exact salary he's making this season, and for that, the Yankees are getting a player with an .813 OPS. According to FanGraphs, there are eight first basemen in Major League Baseball who have a higher OPS. There are six first basemen with higher WARs.
The point: Teixeira is being paid like an elite first baseman, and he's not an elite first baseman. Because he's been trending in the wrong direction for a couple years now, there's little reason to think this will change in 2013.
CC Sabathia will make $23 million in 2013. He's generally worth that kind of money, but his 2012 season is very much a cause for concern heading forward. Sabathia has long been one of the most durable players in baseball, but he's had to go on the DL twice this season. He's pitched well when he has been healthy, but not like a No. 1 starting pitcher. At the age of 31, he may be starting to break down.
Derek Jeter will make $17 million next season. If he hits over .300 with double-digit home runs again, his salary won't be a complete disaster. But it won't be a steal either.
Jeter is having an excellent offensive season in 2012, but there are six shortstops with higher WARs than him, according to FanGraphs. This is largely due to Jeter's defense, which is a major weakness.
All told, the Yankees are going to spend a little over $90 million on four players in 2013. The odds of them getting equal value for that money are somewhere between slim and none.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, are probably going to spend somewhere around $50 million on their four most expensive players in 2013 if they don't make a major splash in free agency. They should be able to get good value for that kind of money.
Even if they don't, the Red Sox don't have to worry about dealing with a long-term nightmare. Conceivably, they could be rid of their most expensive players by the end of the 2014 season.
A-Rod, Teixeira and Sabathia are all signed through the 2016 season, and A-Rod won't be gone until after the 2017 season.
Those three albatross contracts thus aren't going away any time soon.
Who's Still Young? Who's Still in Their Prime?
It's all well and good that the Red Sox now have a ton of money to play with, but it wouldn't do them much good if they didn't have a solid foundation of young players to build on.
Fortunately for them, they do.
The Red Sox have holes to fill this offseason, but they can rest easy knowing that they at least have a star second baseman in Pedroia to build around. And they'll also be able to build around Ellsbury if they don't trade him.
Beyond them, the Red Sox have a talented young third baseman in Will Middlebrooks and a catcher in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has emerged as a reliable everyday option over the last two seasons. We could see them finally hand the everyday shortstop job over to young defensive whiz Jose Iglesias.
If the Red Sox re-sign Cody Ross to play right field—and according to Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com, they want to—and David Ortiz to be their everyday DH, they'll only have two positions to fill in free agency: left field and first base.
They'll need starting pitching help as well, but not too much seeing as how Lackey, Lester and Clay Buchholz will be locks for the rotation and Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales will be two options for one (or both) of the other spots.
Of all the players just mentioned, the only ones over the age of 30 are Ross, Ortiz and Lackey. All the others are still in their 20s. If the idea is to go with a youth movement—and it is—then the Red Sox are in good shape.
The Yankees aren't in such a good position regarding their youth. Or indeed, the lack thereof.
Of the team's four most expensive players we just discussed, all four are over the age of 30. And Jeter and A-Rod are both in their late 30s.
The only starting infielder the Yankees have under the age of 30 right now is Robinson Cano, and he's set to turn 30 in October. If they bring back Nick Swisher this offseason, two of their three projected starting outfielders will be over the age of 30.
In their rotation, the Yankees will have at least two 30-or-older starting pitchers in Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, if he is brought back for the 2013 season. In their bullpen, the Yankees will have a 33-year-old in Rafael Soriano as their closer, but only if they don't re-sign soon-to-be 43-year-old Mariano Rivera.
It's not very hard to see the different directions the Red Sox and Yankees are going in. The Red Sox are basing themselves around a young core of players. The Yankees' core is old and getting older. Worse, they don't have a ton of young talent waiting in the wings.
Down on the Farm
You can already see Boston's youth movement taking shape (albeit very painfully) at the major league level, and it's taking place down on the farm as well.
Before the start of the season, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus had Boston's farm system ranked as the No. 12 system in MLB. This was before Middlebrooks established himself as a capable major league talent, and it was also before some of Boston's prospects further cemented themselves as players to keep an eye on.
Case in point, three Red Sox prospects showed up in Baseball America's midseason rankings of the top 50 prospects in baseball: right-hander Matt Barnes, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielder Jackie Bradley. Barnes checked in high on the list at No. 13.
In the trade with the Dodgers, the Red Sox obtained arguably L.A.'s best pitching prospect in Allen Webster, not to mention a former top prospect in Rubby De La Rosa. Boston's farm system has thus had a very good season.
The Red Sox are set up to have a pipeline of talent from their minor league system to the major league team not unlike the one they had that aided the team's World Series run in 2007.
The Yankees have a pretty solid farm system of their own. Goldstein had it ranked as the No. 15 system in baseball before the start of the season, and this was before outfielder Mason Williams, catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielder Tyler Austin found their way onto BA's midseason top 50.
However, this was also before Manny Banuelos' 2012 season was basically ruined by an elbow problem. To make matters worse, fellow star pitching prospect Dellin Betances has gone 6-9 with a 6.44 ERA in 27 appearances (26 starts) between Double-A and Triple-A.
The Yankees were counting on them to be options for the big club's starting rotation in the near future, along with offseason trade acquisition Michael Pineda. Instead, Banuelos and Betances have both experienced forgettable seasons, and Pineda hasn't pitched at all due to a shoulder injury.
Things could be a lot worse for the Yankees down on the farm (they could be the White Sox), but they could be a lot better too. They're eventually going to find themselves in a position where they'll have to match young talent with the Red Sox, and right now, they don't have the pieces in place to win such a battle.
In order to strengthen their minor league system, the Yankees are going to have to trade off a star player or two (a la Curtis Granderson). For them, doing something like that would be a hard thing to sell to a fanbase that is used to winning now.
And since the Yankees are doing well this season with the core they have in place, they may choose to leave well enough alone. The big club and their farm system may go largely unchanged this winter.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, will continue their reconstruction project. The blank canvas they have before them isn't very pleasing to the eye for the time being, but it's just a matter of time before it is turned into a work of art.
Though, it won't hurt the process if Red Sox fans cross their fingers and hope that the artists know what they're doing.
Note: Most statistics came courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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