Why 2016 Season Could See Revival of Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry at Top of AL East

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Why 2016 Season Could See Revival of Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry at Top of AL East
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Of ESPN's first 10 announced Sunday Night Baseball telecasts for 2016, five feature either the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. Three feature the Yankees and the Red Sox.

You can't blame the television guys, even if neither of those teams has won a playoff game in the past two years. ESPN shows the teams they know you'll watch, and no matter how much some of you complain, plenty of you watch.

But here's the other thing: This could be the year when Yankees-Red Sox games are actually worth watching again.

It's not 2003-04. It probably won't ever be like that again, with the Yankees and Red Sox meeting in back-to-back years in two of the most memorable American League Championship Series ever.

But it shouldn't be 2014-15, either. It shouldn't be a last-place Red Sox team facing a Yankees team that seemed happy just to stay in the race all summer. It shouldn't be empty seats in both ballparks, an atmosphere more fit for Miami Marlins vs. Tampa Bay Rays than Yankees vs. Red Sox.

Instead, it could well end up with the Yankees and Red Sox at the top of the American League East (in one order or the other) for the first time since 2009, but the 12th time since 1995.

For the sake of everyone watching all of those Sunday night games, that's not a bad thing.

Winslow Townson/Associated Press
When Dave Dombrowski (right) signed David Price away from the Toronto Blue Jays, he may have shifted the AL East power base back to its Boston-New York home.

It's hardly guaranteed. The Red Sox are the division's most improved team this winter, but they still have their issues (Hanley Ramirez). The Yankees worked the trade market well, but they still have their issues, too (Alex Rodriguez).

And while the defending AL East champion Toronto Blue Jays lost David Price to the Red Sox, they'll in effect swap two months of Price for a full season of Marcus Stroman. Also, as former general manager Alex Anthopoulos pointed out to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, the Blue Jays' big second half was in part based on an improved defense that will return in 2016.

"I think they can win the division," Anthopoulos told Cafardo.

I think they can, too. But if two teams are going to finish in front of them, the Yankees and Red Sox could well be the two.

The Baltimore Orioles did a nice job keeping most of their team together, but it's a team that finished .500 in 2015 and still hasn't effectively replaced Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. And the one free agent they didn't keep this winter, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, leaves their rotation looking thin.

The Tampa Bay Rays talked about trading one of their starters this winter, but as of now they still haven't. So they have the best rotation in the division but still have a badly overmatched lineup. They may have overachieved to finish 80-82 last year.

Meanwhile, Dave Dombrowski had almost a dream first winter as Red Sox president, adding not only Price, but also closer Craig Kimbrel, setup man Carson Smith and outfielder Chris Young. If he'd been able to rid the Sox of their Hanley Ramirez mistake, it really would have been a dream.

By adding Price, the Red Sox acknowledged their 2015 plan of building a rotation without a true ace was a mistake. Price should help make all of the other starters better, just as he once did with the Rays and just as he did when he arrived in Toronto late last July.

That should help the Sox take advantage of an offense that scored the fourth-most runs in the major leagues last year, and of a defense that was much improved once they moved Ramirez out of left field and turned to talented youngsters Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts in the outfield. The bullpen, also an issue in 2015, should be transformed by adding Kimbrel, still one of the game's best closers, and the hard-throwing Smith.

The Yankees, as Scott Miller pointed out in his fine offseason review this week on Bleacher Report, are one of just five teams that haven't signed a single major league free agent. But general manager Brian Cashman stuck to his plan to make them younger and more athletic, trading for second baseman Starlin Castro, outfielder Aaron Hicks and closer Aroldis Chapman.

The Chapman-Andrew Miller-Dellin Betances back end of the bullpen will be fun to watch, just by itself. And even if Castro doesn't prove to be this year's version of Didi Gregorius (a young player the Yankees picked up at the right time), he still should be a significant improvement at a position where the Yankees got little production in 2015.

CHARLES KRUPA/Associated Press
Will it ever be like this again? Probably not this year.

Even though they finished nine games ahead of the Red Sox in 2015, the Yankees are more at risk of big disappointment this summer. Every pitcher in their starting rotation has an issue of some kind, and much of their 2015 offensive revival was based on A-Rod (who will be 41 in July), Mark Teixeira (who will be 36 in April) and Carlos Beltran (who will be 39 in April). Chapman makes the bullpen more exciting, but the Yankees traded away Justin Wilson and Adam Warren.

As Joel Sherman wrote last November in the New York Post, the Yankees' recent strategy has been focused much more on the future than on 2016. Owner Hal Steinbrenner didn't exactly order an austerity plan, but he has said the big spending will need to wait until the contracts of Rodriguez, Teixeira, Beltran and CC Sabathia run out over the next couple of years.

The Red Sox tried the semi-austerity thing, but after three last-place finishes in four years, they went after Dombrowski and gave him the backing to go after Price. Perhaps the Yankees, despite no postseason wins since 2012, didn't feel the same need.

Realistically, neither of these teams is the Evil Empire anymore. The American League Central is a stronger division overall than the East, and it's the Kansas City Royals who are the two-time defending AL champions.

The Royals, incidentally, will appear in just one of those 10 announced Sunday night games on ESPN, when they host the New York Mets in an Opening Night World Series encore. Apparently the Yankees and Red Sox weren't available.

You'll see them soon enough. This year, it might even be worth watching.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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