Is Boston Winning The AL East Arms Race?
On October 17, 2004, Dave Roberts took his ninth inning lead in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. New York was clinging to a 4-3 lead that was about to put them back in the World Series, and Red Sox fans everywhere knew that their team had once again fallen just short.
Like a statue, the ageless Mariano Rivera stood there motionless, unknowing that his next move would swing 86 years of momentum back to Boston. Roberts broke, Jorge Posada gunned Rivera’s offering to second, and Derek Jeter applied the tag…
… too late.
From that moment on, the Boston Red Sox were a changed franchise. As we all know, Bill Mueller singled in Roberts, and three innings later, David Ortiz hit the most memorable homerun of his career. Almost 72 hours after they were written off as dead, the “Idiots” completed possibly the greatest comeback in the history of sports.
Two World Series Championships later, they had finally retaken the stranglehold in the storied Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. They only had one AL East title to boast, but while the Red Sox were soaring, the Yankees were floundering.
Then came 2009. Boston was outbid by New York for Mark Teixeira and watched the Yankees stockpile one of their best rosters in recent memory. They were swept out of the first round against an Angels team they had grown accustomed to feasting upon come playoff time, and New York marched on to their 27th World Championship.
Have the tides swung again? Five years after their embarrassing and historic collapse, the Yankees rebounded to reign supreme over the baseball world once more, but does Boston have a counter-punch for New York?
After the Red Sox signed John Lackey to bolster their pitching staff, the Yankees went out and acquired Atlanta ace, Javier Vazquez. With new additions to each staff and the return of rivalry mainstays, how do the two rotations shake out? Let’s take a look.
New York Yankees
The top four in New York are certain, but the fifth rotation spot is still up in the air. According to a rival executive, Chad Gaudin is likely to get the call, pushing both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain back to the bullpen. Ken Rosenthal believes that if the Yankees do elect to put both Hughes and Chamberlain in the bullpen, then Alfredo Aceves will be the fifth starter. Sergio Mitre is also in the mix, but reports indicate that Cashman is trying to trade either Gaudin or Mitre, so it is unlikely that both will be on the Opening Day roster.
So here is what we know as of January 12. Each player’s Opening Day age is in parenthesis along with their 2009 stat lines.
C.C. Sabathia (29): 19-8, 3.37 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 197 K, 230 IP
After a brief (and fantastic) stint in the National League, Sabathia returned to the AL and picked up right where he left off in Cleveland. He’s even more durable than he is reliable, and considering that he has had ERAs of 3.22, 3.21 and 3.37 in his last three AL seasons, that’s saying something.
A.J. Burnett (33): 13-9, 4.04 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 195 K, 207 IP
Most scouts agree that Burnett has ace-quality stuff, but that still hasn’t translated into an ace-quality career. Injuries bothered him from ‘03 to ‘07, only once starting more than 25 games, but health hasn’t been a problem since. He’s consistently posted ERAs around 4.00 since he got to the AL in 2006, and he walks a lot of batters. All-in-all, not a terrible number two.
Andy Pettitte (37): 14-8, 4.16 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 148 K, 194.2 IP
What you see is what you get with Pettitte. His 2009 line is just about what you can expect from him, and that kind of stability out of a number three guy is pretty valuable.
Javier Vazquez (33): 15-10, 2.87 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 238 K, 219.1 IP (ATL)
I’m sure Vazquez is disappointed to be leaving the NL, but he has to love pitching for a championship contender again. It shocks no one when I say that you would be foolish to expect him to repeat his career year last season, but as a number four he is as good as they get. While he may start the season out at the bottom of the Yankees’ rotation, by October he will be their second-best starter.
His 2004 failures are well-documented, but he did very well in the first half that season before injuries slowed him down in the second half (10-5, 3.56 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 95 K, 118.2 IP at the All-Star Break).
Chad Gaudin (27): 6-10, 4.64 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 139 K, 147.1 IP (SD/NYY)
Gaudin has actually been a successful pitcher throughout his seven-year career. He has a career 4.50 ERA, even though his BB rate (4.3 BB/9) and OBA (.269) are on the high side. He’s always been a good K pitcher (career 7.0 K/9). Although he had a 6-10 record in 2009, he was an average fifth starter.
In a perfect world, your fifth guy wouldn’t have an ERA much over 4.00, but the Yankees don’t have that luxury this season because their best remaining arms (Hughes and Chamberlain) belong in the bullpen, and the rest of the choices for this slot are sub par. If I was managing the team, Gaudin would be my fifth guy, and I’d leave Aceves in the bullpen where he had a lot of success last season, but this is Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman’s team.
Sergio Mitre (29): 3-3, 6.79 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 32 K, 51.2 IP
Mitre missed all of 2008, and the Yankees might have been better off if he had sat out 2009 as well. The organization is trying to trade either him or Gaudin to free up a roster spot and cash to get a left fielder. Also, as I mentioned before, Ken Rosenthal believes that even if Mitre is around on Opening Day, he still won’t get a rotation spot. Can’t say I blame the Yankees if they want to give someone else a chance.
Joba Chamberlain (24): 9-6, 4.75 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 133 K, 157.1 IP
That wasn’t exactly the next step that Yankees fans had hoped for. Poor control (4.3 BB/9) and hittable stuff (.274 OBA) were his kryptonite, and after a year experimenting as a starter, it appears he will find his niche as a setup man for Rivera.
Phil Hughes (23): 8-3, 3.03 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 96 K, 86 IP
Hughes started 28 games in ‘07, ‘08, and ‘09 before making his first career relief appearance. Since then, he has made 44 appearances and has yet to return to the rotation. In the process, he became one of the best eighth inning guys in baseball, and it’s difficult to see the Yankees changing anything up.
Alfredo Aceves (27): 10-1, 3.54 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 69 K, 84 IP
Like everyone else on this list (possibly aside from Hughes), nothing is certain. While Rosenthal believes Aceves will likely get a rotation spot when Gaudin or Mitre is traded, I am not so sure. Until something is done though, all we can do is wait.
Boston Red Sox
Josh Beckett (29): 17-6, 3.86 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 199 K, 212.1 IP
I’ll start off by saying the Red Sox’ top three of Beckett, Lester, and Lackey are just about interchangeable. Lester has arguably been the team ace for the last two seasons, but because of his experience (and he isn’t too bad either), Beckett is the de facto number one. He’s been the guy the team has fallen back on during losing streaks, and he’s often gotten the job done. He could post an ERA anywhere from the 3.30-4.00 range, which is a bit high for an ace, but he gives you a chance to win every single time he steps on that mound.
Jon Lester (26): 15-8, 3.41 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 225 K, 203.1 IP
From top prospect, to cancer survivor, to world champion, to potential staff ace, Lester has done a lot more than your average 26-year old starter. He jumped his K/9 from 6.5 in 2008 to 10.0 in 2009 thanks to a new pitch (cutter) and improved strength as he finished rehabbing from chemotherapy, so the K numbers should be here to stay. He has the bulldog mentality Sox fans have grown accustomed to seeing in Beckett, and he gives them the lefty/righty power combo atop the rotation just like New York has.
John Lackey (31): 11-8, 3.83 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 139 K, 176.1 IP
Lackey made his first appearance of 2008 on May 14 and his first appearance of 2009 on May 16, so hopefully for the Red Sox he doesn’t injure himself in camp. Boston surprised many by going out and spending over $80 million on a 31-year old starter, but it was exactly what they needed given their new pitching and defense focus. With a starter of this quality slated to pitch third in the rotation, Boston shouldn’t have too many extended losing streaks in 2010. He also provides great insurance should something happen to Beckett or Lester.
Diasuke Matsuzaka (29): 4-6, 5.76 ERA, 1.87 WHIP, 54 K, 59.1 IP
Matsuzaka’s 2009 failures can be chocked up to one thing: the World Baseball Classic. It threw off his strength and conditioning routine, and as a result he injured his groin early in the season (as he just admitted days ago). It’s only January, but he has already begun his strength program, and he’s being allowed to work out and condition how he was accustomed to back in Japan.
With an 18-3 season already under his belt where he posted a 2.90 ERA and an amazing .211 OBA, expect Matsuzaka to rebound to something like 2008. Even if he falls short, which is probable, he should still be an incredible fourth starter.
Clay Buchholz (25): 7-4, 4.21 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 68 K, 92 IP
Remember when Buchholz threw a no-hitter in only his second Major League start? That seems like ages ago after an atrocious 2008 (2-9, 6.75 ERA), but he got back on the right track in ‘09. Clearly the Red Sox (and Padres) think very highly of him, and this will be his last chance to make it in Boston. Some think he will be traded by the All-Star Break. Others think he will become a permanent fixture of the Sox’ rotation. Still some have no idea what to expect from him. As a fifth guy though, not bad.
Tim Wakefield (43): 11-5, 4.58 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 72 K 129.1 IP
Somehow, at 43 years old, Wakefield is still baffling hitters. He won’t be someone you want on the mound in a crucial game, but if injury strikes one of the top five or Buchholz is traded, the Red Sox have complete confidence in Wakefield to get the job done.
Michael Bowden (23): 1-1, 9.56 ERA, 1.81 WHIP, 12 K, 16 IP
He’s young, and he’s one of the Sox’ best pitching prospects, but people question whether he has what it takes to succeed at the Major League level. He does’t have an overpowering fastball and gets by mainly on control, but he’s a name to remember.
New York has the best pitcher on either team in Sabathia, but Beckett, Lester, and Lackey are better and more proven than anyone else the Yankees have.
The success of both staffs will come down to two people: Vazquez and Matsuzaka. It remains to be seen how successful Vazquez will be as 2009 was by far his best season to date, but a return to the AL could be less than friendly. As for Daisuke, he needs to prove he can be a reliable pitcher again.
As far as replacements go, the Yankees have more depth than Boston does with Chamberlain and Hughes in the bullpen in case of emergency versus just Wakefield for the Red Sox. Bowden is not ready to be counted on yet. Let’s summarize:
Best Overall Pitcher: New York (Sabathia)
Top of Rotation Depth: Boston (Sabathia/Burnett/Pettitte v. Beckett/Lester/Lackey)
Bottom of Rotation Depth: Boston (Vazquez/whoever v. Matsuzaka/Buchholz)
Replacement Depth: New York (Chamberlain/Hughes/Aceves v. Wakefield/Bowden)
Overall Starting Rotation: Boston
The addition of Vazquez was huge for the Yankees, but you can’t ignore the fact the the Red Sox have the better number two (Lester v. Burnett), three (Lackey v. Pettitte), and five (Buchholz v. whoever), and Matsuzaka v. Vazquez is probably a wash. It still remains to be seen who will get the last rotation spot for New York, but with Spring Training just over a month away, Boston has the early edge.
For the original article and more analysis, check out Baseball Professor .
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