I'm a Red Sox fan, and I'm not buying any of the wild optimistic projections about the 2011 Sox. I am also not buying Yankee GM Brian Cashman's ludicrous remark that the Yankees are "underdogs" to the Red Sox.
My reasons? As spring training unfolds, a closer look at the two teams suggests the Red Sox have no edge whatsoever over the Bronx Bombers; rather, the Yanks probably have a slight edge.
Let's examine the main arguments that the Red Sox are the "team to beat" in the AL East and beyond.
The starting rotations
Until recent days, even I had assumed this was the key area where the Red Sox had a substantial advantage. After a little observation of spring training and further reflection, I now think the Red Sox rotation is very close to the Yankees. If the Red Sox have any edge, it is more marginal.
Why? Well. The Red Sox will start the year very dependent on their top two pitchers, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. The Yankees will rely heavily on their top duo of CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes. I don't think one can argue that the Sox have an edge in a comparison of these duos. Sabathia has had two outstanding seasons in a row. If you look at just these pitchers' records and ERAs, they're close.
Lester went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA while Buchholz went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. Sabathia went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA while Hughes went 18-8 with an ERA of 4.19. So, let's assume these pitchers are best positioned to win the most games. What happens with pitchers in the No. 3 to No. 5 slots?
What comes next is where the enormous distortion has occurred in assessing the teams. Many observers have been spouting the same prediction that Josh Beckett and John Lackey are due for "bounce-back" seasons. I disagree with the entire context for that. My view is that each face significant uncertainty. Each face uphill odds at trying to regain velocity on their fastballs—which is hard for any pitcher.
Overall, I feel it's fair to say it's extremely hard to predict with confidence that either pitcher will perform with consistent excellence. Both Beckett and Lackey have not exactly sparkled in their spring training starts so far. Both still seem vulnerable throwing their fastball.
After his up-and-down game this past weekend, Beckett told WEEI.com's Rob Bradford that he felt his using his changeup more this year would be very important to his success—as it had been in the past.
Let's hope he throws the changeup more, but, this doesn't change the key for Beckett, in my view: Can he throw his fastball at a high enough velocity and with good command to get it by the better hitters in the AL East, like Yankees, for instance?
The Yankees have often feasted on Beckett's fastball the past few years and that's partly due to the pitch being thrown a bit slower (90 to 93 range rather than 93 to 96 range). Right now, I haven't seen the evidence that Beckett has "found" his old electric heater.
Lackey, meanwhile, has been OK in spring training, but when I watched a recent appearance, he looked very similar to the Lackey of 2010:His curveball was, by far, his best pitch, and his fastball looked quite hittable at times. Lackey has to have outstanding location to make his fastball work. Will be able to achieve that in 2011? Who knows?
Then, there's Daisuke Matsuzaka, who's had two abysmal spring training outings and has already prompted new pitching coach Curt Young to propose a change in how Dice-K schedules his side sessions between games. Matsuzaka, unfortunately, reminded us very quickly of what we already knew: He's a wild card. We don't know how he'll do, if he'll stay healthy or, if he'll be satisfied with his situation.
So, if there are serious, significant questions about the Red Sox' No. 3 to No. 5 pitchers, what makes people say their rotation is that much better than the Yankees' starters?
Look at the Yanks: They have AJ Burnett at No. 3. He had a poor year in 2010, but people are asking if he can bounce back just like Beckett and Lackey. Are Beckett and Lackey any more of a "sure thing" than Burnett? Maybe the odds are a little higher that one of them might win more than Burnett, but, at this moment, they seem in the same "place."
That leaves the No. 4 and No. 5 pitchers. We don't know who the Yanks will settle on. They're considering Freddy Garcia, who in 28 games in 2010 went 12-6 with a 4.64 ERA, or rookie Ivan Nova, but whoever they choose, how can Red Sox fans say they're sure the Sox No. 3 through No. 5 pitchers are much better than the Yankees'? They can't.
The Yanks will have 20-year-old Manny Banuelos, a starter, in the minors this summer. Banuelos looked fantastic in the televised Sox-Yanks March 14 spring training game. His changeup was terrific. While Cashman apparently said he's unlikely to pitch in the majors this year, he's clearly a "stud" for the future—and another reason I refuse to call the Yankees "underdogs," in general.
Without reviewing all the hitters on each team, I think it's fair to say that the Red Sox acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford brought them "closer" to the Yankees in lineup quality. Plus, the return of a healthy Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia is important.
Yet, when you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of every hitter, the Yanks still retain an edge in overall hitting. The core of the Yanks' lineup (Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano) is probably a little bit better than the Sox' new core of Crawford, Youkilis, Gonzales and David Ortiz.
But, when you go down the lineups, the Yanks' group of Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner seems more potent than the Sox group of Jacoby Ellsbury, JD Drew, Jarrod Saltalamachia and Marco Scutaro.
The facts suggest the Yankees will again be a run-scoring machine, especially in their home ballpark, and they will produce runs at a capacity likely better than or at worst close to the Red Sox' production. I doubt the Red Sox' overall hitting will be better than the Yankees, don't you?
Start with the closer and main setup man on each team. Would you rather have Mariano Rivera with Rafael Soriano as his highly-paid setup man OR Jonathan Papelbon with Daniel Bard or Bobby Jenks in the setup role?
This one is not even close. Rivera and Soriano seem far more reliable at this moment. Papelbon had his worst year last year. Jenks had a shaky year in Chicago. Bard was very good, but he blows saves occasionally and he needs more rest this year.
Beyond that, the Red Sox have Dan Wheeler, Hideki Okajima and others, but the roles have yet to be determined. The Yanks have a bunch of potential relief pitchers, including a few promising minor leaguers, but again, it's hard forecast the overall quality. I just don't see the Red Sox' pen as superior to the Yankee pen.
Overall, I think I've made my point: The Red Sox face serious questions and obstacles that appear to be no less sizable than questions facing the Bombers. I think the Yankees are the slight favorites!