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April 26, 2004

Prospectus Today

New, Improved Sox

by Joe Sheehan

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I was on Boston's WEEI radio just after Opening Day and was asked, in a very concerned manner, whether the Red Sox could stay with the Yankees in April given their depleted state.

I'm thinking we have an answer.

Despite getting zero appearances from two of their five best players, and having Bronson Arroyo make twice as many starts against their rivals as Pedro Martinez did, the Sox went 6-1 against the Yankees over the past two weekends. They're tied for the best record in baseball at 12-6, and hold a 1-game lead in the AL East, 4 games over the Yankees.

What did we learn in the three weeks, or more specifically, in those seven games?

  • The Sox are much, much deeper than the Yankees are. Missing two players the caliber of Trot Nixon and Nomar Garciaparra would have ruined some teams. The Sox have built a strong enough roster that they can survive without two top players, in large part because this year's team isn't nearly as reliant on its offense as last year's was.

    It's not like they didn't feel the losses. While Mark Bellhorn got most of Garciaparra's playing time and posted a .400 OBP, the replacements for Nixon in right field have been just awful (Gabe Kapler, Ellis Burks and David McCarty have hit .179 with two extra-base hits in 95 at-bats, with just seven walks). Their overall offensive depth, the defense they got from Kapler and the pitching staff helped them get through a critical stretch without seeing the missing players affect their place the standings.

    For years now, the Yankees have treated the bottom of their roster as if it didn't matter. This has been reflected in both their choices for those slots--Luis Sojo, et al--as well as the team's terrible work in the free-talent markets that provide cheap depth. Columbus' roster has been a wasteland throughout the team's recent run of success.

    The result of this neglect is an inadequate bench that provides no tactical value and little strategic help. Travis Lee and Tony Clark have uses, but will be impossible to carry simultaneously once Kenny Lofton returns. The rest of this crew--Miguel Cairo, John Flaherty, Ruben Sierra and Bubba Crosby--is just awful. The Yankees already have one yawning lineup void in Enrique Wilson; any injury to one of their top seven guys is going to create a real problem, because there's no reasonable alternative at a position other than first base on their bench or at Triple-A.

    The pitching staffs reflect this as well. The Sox have a fairly stable staff, and have been rotating a number of options through the last two slots, Braves-style, in an effort to identify a second left-hander. As good as Arroyo was against the Yankees over his last 12 innings, he's about to exit the rotation in favor of Byung-Hyun Kim, a pretty nice upgrade. Meanwhile, the Yankees were forced to use Javier Vazquez on three days' rest yesterday because they didn't want to use their current fifth starter, rookie Alex Graman. The loss of Jon Lieber has made April one long scramble to find a #5 guy.

    I'll say it again: $183 million should buy more than this.

  • The Yankees' rotation doesn't stand up to the hype. Forget Mike Mussina, who has opened the year with command issues. He'll be fine. No, The Yankees' problem is that they have a three-man rotation. Their fourth starter, Jose Contreras, doesn't have the command to beat patient teams. He's averaging 4.5 pitches per batter faced, which leads to walks (nine in 11 innings), hitters' counts (.354 Opp. BA, .667 Opp. SLG) and short outings (less than four IP/start). As much movement as he gets on his pitches, he doesn't appear capable of throwing enough strikes to succeed consistently. He may continue to beat impatient lineups, just as he did last year, but he's certainly not worth $8 million a year. He's an albatross against good competition.

    A healthy Lieber would have mitigated the effect of Contreras' problems a bit, but his sore groin has kept him on the shelf all season. The Yankees, who were able to avoid using a fifth starter for much of the month thanks to the Japan trip, were left to start rookies Graman and Jorge DePaula in that slot, and neither was effective. (DePaula is now out for the season after undrgoing Tommy John surgery.)

    I expect--everyone expects--the Yankees to solve this problem in the trade market. While they have a thin farm system, their willingness to take on contracts gives them a huge edge on their competitors. For now, however, their rotation doesn't deserve to be mentioned with the other great ones in the game.

  • The Sox may have the best bullpen in baseball. As big an issue as the Sox's pen was a year ago, with their very public efforts to move away from a closer-centric model to something a bit more flexible, their pen this year should be just as big a story. The Sox have lost three games in their bullpen, but just once did that pen blow a lead, on April 9 against the Blue Jays. More common have been games like Saturday's, where four relievers threw six shutout innings and enabled the Sox to win in the 12th.

    The core relievers have been excellent. While the addition of Keith Foulke, and the more traditional usage patterns his acquisition has driven, will be hailed as the reason for the effectiveness, there's more to it than just one big free-agent signing. Scott Williamson, Alan Embree and Mike Timlin (whose 5.79 ERA reflects two lousy outings) are all strikeout machines who can go multiple innings and face both righties and lefties. Adding Arroyo to this mix, and continuing to sift through options like Mark Malaska and Lenny DiNardo for the final slot, is only going to make it stronger.

    Last October wasn't a mirage; for the first time in a long time, the Sox have a better bullpen than the Yankees do. It's a championship-caliber collection of arms that provides them a big advantage both in head-to-head play and throughout the season.

In the wake of the weekend's sweep, much of the focus is on the Yankees' offensive woes. The team is hitting .217/.324/.368, and averaging four runs a game over the first three weeks. Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams are in awful slumps, while everyone but Jorge Posada is performing below expectations.

Worrying about the offense, at least the name guys, is ridiculous. They're all going to hit; Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi will be among the league leaders in OBP and SLG come September, and the Yankees will score their 900 runs. The stars make for an easy target, but the Yankees have bigger problems, ones that aren't going away and ones that can't be fixed from within the organization.

The Red Sox are the better team right now, and they have two All-Stars coming back in the next three weeks. Can they stay with the Yankees? The better question is, can the Yankees stay with them?

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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