The Yankees and Red Sox play a four-game wraparound series this weekend, ending with the traditional 11 a.m. start on Patriot's Day. The teams are nominally the contenders in the American League East, but as Chris Kahrl put it a few weeks ago, the AL East is really the Yankees, and the two pairs behind them: the Sox and Blue Jays, and the the Orioles and Devil Rays.
About two years ago, the Red Sox appeared to have caught the Yankees on talent. While the core of the Yankee dynasty was intact, the supporting cast was showing its age. At the same time, the Red Sox had the best pitcher in baseball, one of the game's best players in Nomar Garciaparra, and enough of a team around them to make them dangerous. They fell short in 2000, but the addition of Manny Ramirez that winter, along with another year of Yankee aging, had the Red Sox looking like the division's favorite in March of 2001.
Then Garciaparra felt a twinge in his wrist.
Then Pedro Martinez felt a pain in his shoulder.
At that point, the Red Sox window of opportunity closed, and it's possible that this edition of the Sox will never again be so close to a championship. The Yankees have pulled away, thanks to the revamping of their lineup in the offseason. While Garciaparra has returned and appears to be healthy, Martinez is an enormous question mark, with an unrepaired tear in his right labrum. Yes, he looked better in his second start than he did in his first, but it was against the Chesapeake Bay Senior League All-Stars, for crying out loud. Martinez is not remotely the same pitcher he was just a year ago, and it's not likely that he will be until he undergoes surgery to repair the damage to his shoulder.
If Pedro Martinez pitches fewer than 175 innings–and that's what is going to happen–the Red Sox cannot contend for anything. The team's pitching is built around getting a great Martinez outing every fifth game, and just making do the other four. Even if John Burkett and Dustin Hermanson get healthy, they cannot be the anchors of a contender's pitching staff. The Red Sox, without Martinez, are just another team, one that will land somewhere between 78 and 84 wins.
If the Sox were competing with the flawed Yankee teams of 1999-2001, it's possible that the return of Garciaparra would be enough to push them into a race again. The problem is that the Yankees have retooled their offense, and are going to score upwards of 850 runs, and have a pitching staff that will be hard-pressed to surrender 725.
The Red Sox don't project as well. Without a healthy Martinez, they're going to allow close to 800 runs, and that's assuming good outcomes with the Burkett signing, the Hermanson trade, and the re-re-conversion of Derek Lowe to starting pitcher. There's a reasonable chance that the pitching staff will implode in a shower of doubles and runs, pushing the Sox up above 825 runs allowed.
The offense can't cover that. For all the money lavished on Johnny Damon, he's just not a very good leadoff hitter. He is an excellent center fielder, something valuable in Fenway Park, and he's one of the best baserunners in the game. But his career OBP is .346, and other than a couple of great second halves in Kansas City in 1999 and 2000, he has never been an impact player with the bat. With Grady Little determined to use everyone but Trot Nixon in the two hole (this week, Rey Sanchez and Shea Hillenbrand, OBP sinks both, have spent time there), the Red Sox have the makings of a classic dysfunctional offense: lousy OBP in the top two spots in front of a very good core. I am confident that the Sox will underperform their runs created or Equivalent Runs or whatever estimates you care to use.
Having swapped Hideo Nomo, David Cone, and, possibly, Martinez for Burkett and Hermanson, the Sox pitching staff is going to be putting a lot more balls in play. Where the Red Sox are going to get some help is with their defense, which has been significantly upgraded. The switches from Jose Offerman to Sanchez at second base, and from Carl Everett to Damon in center field, are about as large an upgrade as you can make, and are almost certainly worth a few wins over last year's team.
All things considered, though, this Sox team's chances depend on one man, one limb. As much as I love watching Pedro Martinez pitch, I just cannot believe that he will give the Sox enough this season to push them over the top. In fact, given that his contract expires after the 2003 season, I believe the Sox would be best served to shut him down, allow him to undergo surgery, and try and bring him back a year from now. All of their key players are under contract for 2003, and the Yankees' lineup and pitching will be a year older. The Sox can probably get 220 innings out of Martinez before his deal is up; they'd be better off getting all of them in one year.
The Fens will be packed from pillar to post this weekend with Sox fans anticipating another great showdown, but the reality is that the rivalry this year is about history and reputation, not about two teams battling for a division title. Whether that's the case in 2003 as well is entirely up to the Red Sox.