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Same old story -- but new story lines

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 29, 2010 10:22 AM

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For the last several years now, comparisons have been simply unavoidable. The Red Sox and New York Yankees have been on a collision course since the John Henry group took control of the Red Sox in 2002, superpowers struggling for control of both the American League East and the entire baseball world.

So here we go again, and right from the opening bell this time.

The rest of the baseball world must be sick of the Red Sox and Yankees by now, but here is the truth: once again, they are among the most legitimate championship contenders in baseball. Over the last eight seasons, covering precisely 1,296 regular season games, the Yankees (783) and Red Sox (753) rank first and second in baseball in victories. They rank first and second in runs scored (Yankees, 7,159-7,083). They have combined for 13 postseason appearances, seven trips to the AL Championship Series, four league championships and three World Series titles.

Also during that span, the Red Sox and Yankees have played precisely 163 games in head-to-head play – regular season and postseason – with New York holding an 84-79 edge. The Red Sox have scored more runs, 886-860.

Over the winter, while the Yankees polished their record 27th World Series trophy, the Red Sox underwent more significant roster changes than they have since, perhaps, the winter of 2006-07. One year after the Yankees brought aboard CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, the Red Sox signed John Lackey, Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro. The end result has been a transfusion of this rivalry, with more characters and players introduced into baseball’s version of the Hundred Years War.

Entering Sunday night’s nationally-televised opener, here are story lines to watch through this season:

1. The new starters: John Lackey vs. Javier Vazquez.

Though the Yankees rebuilt the front end of their rotation last year, New York further fortified its rotation by acquiring righthander Javier Vazquez from the Atlanta Braves. Vazquez’s first stint in New York was a disaster, but the Yankees this time do not need Vazquez to be a 20-game winner so much as they need him to be an innings-eater.

We all know what Lackey means to the Red Sox – in the short term and the long. But before anyone dismisses the Vazquez acquisition, know this: he is one of the most durable pitchers in baseball. Over the last 10 years, the only major leaguer with more games started than Vazquez (327) is Livan Hernandez (332). That stability is worth a great deal.

2. The center fielders: Mike Cameron vs. Curtis Granderson.

Offensively, at least, Granderson seems the superior player. Defensively, a young Cameron would have blown Granderson out of the water, but the question today concerns Cameron’s age (37) and effectiveness. If you believe in such things as zone rating – and we’re not saying you should – Cameron and Granderson ranked a respective fourth and fifth in the majors last season among the 20 qualifying center fielders. (For what it’s worth, Jacoby Ellsbury was 19th.)

At the moment, maybe Granderson is a better player than people are giving him credit for. Maybe Cameron is worse. But at a position on the diamond that is indisputably critical, one cannot help but feel that the performance of Cameron vs. Granderson will get a great deal of attention during the 18 scheduled meetings between the Sox and Yankees in 2010.

3. The set-up guys: Daniel Bard vs. Joba Chamberlain.

Now that the Yankees have come to the conclusion that everyone reached a long time ago – that Chamberlain belongs in the bullpen – the comparisons between Chamberlain and Bard are obvious. At their best, both are absolutely dominating set-up men and heirs to the closer’s role, meaning they could play a role in this rivalry for years to come.

Chamberlain’s numbers as a reliever (.182 batting average against, 11.85 strikeouts per nine innings) blow away his numbers as a starter (.266, 8.36). Meanwhile, in his first season, Bard held opponents to a .228 average while whiffing 11.49 batters per nine. If one of these guys blows up this year, the explosion could be like something out of "Diehard."

4. The young guns: Clay Buchholz vs. Phil Hughes.

Buchholz and Hughes will not pitch in the season-opening series, which is just as well. With regard to their impact on the Red Sox and Yankees, each is likely to have more bearing on the long term, anyway. At the moment, Hughes is 23 and Buchholz is 25 – which is part of the reason Hughes is about a year behind Buchholz with regard to his development.

Last season, for what it’s worth, Buchholz was a key contributor for the Sox down the stretch. Hughes worked extremely effectively out of the bullpen for the Yankees, but he will now be the No. 5 starter. Again, if one develops ahead of the other, the impact on the tug-o-war between the Sox and Yankees could be considerable.

5. The extra pieces: Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, et al vs. Nick Johnson, Randy Winn, et al.

Interesting, isn’t it? Given the joke that is right field at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees made the lefthanded-hitting Johnson their biggest offensive free agent signing. The Red Sox, by contrast, went for the righthanded-hitting Adrian Beltre. Both Beltre and Johnson are excellent defensive players, though Johnson is slated to spend the majority of his time as a designated hitter.

Winn is likely to share time in left field with Brett Gardner, but the point here is obvious: the Red Sox and Yankees are both deep. (For something approaching $400 million in combined payrolls, they had better be.) If Scutaro can stabilize what has been a third-world government shortstop position, the small moves could prove to be big for Theo Epstein – just as they could for his counterpart in New York, the equally shrewd Brian Cashman.

Tony's Top 5

Favorite blog entries

The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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