Once home to baseball’s two greatest superpowers, the American League East has been redrawn. The Tampa Bay Rays are now division champions. The New York Yankees are back in business.
For the Red Sox, the challenge is growing more difficult.
Winners of two world titles in the last five seasons and postseason participants during five of the last six Octobers, the Red Sox recently returned from Las Vegas trapped in an unusual place. The Sox had yet to gain on the small-market Rays and had lost ground to the big(ger)-market Yankees, who fortified their rotation with the acquisitions of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. The AL East looked to be growing even more competitive, a fact that will make any future trips to the postseason all the more grueling.
Of the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees, after all, at least one of them will miss the postseason in 2009.
And if the division proves as competitive as many believe and fear it will be, the wild card may come from the Central or West.
Bang for the buck
For obvious reasons, let’s start with the Yankees. New York committed $161 million to Sabathia (over seven years) and another $82.5 million to Burnett (over five years). Sabathia has an escape clause that could allow him to leave New York after his third season, but the Yankees have no ability to truncate either contract.
Did the Yankees spend too much? That is irrelevant. For all of the talk that the Yankees spent a quarter-billion dollars on two pitchers, nobody has taken the time to point out that those expenditures are broken up into 12 parts (seven for Sabathia, five for Burnett). The more relevant math is that the Yankees will pay Sabathia and Burnett an average of $39.5 million over each of the next five years, leaving the club with somewhere in the range of $200 million to spend on the balance of its roster each year.
If you’re going to say that Sabathia and Burnett cost the Yankees $243.5 million, you need to note that those expenditures may constitute less than 20 percent of what could be more than $1.5 billion in player salaries over the next seven years.
And then, of course, there is this:
Because the Yankees are the Yankees, money is never an object.
In the short term, New York’s pitching needs are indisputable. As much difficulty as they had in generating offense for long stretches of the 2008 season, the Yankees finished the season ranked eighth in the American League in pitching, with a 4.28 ERA. New York’s starters finished ninth, a fact that becomes of even greater concern (for the Yankees) when one considers the top three rotations in the league.
Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Boston, in that order.
Consequently, thanks to unbalanced scheduling, the Yankees played roughly one-third of their 2008 schedule against teams with far superior starting rotations. The addition of Burnett alone should help the Yankees while simultaneously hurting the Blue Jays, who also must endure the losses of injured starters Shaun Marcum (for the season) and Dustin McGowan (for roughly half the year). The end result is that the Yankees have improved their pitching staff more than any other club in the division, regardless of what they paid.
In New York, after all, money is no object.
Catch some Rays
For all that the Tampa Bay Rays accomplished in 2008, this went overlooked: The offense was stagnant at times. Tampa finished the season ranked ninth in the AL in scoring, just behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Rays won largely with pitching and defense, despite the aberration of Games 2 through 5 of the AL Championship Series against the Red Sox.
Two spots in the Tampa lineup were more worrisome than any other: designated hitter and right field.
Given Tampa’s economic issues — the payroll last season was roughly $45 million, not much more than the Yankees will pay the tandem of Sabathia and Burnett in 2009 — the Rays cannot find fixes like Sabathia and Burnett on the free agent market. More frequently, Tampa must solve its problems internally or through trading, both of which ultimately reflect on a Rays farm system that is among the most talented in baseball.
Thanks to the presence of someone like left-handed pitcher David Price, Tampa recently was able to trade right-hander Edwin Jackson to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Matt Joyce, who should help solve the Rays’ issues in right field. In 92 games last season, Joyce batted .252 with 12 home runs, 33 RBI, and an OPS of .812. Lest anyone think those numbers unimpressive, consider that they are in line (per game) with what J.D. Drew gave the Red Sox during his first season in Boston.
OK, so maybe that was Drew’s first year in the AL.
But Joyce is 24.
Beyond that, the Rays certainly can expect offensive improvement from other positions in their lineup, from catcher to third base to center field. The team’s pitching staff is deep. The Rays look as if they will be just as good in 2009 as they were in 2008, which should prompt concern among those who watched last year’s ALCS.
At the time, after all, most everyone agreed the Red Sox were losing to a better team.
For the Red Sox, the writing was on the wall at season’s end. Minus Manny Ramirez and a fully healthy David Ortiz, Boston’s lineup suffered considerably. The injury to Mike Lowell certainly didn’t help. But other than Jason Bay, Dustin Pedroia, and Kevin Youkilis, the last two of whom finished first and third in the Most Valuable Player award balloting, the lineup seemed void of consistent threats.
Unsurprisingly, at the start of the postseason, all of this had the Red Sox focused on Mark Teixeira, whose importance to the club only grew in the wake of the Yankees’ maneuvers. If the Red Sox had the pitching to compete with New York, after all, they may no longer have possessed the lineup. Tampa was better than the Red Sox to begin with, defeating the Sox during both the regular season and the postseason, removing any doubt that the ALCS was some kind of fluke.
Last season, in games against Tampa, New York, and Toronto — their three primary competitors in the AL East — the Red Sox went 26-28. Add the seven-game ALCS against Tampa to their slate, and the total was 29-32. The only divisional foe that the Red Sox posted a winning record against last season was the Baltimore Orioles, against whom the Sox were 12-6.
Entering 2009, it seems, the AL East stands to be even tougher.
But then, look at the bright side.
If the Red Sox can make it here, they can make it anywhere.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at email@example.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti