Matchup: AL East powers collide

Two of our experts debate who will be the better team in 2005: the Red Sox or the Yankees?

Originally Published: April 1, 2005
ESPN.com

The Matchup:

Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees

The Question:

Which team will be better and ultimately prevail in 2005, the Red Sox or the Yankees?

Red Sox vs. Yankees
Kevin Millar

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

The Yankees' run of seven straight American League East titles can't last forever. It just seems that way sometimes.

Never mind searching for a slight edge here or a small advantage there. These are the two best teams in baseball and the differences, on paper at least, are negligible.

But the dynamic between these two franchises was inarguably changed last Oct. 21, when the Red Sox finally figured out a way to beat the Yankees in the playoffs.

Don't underestimate what that might mean this season and beyond. No longer do the Red Sox – the 2005 edition, anyway – feel a sense of doom and inevitability when they enter Yankee Stadium. Having rebounded from an 0-3 deficit to knock the Yankees off in the ALCS, the Red Sox are changed – maybe for good.

Of course, for all the intangibles, the games are still won on the field and the fact remains that the 2005 Red Sox are better – not by much, mind you – than the Yankees.

The Yankees recast their bullpen during the offseason, adding Felix Rodriguez and re-acquiring Mike Stanton. But Stanton hasn't been consistently effective for a few seasons now. Sure, Rodriguez, Stanton and the return of Steve Karsay might take some of the load off Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, neither of whom had much left by the time the postseason arrived last fall.

Mariano Rivera, of course, remains the game's best closer. But even the Red Sox know now they can get to him. They did so on July 24 – on the undercard of Varitek/A-Rod – in a game that might have turned their season around, and they did it again in Game 4 of the ALCS, starting their historic comeback.

To an already strong bullpen, meanwhile, the Red Sox added Matt Mantei, fully recovered from elbow and shoulder woes, giving them another power arm to help set up for Keith Foulke.

If you give Rivera the nod over Foulke, the rest of the bullpen advantage swings to the Red Sox, who are deeper and more versatile (three lefties with the recent trade for Mike Myers).

On the field, the Red Sox are a team at their peak. Eight of their nine every-day players fall between the ages of 29 and 33. Only Bill Mueller, 34, falls outside that group, and 34 hardly qualifies as ancient.

By contrast, the Yankees are showing their age. Bernie Williams is 36. So is Gary Sheffield. Tony Womack is 35. Tino Martinez is 37. Ruben Sierra is 39. What are the chances they all get through the season without significant injuries? And that doesn't even begin to factor in Jason Giambi, who, while only 34, has a mountain of physical challenges to climb.

Boston's offense, which accounted for 949 runs last season, is likely to be better. Trot Nixon, limited to playing one-third of last season, returns healthy. In Nixon's last three full seasons, he averaged a shade under 90 RBI per year.

Add to the mix Edgar Renteria, who can be counted on to provide more offense from the shortstop position than the Sox got last year when a troika of light-hitting Pokey Reese, an injured Nomar Garciaparra and Orlando Cabrera filled the position. One thousand runs scored is hardly out of reach for this group.

If the Yankees hold an obvious edge, it's in the starting rotation, a significant enough area of concern, particularly when you consider the Sox will start the season without their top two starters, Curt Schilling and Wade Miller.

But Schilling will be back on the mound by mid-April and Miller could join him in May. And this season, the Sox are deep enough in starters that Bronson Arroyo (7-2, 3.97 after the break last year) may be relegated to long relief.

There's a strong probability the 19 games between these two teams will only serve as a prelude to a third straight ALCS matchup this October. But this time, for a change, look for the Red Sox to open that series with the home-field advantage.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

Hideki Matsui

By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com

The Yankees will win the 2005 pennant because of the way they lost it in 2004. The memory of Game 7 of the American League Championship has become a tattoo on George Steinbrenner's ego – permanent and ugly, a constant reminder that you can never have enough talent (or spend enough money).

The Boss let those Game 7 images propel him into a cash-crazed winter, capturing his personal holy grail, Randy Johnson, and adding Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. The result? The Yankees finally have the starting pitching to match the Sox in a short series, not to mention a Game 7 doomsday scenario.

Give Steinbrenner credit for this much: He didn't make excuses for the Yankees or try to rationalize the Red Sox's history-making comeback. Incredibly, the Boss allowed the Sox to rub it in. When Yankee employees complained that hundreds of Sox followers were still partying on the Stadium infield, more than an hour after the final out, the owner refused to quash the celebration.

According to a passage in "Emperors and Idiots" by Mike Vaccaro, Steinbrenner said, "Keep the lights on for as long as they want to stay. They've earned it."

Steinbrenner got his revenge later on, in the dead of winter. Now he has a can't-miss team – albeit an old one that's costing him a record $204 million. Assuming everyone stays healthy, here are five reasons the Yankees won't have to watch a replay of a Sox all-night celebration.

Randy Johnson: The Yankees didn't have a qualified starter for Game 7 – only the broken-down Kevin Brown and an overwhelmed Javier Vazquez. The Johnson upgrade is almost too great for words. The Big Unit throws harder than any Yankees starter, and has the emotional makeup for such big moments.

Johnson pushed for a trade to the Yankees precisely because he wants the ball when the season is reduced to its final nine innings. He is tough, mean in a controlled way, and confident enough to handle Fenway in October.

"I'm going to do some great things while I'm here," Johnson said this spring, which is exactly what the Yankees are paying for.

Alex Rodriguez: He could've easily been drawn into a protracted tabloid war with the Red Sox this spring. But instead of answering Curt Schilling and Trot Nixon and David Wells insult for insult, A-Rod absorbed the slings and arrows and focused on hitting, evidenced by his team-high .364 average this spring.

Overall, Rodriguez was surprisingly invisible this spring, suggesting there'll be fewer interviews this summer and maybe more late-inning offense. The hunch here is that Rodriguez is past his first-year angst in pinstripes and will rebound from a below-average 36-homer, 106-RBI season in 2004. That's a reasonable assumption, considering he's only 29, and in his prime years.

Jason Giambi: He might not ever be the player he was in 2000-2001, but it appears Giambi will be far more productive than he was last season. The first baseman/DH didn't melt under intense spring training scrutiny, as some expected he would, instead hitting reasonably well (.289) in March. And despite being at the center of the steroids scandal, at least until the congressional hearings, he was even-tempered and upbeat with teammates, fans and the press.

Giambi still has some explaining to do about steroids, but he's so far managed to keep his problems away from the batter's box. The only downside, of course, is the possible need to keep Giambi as the every-day DH, which would lock Bernie Williams into playing center field full-time and keep Jorge Posada from getting a break from catching one or two days a week.

Hideki Matsui: Teammates and club officials are impressed with Matsui's trend-line this spring: He's leading the Yankees in home runs and RBI, and might very well end up as the Yankees' most dangerous long-ball threat, especially at Yankee Stadium. He's the one Yankee utterly impervious to pressure – and Fenway insults – given his gentle demeanor and the obvious language barrier.

Even Yankee haters have a hard time targeting the Japanese slugger, although that might change if he keeps improving.

Joe Torre: Has there ever been a calmer Yankee manager? Torre has kept the Bombers from blaming themselves for the ALCS catastrophe, repeatedly saying that a Yankees victory "wasn't meant to be."

If the Yankees really are scar free, it'll be Torre's greatest triumph in his 10 years in pinstripes.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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