A major league GM puts it best when he talks about the 2010 Yankees and Red Sox rotations.
"As good as this rivalry has been all decade long, right now, this is probably the best the two rotations have been side-by-side," the GM said. "When you put those staffs together, you probably have seven or eight of the best starters in all of baseball."
But which staff is better? There are many ways to answer this question, but with the help of a handful of baseball executives, we tried to draw some conclusions by just focusing on the regular season for now and creating three matchups to compare the two staffs.
The Question: If you could have one pitcher for this season, who would it be?
The easy answer is Sabathia. The innings and production he has provided the last few years is unmatched.
"They all have pretty impressive résumés, but his is the best," one assistant GM said.
Most would say this battle would be between Sabathia and Beckett, but one GM said he is tempted to go with Lester. While Sabathia is still just 29, he might be at a plateau in his career (a pretty good, plateau, of course) or he might be headed downward.
The worry for one GM is that Sabathia has thrown 775 1/3 innings over the past three years. That mileage could cause a breakdown soon.
"He has had the best three-year run of any of those guys," the GM said. "But he has had three straight years of pretty heavy workloads. He is a big, strong guy, but he has pitched a lot the last couple of years."
Now, this GM thinks Lester is moving into his prime years and he didn't have to pitch much in last year's playoffs.
"He has those flashes," the GM said. "He has already had success. He has great stuff. Unlike the Yankee starters, he didn't have to pitch [deep into] October. Lester has the ability to be in the Cy Young conversation."
Beckett, who is 29, like Sabathia, has done the most in the postseason and is definitely in the discussion. But he has not been as good lately and is brittle. Still, he did go 17-6 with a 3.86 ERA last season.
"Right now, I would probably take CC," another GM said. "But that's just because Beckett's been a little more inconsistent in recent times. He is just not quite as consistent, overall. If it is the Beckett who is at the top of his game, I may take Beckett."
The Winner: CC Sabathia Ultimately, Sabathia's done it. Beckett is more of an injury risk, even with Sabathia's recent innings totals, and Lester needs to show consistency before he takes the title away from the big man.
The Matchup: Jon Lester vs. Phil Hughes
The Question: Which young starter would you rather have?
This is the one matchup that is not even close. At this point, Lester is clearly ahead of everyone, which is absolutely amazing considering doctors diagnosed him with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2006.
"I would probably take Lester, just from the standpoint of all he has battled through," a GM said. "He has turned into an outstanding pitcher."
Lester, 26, has won 31 games the past two years, while Phil Hughes and Clay Buchholz have combined to win a total of 25 in their entire careers, so the fairer question might be: Hughes or Buchholz?
Another GM said he thinks both the 23-year-old Hughes and the 25-year-old Buchholz are "legitimate."
"I would take Hughes," a GM said. "Hughes did a tremendous job in a different role last year. He still has a big upside. I wonder when Buchholz is going to be the consistent guy that I thought he was going to be when he threw the no-hitter."
The Winner: Jon Lester This is a landslide. A few years back, Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, along with Lester and Buchholz, were all grouped together. Now, only Lester is a legitimate Cy Young candidate. With many elite starting pitchers being re-signed by their clubs, the development of any of these starters could be the difference in the rivalry over the next five years. Lester is a difference-maker this year.
The Matchup: Yankees vs. Red Sox
The Question: Which staff would you prefer to have for this regular season?
While everyone loves A.J. Burnett's arm, there are still question marks about his head. John Lackey was the consensus choice over Burnett. Lackey is the Red Sox's No. 3 starter, while Burnett is the Yankees' No. 2.
"I like Lackey over Burnett," one GM said. "A.J. had a good year. His stuff is there, but mentally I think Lackey is the stronger guy. He brings it."
After reliable but aging Andy Pettitte at No. 3, the Yankees have Javier Vazquez, who was fourth in the NL Cy Young voting last year. Even though Yankees fans question Vazquez because of his terrible 2004 second half, he is a 200-inning machine, whom the Yankees think can win at least 15 games.
"The Sox are a little deeper," an NL assistant GM said. "Andy Pettitte is a question mark to me because of his age. I'm still not sure what the Yankees have in Phil Hughes."
Then again, it is unclear what the Red Sox have in Buchholz. After throwing a no-hitter in his second major league start in 2007, he has been Joba-like in his inconsistency. He entered the spring as the Red Sox's No. 4 starter, but he pitched so poorly last month there were questions if he would even be in the rotation.
The Winner: Red Sox The reason we give them the slight edge is that they don't have the possible hangover effect from last year's postseason. All pitchers are injury concerns, but Burnett and Pettitte could be impacted by their 220-plus innings last year. Burnett has never thrown 200 innings in back-to-back seasons.