Rivals in Exile: Cry Me a River

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both — whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

New York Yankees: 35-20
Boston Red Sox: 33-23

Larry Mahnken: Wow, Ben, what happened to the Red Sox? Saturday’s win snapped a four-game losing streak which had dropped them all the way back to 3½ games behind the Yankees, and they had been eight games worse than the Bombers since The Sweep. At the time, it appeared that Boston’s April dominance had set the tone for the season, with the Yankees chasing the Sox, but now it appears that those seven games saved Boston’s season. Had they lost, say, 4 of 7, they’d have been 9½ games back on Saturday.

But they didn’t, and they’re still right there — only 2½ back — and they’re getting two huge stars back very soon.

But the schedule gets tougher for them from here on out — while the Yankees’ gets easier — and their rotation is a mess. Pedro Martinez has an unbelievable 4.40 ERA, and although his DIPS is a solid 3.75, that’s not Pedro Martinez. Derek Lowe, who was arguably the most deserving Cy Young candidate just two years ago, has been one of the worst starters in baseball with a 6.55 ERA, striking out fewer than 4 men per nine innings, walking more than he’s struck out, and giving up the fewest ground balls of his career since he was a rookie.

The fifth starter for the Sox, Bronson Arroyo, hasn’t been Yankee bad, but still awful, with a 5.33 ERA. In fact, the only quality starters for the Sox have been Schilling — perhaps the best starter in the league right now — and Wakefield, who has been good but unspectacular, and has lost his last two.

Their bullpen’s still great, and their lineup is the equal of any out there, but they’ve still gone a pedestrian 21-17 against fairly weak competition since their last game in New York. How much of what’s happened in the last month is just a bad break, and how much of it is cause for concern? What can Boston do to address those concerns?

Ben Jacobs: I think Boston’s biggest problem this season is that there have been a lot of streaks so far. The biggest one was when they won 13 of 16 in April, but they also had a stretch when they won nine of 11 in May and had a four-game winning streak earlier that month. On the other side, they’ve had a five-game losing streak, a stretch where they lost four of five and a stretch where they lost five of six.

When they’ve been in the winning streaks, they’ve looked unbelievable. When they’ve been in the losing streaks, they’ve looked unbelievably bad. It just so happens that their most recent streak has been of the losing variety, which is why you may have heard a lot of cursing if you drove past my apartment recently.

Is anything really wrong with the Red Sox? I don’t know. They’re tied for first (with the Yankees) in the AL in runs scored, fourth in the AL in runs allowed and are tied with the Angels for the second-best record in the league. They’re on pace to win 95 games — which is fewer than I would have expected, but not ridiculously so — and they’d make the playoffs if the season ended today. Also, as you mentioned, they’re on the verge of getting two important players into the starting lineup for the first time all year.

Is anything really troubling about the Red Sox? Absolutely.

Back on April 17, I said, “a month from now, if Pedro’s fastball still looks completely different and he’s still walking everybody and he’s still giving up too many home runs, then I’ll start to worry.”

Well, it’s been seven weeks now, and while Pedro’s fastball has gotten better, his walks are up slightly from last year and up significantly from the previous two seasons. Also, he’s already allowed 10 homers in 75.2 innings after allowing 20 in 385 innings the last two years. I’m officially worried.

Pedro says he feels good, and he says the lack of command is because he’s been too strong. I don’t know if I buy that, but I hope it’s true. I don’t know if they need Pedro to be PEDRO to make the playoffs, but they do if they want to be the postseason juggernaut people think they can be. And even if he’s not going to be the best pitcher in the league, he needs to at least be good, and he hasn’t been recently.

I was expecting more from Bronson Arroyo, but he’s a fifth starter, so I can’t get too worked up over the fact that he’s been bad. I wish he didn’t need to be in the rotation, because I thought Byung-Hyun Kim would be a good starter, but that obviously hasn’t worked out either.

The worst thing about the Red Sox has been Derek Lowe. He’s Boston’s version of Jose Contreras, but it’s worse because Lowe was a potential Cy Young winner two years ago and an above average pitcher last year. People had high expectations for Contreras, but he had never been in a major-league rotation for a full season, whereas Lowe had been a solid major-league starter for two full seasons.

This year, however, he’s allowed at least five runs in six of his first 10, starts and he’s already served up a two-run homer today. He’s made just two quality starts this season, and they were two of his first three starts of the year. If he can’t be at least an average starting pitcher from here on out, the Red Sox are going to have to fill a huge and unexpected hole.

LM: And at the same time, it looks like some of the Yankees’ holes are filling up. Derek Jeter missed this weekend’s game with a slight groin injury — he’ll be back Tuesday — but before then, he’d had an incredible week to finally break out of his slump (you believe yet, Ben?). Gary Sheffield is finally crushing the ball, Giambi‘s off the DL (and hit a homer Sunday), and with a spectacular start against a great Texas lineup on Sunday, Mike Mussina looks to be back in ace mode.

But they still have their problems. Enrique Wilson hit five homers in two weeks, but still only has a .210 GPA, and the other second baseman, Miguel Cairo, has a .230 GPA. Giambi’s been hurt, Lofton‘s been hurt, Jeter’s been hurt, and on Saturday and Sunday the Yankees fielded an infield of A-Rod, Miguel Cairo, Homer Bush and Tony Clark — with Ruben Sierra in right field. But then, they still won Sunday, although you have to credit that to Moose.

While Mussina and Vazquez have started to be fantastic, Kevin Brown has had some bad starts lately, Jon Lieber pitched a couple of lousy games last week, and Jose Contreras couldn’t get out of the first on Wednesday. The bullpen hasn’t been lights-out, either, Tanyon Sturtze‘s scoreless outing on Wednesday (where he didn’t pitch very well anyway) excluded. They nearly blew a five-run ninth inning lead on Tuesday, and let the tying runs get to third in the ninth on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday. Mariano Rivera has been doing his best John Wetteland impersonation, but he has often had stretches where he’s been less than perfect before, so I’m not too worried about that.

But I am worried about Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill being overworked. With Gabe White having been buried, the Yankees are relying on Gordon and Quantrill way too much, and the work has taken something of a toll on their effectiveness. Unless they get better starting or bigger leads, that will continue all season. They also need Steve Karsay back and effective, too. He could be back in a couple of weeks, but as for effectiveness, that may take longer.

My biggest concern, though, is Contreras. The Yankees are skipping his next start, but as the summer goes by there won’t be nearly as many off days, and they won’t be able to avoid using him. Contreras’ struggles are baffling, because he’s got great stuff. It’s not like Hideki Irabu, whose fastball wasn’t that fast and very straight. Contreras has a fantastic fastball, and a better splitter. But he falls behind hitters and works incredibly slowly, especially when someone’s hit a homer off of him, or there’s a runner on. A great pitcher is in there somewhere, but someone needs to go in and bring it out in him — and I’m not sure Mel Stottlemyre is the man to do it. The Yankees might be left with no choice but to move Contreras.

But then the options to replace him are pretty much nil. Brad Halsey is an intriguing lefty in Columbus, and Alex Graman has been effective enough to perhaps warrant another look. These are the Yankees, though, and if they get any time in the majors, it will only be to showcase them for a trade. Freddy Garcia looks like a potential target, but the trade rumors going around have sounded more like a product of the media’s imagination than anything else.

And really, the Yankees don’t have very much to give in a trade. Dioner Navarro and Eric Duncan are excellent prospects, but so far away from the majors that they’re unlikely to be moved for star-quality talent, and shouldn’t be moved for less. I should know better, but I think this is pretty much the team the Yankees will be taking into October.

BJ: You want to talk about unimpressive infields? With Mark Bellhorn suffering from flu-like symptons and David Ortiz on the bench due to a left-hander starting, the Red Sox had Kevin Youkilis at third base, Pokey Reese at shortstop, Cesar Crespo at second base and David McCarty at first base. And with Manny Ramirez at DH, Boston’s corner outfielders were Kevin Millar and Gabe Kapler.

The Red Sox still won, but you probably have to credit that to the Royals. Sunday’s lineup just shows how important it is that the Red Sox are probably getting Nomar Garciaparra back on Tuesday.

Ideally, Bellhorn will continue to play almost every day even with Nomar back, because he’s hitting .263/.399/.429 and his .287 GPA is almost exactly the same as what Nomar put up last year. However, even if Nomar replaces Bellhorn in the starting lineup and Bellhorn replaces Crespo on the bench, it will be a big lift because Crespo has been worse than awful. You talk about how bad Wilson and Cairo have been, but Crespo makes them both look like All-Star hitters.

One thing I liked about the Red Sox entering this season wasn’t just the strength of their starting lineup, it was the depth of their bench as well. Assuming there are no more major injuries, the Red Sox should finally have that deep bench by the All-Star break. Nomar’s return will allow the Red Sox to use either Bellhorn or Reese off the bench and Trot Nixon‘s return will mean that the Red Sox no longer have to start one of McCarty, Kapler or Brian Daubach in every game.

Ellis Burks will be back in the not-too-distant future, and he should give the Red Sox another quality bat off the bench. And whenever Bill Mueller comes back, Boston will have another capable infielder. If they still aren’t playing as well as everybody would like with that team, then they’ll go out and make some trades. On that note, you’re right that you should know better than to think the Yankees will stand pat.

At the very least, New York will go out and find another quality reliever, especially if Karsay doesn’t come back as quickly or as well as they’d like. You mentioned that you’re worried about the workload for Gordon and Quantrill, but you should be worried about Rivera as well.

Gordon and Quantrill have each been used in 29 games and Rivera’s been used 30 times. Rivera’s on pace to pitch in 88 games and throw 96 innings, Gordon’s on pace for 85 games and 92 innings and Quantrill’s on pace for 85 games and 101 innings. None of them are young guys, and Rivera and especially Gordon have injury histories. If Torre doesn’t ease up on them over the next few months, they might not have anything left in September and October.

That we have so many complaints a third of the way through just shows how high our expectations were for these teams coming into the season. No team in the American League has a better record than either of them, and only one team in the National League, the Reds, has a better record than the Red Sox. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for either team, especially with Boston finally getting healthy and New York finally getting into the easy part of the schedule, and I’d guess that there still aren’t many people who expect either team to miss the playoffs.

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