Rivals in Exile: Feeding Frenzy

Ben Jacobs: Well, there’s certainly blood in the water now, isn’t there? For more than a month, the Red Sox and Yankees just sat there circling and looking mean. Then they both attacked, snapping up anything that moved near them.

The Red Sox lost Pedro, but they quickly signed Edgar Renteria and then beat five or six other teams on Matt Clement. The Yankees landed Carl Pavano when indications were that he would be going to the Red Sox, and appear to be on the verge of stealing Randy Johnson from the Diamondbacks (not that the Yankees aren’t giving up talent, but I don’t like what Arizona is getting at all).

At any rate, for the second week in a row, we have quite a bit to talk about. I know what the biggest transaction of the week (and probably the off-season) is, but I’ll save that for later. For now, I want to point out that it’s kind of interesting that I was on both sides of the same feeling last week.

I wanted Pedro to return to the Red Sox, but at a reasonable deal. When the Mets, whose fans were largely happy with the acquisition despite the money involved, went big on Pedro, I didn’t mind terribly that the Red Sox didn’t get him, although I was sad to see him leave.

From what I can tell, many Cardinals fans wanted Renteria to return, but at a reasonable deal. When the Red Sox, and I was largely happy with the acquisition despite the money involved, went big on Renteria, St. Louis fans (I think) didn’t mind terribly that the Cardinals didn’t get him, but were still sad to see him leave.

I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I thought it was a little interesting. Ultimately, I’m fine with having Renteria and not having Martinez. And a little more than a month ago, I wrote the following sentence:

“In that case, my order of preference would be Matt Clement, Brad Radke, and then Carl Pavano.”

Of course, what I was referring to was my order of preference for a pitcher to complement Pedro, not to replace him. But I don’t see why I would change my ranking just because that circumstance changed, so I’m happy to have Clement and I think he’s a significantly better deal at 3/25 than Pavano is at 4/40. He might slip a little moving into the AL, but I think he and David Wells are certainly capable of doing better than the 4.60 ERA Pedro and Derek Lowe provided last year, although they might not match the 400 innings.

Now all I think the Red Sox need to do is re-sign Varitek, which I think they will do, trade one of their first basemen, which Theo Epstein has apparently told Kevin Millar and Doug Mientkiewicz he will do, and fill out the bench. I’m not going to worry about Curt Schilling’s ankle until I know how much it’s going to affect him at the beginning of next season, but I really think the Red Sox could have a better team, on paper, than they had going into last season.

Also, while the Red Sox don’t have a great farm system, they do have an improving farm system and will have actual talent they can trade mid-season, and of course they will also be able to take on salary from other teams. And one thing that’s being ignored right now is that Epstein will likely have three extra high draft picks to play with next summer because while they’ve signed three Type A/B free agents (Clement, Renteria, Wells), they’re also probably going to lose three Type A free agents (Pedro, Lowe, Orlando Cabrera).

So, this off-season is going just fine for the Red Sox as far as I’m concerned. As for that other team, the big move looks like it’s all but official now: Randy Johnson will be a member of the New York Yankees in 2005. Without a doubt, this is a good move for the Yankees.

Is it possible that this move could come back to haunt them in the future? I suppose so. Eric Duncan and Dioner Navarro could turn out to be productive major leaguers, and Javier Vazquez could turn everything back around and be an All-Star starter again. But Johnson is one of the best starting pitchers of all time and while he’s old, he’s also coming off a season in which he should have won the Cy Young award.

He’s capable of dominating a game the way you like to have your ace dominate games when you get to the playoffs. And his arrival makes Mike Mussina one of the best, if not the best, No. 2 starters in baseball. And with Pavano and Jaret Wright in town, Kevin Brown will probably be called New York’s fifth starter, which is ridiculous, since he’s still capable of being very, very good.

So, the Yankees are going to be a great team again in 2005. And if they sign Carlos Beltran as well, they’ll be an even greater team. They’ll probably go into the season, as you could argue they did last year, with a better team on paper than the Red Sox. But the Red Sox have done enough that I’m confident they can win the division and they can beat the Yankees in a playoff series without it being too much of a surprise in either case.

Also, with the moves out west, it seems even more unlikely that the wild card will be able to come out of that division, and I don’t think anybody expects the wild card to come out of the AL Central.

If the Angels haven’t gotten worse, neither have they gotten better. The rotation is still very suspect and Steve Finley will not likely be able to replace the offense Jose Guillen supplied last year, nor does he really make the defense better. And I’m skeptical about the abilities of Dallas McPherson to be a quality starter in the majors, at least right now.

As for the A’s, I don’t think the trades of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder mean they can’t compete, since they still have a lot of talent, if unproven talent, in the rotation and they’ve improved their offense. However, it does increase the likelihood that more than one of their starting pitchers could be just bad.

And even if the Angels and A’s are as good talent-wise as they were last year, the Rangers should be better than average again as well and the additions of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson to the Mariners means that those three teams won’t have a terrible team in the division to beat up on. So, with all four teams capable of posting winning seasons if things break right, I see it being difficult for two of the four teams winning enough games for the wild card to come out of the division.

That means that it’s not even 2005, but a lot of people have probably already penciled the Yankees and Red Sox into the 2005 playoffs. Do you think we would piss off too many people if we started breaking down a Red Sox/Yankees ALCS already?

Larry Mahnken: I don’t care about pissing them off, I’m just not certain about what can happen in the postseason.

But I’m 99.999999999% certain that the Yankees will make the playoffs, and if they sign Beltran, I’m almost as certain they’ll win 100+ games again. I’m pretty sure that, if healthy, they are built for the postseason better than any other team in baseball, with two ace-caliber starters, including one who was the best pitcher in baseball last year (sorry Johan, but he was just a little better).

They’ve got QuanGorMo coming back at the end of the games, and they appear to have put together a much deeper pen this year than last, with Felix Rodriguez, Mike Stanton (whose RISP numbers last season were almost certainly a fluke, no matter what our Mets fan friends say), and it would appear, a healthy Steve Karsay. If they bring in Beltran and an average-hitting first baseman, or even Tino Martinez, their lineup will be better, their defense will be better. Their bench will be about the same — pretty weak.

Pavano and Wright look a lot better at the back of the rotation than they do at the front of it; indeed they look very nice there. I’d like to see the Yankees bring back El Duque to be a long reliever/emergency starter, but apparently he wants a regular role, and he’ll probably find it elsewhere.

Now, as of this writing the Randy Johnson trade is not actually official — it seems to be more important to be first than to be accurate in the modern news media — but there’s too much smoke for there not to be some fire. If the deal breaks down, which it doesn’t appear it will, it sets the framework for what Arizona considers an acceptable trade, and should lead to a trade before spring training begins.

As it is, I think Arizona is getting fleeced, but don’t blame the Yankees for that. They’re hardly getting a steal here; it’s Paul DePodesta who is doing the fleecing. With the health of Penny and Green questionable, the Dodgers have given themselves some more payroll flexibility, some solid prospects, and they don’t lose too much on the field. The Yankees give up Vazquez, who had his worst year since he was 23, by far, a catching prospect who might not be great, but could be good enough to replace Posada in a few years, and a third base prospect whose bat looks very, very promising, and could play left or first down the road. If they had to give up much more, even cash, I might not like this deal too much. I like it very much now.

The addition of Ishii to the deal could be a positive or negative. As a starter, Ishii is dreadful, and unlikely to ever get better, but his splits indicate he might have some value as a LOOGY. I think it’s more likely that the Yankees will spin him off in another trade and get something of medium utility out of him. As long as they don’t give him any starts, it’s a positive, I think.

Boston appears to me to be building more for the future than the present, while still trying to win now. But the fact that they ended the 86-year drought gives them some leeway to not try their hardest to win this year (which would have meant re-signing Pedro, and damn the cost), and collect as many draft picks as they can. Knowing that they weren’t going to bring back Lowe, they may have purposefully made him feel unwelcome to make him less likely to accept arbitration, allowing them to get those draft picks. I think this is a very wise strategy, and eventually they can build a core of reasonably-priced talent that they can fill out with free agent pickups — much like the Yankees did in the 90′s.

The Yanks, on the other hand, are going all-out to squeeze the last bits of greatness out of this team. The payroll will surge past $200 million next year, but there will be nearly $45 million coming off the books after 2005, and they’ve “only” committed about $90 million for 2007, so if they need to retool with free agents, they can do it. But I think the Boston long-term plan is a better one, and the Yankees’ short-term plan is better than Boston’s.

The free agent season isn’t nearly over yet, but already we know that 2005 is going to be just as, or even more intense in the AL East. I can hardly wait for Opening Day.

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