Rivals in Exile: Happy Holidays?

Ben Jacobs: Christmas has come and gone, and so has another difference between the Red Sox and Yankees. Now, both teams have an overpaid captain who is a proven winner with a bunch of intangibles who plays the game the right way.

As might have been expected, a good portion of sabremetrically-inclined Red Sox fans are upset about the Jason Varitek re-signing, feeling that the Red Sox could have put that money to better use because Varitek won’t come close to being worth that amount. While I’d agree that Varitek won’t produce at the rate he did this season over the entire course of his new contract, I’m also happy he’s back.

The Red Sox may have overspent, but it’s not always about getting bargains. With the Oakland A’s, you need to find bargains so you can put a winning team on the field. With the Boston Red Sox, you need to find bargains so you can afford the players who aren’t bargains. I don’t see how this contract is a bad thing if it doesn’t affect Boston’s ability to sign other players in the future.

While some people are worried, I see no reason to think this contract will hamper the Red Sox in the coming years. After the 2003 season, I heard that the Red Sox were going to cut payroll back to the $110-115 million range. They didn’t. Following this past season, I heard that the Red Sox were going to cut payroll back to the $120-125 million range to avoid the luxury tax. They haven’t, as far as I can tell.

This ownership group wanted to win a World Series and was willing to spend what it took to get one. It doesn’t appear that the owners are satisfied with just one, or that they’re going to rest on that success and allow it to make a hefty profit for them, which they easily could do (even in Upstate New York, I’ve seen a noticeable increase in Red Sox apparel).

You may wonder why the Red Sox didn’t pony up for Pedro Martinez if they’re willing to spend money, and that’s a valid question. However, I’d say there’s a bit of a difference. With Martinez, if they didn’t re-sign him, there were attractive replacement options. Indeed, the Red Sox have taken the money they would have spent on Martinez and used it to sign Matt Clement, David Wells and Wade Miller. That trio will make more than Martinez would have if they reach their incentives, but they’ll definitely cost less than Martinez and Derek Lowe cost together this year, and I’d be willing to bet that the trio will provide more production in 2005 than the duo did in 2004.

With Varitek, there was no good backup plan. After he was let go by the Giants, people put forth A.J. Pierzynski as a good choice, but that doesn’t appeal to me. He doesn’t have much power (11 homers each of the last two seasons), he doesn’t have any patience (an average of 23 walks per 162 games in his career) and he doesn’t have a great reputation. If he hits .300 (he’s a .294 hitter for his career), he’s a decent offensive player. If he doesn’t, he’s not.

At any rate, I’m very happy with the off-season the Red Sox have had so far. I have been worrying about this off-season and what would happen to Nomar, Pedro and Varitek (and to a lesser extent, Lowe) for a few years. Obviously, retaining one of the four players isn’t what I had in mind, but things change.

It used to be the case that when you thought of the Red Sox, you thought of Nomar. Over the last year or so, whether it was his fault or not, that changed. I was sad to see him leave in July, but I wasn’t surprised and I didn’t think it was a terrible thing for the Red Sox. He wasn’t the face of the team any longer, and it wasn’t a comfortable situation with him around.

Normally, when a player’s as good as Pedro is, he’d be considered the anchor of a team. But Pedro was never that type of player. He was more of a shooting star. We all reveled in his brilliance, while wondering (or trying not to wonder) how long it could last. Would he get hurt? Would he leave after this deal? I don’t think many people expected Pedro’s star to keep shining in Boston for the rest of his career.

Varitek, on the other hand, is a rock. He’s not flashy, he’s not flippant, he’s just there. He’s steady, and you always know he’s doing as much as he can possibly do to help the Red Sox win games. While I don’t believe you can measure intangibles and leadership and all those kinds of things, I do believe that Jason Varitek has some of that stuff. I don’t know how much that will help the Red Sox win total, but it’s nice to have, whatever it is.

And while Varitek may be overpaid, it’s not like he’s bad. He was one of the top 3-5 catchers in the AL this year, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be again. Also, there wasn’t a catcher in the NL who was better (or at least not obviously) than Varitek, so you could say he was (and probably will be again) one of the top 3-5 catchers in the majors.

And yes, I know that if you wanted to, you could take just about everything I just said about Varitek and replace his name with Jeter’s. What do you want from me? I never claimed that Jeter was a bad player, just that he was overpaid and overrated. And so is Varitek. But just as most Yankees fans are happy to have Jeter on the team, I’m happy to have Varitek on the team.

As for the rest of the team, it looks just fine. Some minor moves might still need to be made (trading one of Kevin Millar and Doug Mientkiewicz, trading Byung-Hyun Kim), but I’d feel comfortable going into the season with this team. I don’t think you can say the same thing, at least not to the same degree as me.

So far, the Yankees have signed a couple pitchers who could be good or could be not so good, they’ve signed a second baseman who will definitely be not so good, and they’ve traded a couple players they didn’t really want for a couple relievers other teams didn’t really want. If the season started today, they’d have a rotation with Mike Mussina and a bunch of question marks, and a lineup that includes Bernie Williams in center field.

Luckily for the Yankees and your furniture, the off-season isn’t over. If New York gets both Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran, they’ll once again go into the season with the best team on paper, although certainly not an unbeatable team. If the Yankees get one of those two players, they and the Red Sox will probably be considered a toss-up for the AL East heading into the season. If the Yankees get neither of them, I think the Red Sox would have to be considered the favorites starting the season, not that that necessarily means a thing.

But I’d have to imagine that for you, a Christmas present from the Yankees hasn’t arrived yet, and you’re just hoping it’s a late Christmas this year.

Larry Mahnken: The problem with overpaying Varitek isn’t for next year — it’s in a few years when he’s highly likely to have lost a great deal of his offensive skill. As you know, catchers don’t age well, and at the end of his contract, Varitek is going to be at an age where most catchers are offensive liabilities. It certainly makes the Red Sox better for next year, but I’d be surprised if he adds league-average offense at the end of the deal. At that point, he’ll be untradeable, heavily overpaid, and will prevent the Red Sox from doing some things. I’d rather have Pedro in four years than Varitek, and I think they’ll regret this choice.

I don’t know if the Red Sox are necessarily the favorites to win the division if the Yankees don’t get Beltran or Johnson. Boston replaced Pedro with Clement, and they’re taking a cheap risk on Wade Miller, who has an arm injury that is not easy to recover from. If they get the 2002/03 version of Renteria, they’ve upgraded a bit at short, though he’s still overpaid, and if they get the rest-of-his-career Renteria, then the upgrade isn’t that big there. Schilling will miss the start of the season while recovering from surgery, so I don’t think they’ve improved at all from last year’s team, and may have slid back a little bit. And they didn’t win the division last year.

The Yankees have yet to do anything to improve themselves this off-season, and as time goes by it looks more important for them to acquire Johnson and Beltran. I think they can pull off a Johnson trade. The Diamondbacks had allowed themselves to be fleeced by the Dodgers in the aborted trade, so the Yankees shouldn’t have enormous difficulty finding someone else to step in and take LA’s role, although the mainstream view that it was the Dodgers that were getting fleeced in the deal (for some reason that is obviously on too high a level for my small mind to comprehend), might make that a little tougher. But Arizona seems willing to trade him, and the Yankees are determined.

The Beltran thing is a little trickier. There are so many conflicting statements out there; it’s tough to figure out whether the money the Yankees will offer him will be enough. Now Beltran’s gonna get overpaid, but he adds so much to the Yankees — an excellent bat and a great glove where they’ve had terrible defense for the past few seasons — that they need to pay that price. What else is there for them, Bernie back in center? Sierra back at DH? Yuck.

But even without those two, the Yanks still have a very strong team. Their offense was better than the Red Sox (107 OPS+ to 105 for Boston), the strong back of their bullpen is back, and they’ve added some depth. If their rotation can perform better than last year — hardly a tough task — they should win around 100 games again. Adding Beltran and Johnson would make them a much tougher postseason team, but I have to rate them even with Boston if they don’t make any changes.

I think Beltran is more important than Johnson. He adds something to the Yankees long-term, and with some of the bigger contracts running out starting next off-season, the Yankees will start having more flexibility to add players for the future. Beltran is young, a good hitter and a good defender in center, something that’s rare, and can be a cornerstone of a franchise. I think the Yankees should go all out for him.

We’ll know in a week.

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