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February 10, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

Last season the Yankees and Red Sox had a close, thrilling race for the division title for most of the season. Neither team pulled away from the other for very long, and nearly every head-to-head matchup had first place on the line. The six-game spread in the final standings didn't do justice to how close the race was, as the season ended with both teams beating up on lousy opponents.

The Yankees won the season series and the division, but it didn't make their road to the World Series much easier, they still had to play the Red Sox in the ALCS, and all the division title got them was Home Field Advantage. Considering that the Yankees were 4-5 at home last postseason and 5-3 on the road, a one-game home field advantage in the ALCS wasn't really much of a prize for winning the division. It's not that the division title doesn't matter, rather that it's not as important was it was in the pre-Wild Card era.

My point? Well, when I read something like this, an AL East preview that doesn't bear much connection to reality, I'm inclined to go off on a rant about the idiocy of the writer. Apparently, Boston got ten games better in the offseason, the Yankees got 9 games worse, and the division race will be over by late August. Yeah, right. I can believe that Boston got better (though not THAT much better), the Yankees got worse (though not THAT much worse), and that the Red Sox might have been a better team than the Yankees last season, too. But to predict a 13-game difference in the standings is more than the most myopic fan would predict for this upcoming season.

Whatever. I'd probably pick Boston to win the division this season, but it doesn't really matter all that much. The Yankees are probably going to make the playoffs, though the second place team in the AL West and the Blue Jays will give them a run for their money, and just like last season, they'll probably face the Red Sox in the ALCS, where who won the division, and by how much, won't make much difference, and that's my point.

If you start from that premise--and I don't think anyone will say it's too far fetched to start there--the Yankees' chances of winning the World Series this year look a lot better. The Yankees don't have to stay healthy all year, they just have to stay healthy in October, and they can do that. They don't need to be a good pitcher, if he is, that's just a bonus. They don't need exceptional production off of their bench, and wasting two spots on and isn't that big of a deal. In the postseason, the only team that I think matches up well with the Yankees is the Red Sox, and I think they match up pretty evenly.

Boston's offense was the best in baseball last season, and the only change they've made in their lineup is at second base, where and will be replacing . The Sox got career years out of , , and last year, leading one to believe that they'll be less productive in 2004, but and also had down years, which might mitigate that. All things considered, it's not unreasonable to think Boston's offense will be just as good as last season, though I'm inclined to believe they'll be a little worse.

Problem for the Yankees is, not having any lefty starters, they don't get to put sluggers David Ortiz and Trot Nixon at a disadvantage, making Boston's offense even better. I think it's safe to say that Boston has a pretty good hitting team.

The Yankees have a pretty good hitting team, too, though compared to Boston's offense, it didn't look overly impressive. However, unlike Boston, it's reasonable to expect the Yankees to score more runs in 2004 than they did in 2003, even with out. The Yankees struggled with injuries to their lineup all year, and when the injured players came back, their offense had dropped off considerably. , and all missed a significant number of games, and played hurt all year. It is of course entirely possible that the Yankees will suffer from injuries again in 2004, but if they're healthy in the postseason, and Giambi and Williams' knees hold up okay, they should get much more production from those spots. And while Nick Johnson might be just as good a hitter as , he was hurt so much last season that it's pretty much a sure thing that Sheffield will bring more production to the Yankees than Johnson and his replacements did last season. and are likely to lose value in 2004, but I'd say the outlook for the Yankees offense is the opposite of Boston's: they could get better, but it's unlikely they'll get any worse.

That doesn't mean New York's offense will be as good as Boston's--it won't--but they could catch up a little bit. The Yankees do have a platoon disadvantage in the matchup, though; their only big lefty slugger is Giambi, the rest of their offensive stars are either right-handed or switch-hitters who are natural righties, making Boston's lack of a righty starter something of an advantage.

Where I think they Yankees even the odds is with their pitching. The top two starters on each team are a push, with maybe a little advantage to Boston, but not much of one. I'll take over in a heartbeat, and while the book is still out on , if he's as good as I think he'll be, I'd pick him over , too.

Still, Boston has an excellent rotation, nearly as good as New York's. So, how does this even the odds? Because I believe the great pitching will keep the games low-scoring, and make the difference between the teams' offenses much smaller. Keeping the score low means that fewer things need to go right for the Yankees to win, and while it doesn't give them the advantage, it does eliminate most or all of Boston's offensive advantage.

Now, Boston has a better defense than New York, but by moving Bernie Williams to DH, the Yankees' defense became much better than it was last season. Williams was just about the worst defensive player in baseball over the past two seasons (yes, worse than Jeter), and merely getting him out of center makes the Yankees better defensively. Replacing him with , who is rated as a good defensive player by UZR, could add a couple of wins to the Yankees by itself. More importantly, the Yankees and Red Sox' rotations are made up of strikeout pitchers (except Derek Lowe), so the defense shouldn't be a huge deciding factor in a head-to-head matchup.

The last factor is the bullpen. The Yankees had a better bullpen in the regular season last year, but in the postseason, Boston's relievers pitched to their potential and were lights-out. The Red Sox added free agent to close this year, and while I don't think he's good as , the difference is so small, and their likely usage patterns makes the difference trivial. Suffice to say, you don't want either of these guys in the game if you're the other team.

While Boston is counting on , and to repeat their postseason performances and be top setup men, the Yanks paid big money to bring in and , two of the best relievers in baseball last season. Both should be excellent again in 2004, though both should be somewhat victimized by their defense since they're ground ball pitchers. If is still pitching in October, then the Yankees' bullpen is at least as good as Boston's, and probably a little better. Who's better isn't likely to matter, both teams can keep games close, both teams hold leads. Working the count and getting the starting pitcher out of the game early is a strategy both of these teams want to use, but against each other, it will be much less effective than against other teams.

TwinsFanDan over at Will Carroll's blog commented about the conclusion to my roster breakdown last month, saying that Boston has a better team than New York on paper. Sure they do, but that advantage is much smaller in a short series when the scores are low, and the Yankees catch up when you take Boston's depth out of the equation, as the postseason does (see ). I can see Boston winning the division by three or four games, but I'm confident these teams are going to face each other in the playoffs, and I think the Yankees will win again in seven.

How boring and predictable.