The Yankees Had A Better Winter Than The Red Sox

In recent months, I’ve taken a much more even-tempered approach to the decaying state of sports analysis. My blood pressure is very thankful for this adjustment. I smile more. I curse less. People seem to like me more, and I can still uphold Fan Interference’s fundamental goal of pointing out shoddy, lazy, or factually incorrect analysis in an effort to better educate you, the avid sports fan. That hasn’t changed, but the tone has. 

I mention this because this post will be decidedly in the “old style” tone. Jayson Stark’s recent column comparing the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ off-seasons has served as the impetus for this brief regression. The column heavily implies – if not outright asserts – that the Red Sox’ player additions are better than the Yankees’, despite the latter’s prodigious spending. It’s essentially yet another David versus Goliath analogy that, of course, sides with David (even though David is a Goliath too). To be clear, I’m not arguing that the Yankees are better than the Red Sox. I’m arguing that it’s lunacy to suggest that a team improves more by adding the current versions of John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, and Rocco Baldelli than adding CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and AJ Burnett. I am putting my fan hat back on for this post, because quite honestly, Stark’s piece got my blood boiling again. Articles like this are the reason we started this blog in the first place.

Here we go, Fire Joe Morgan-style:

One team tried to solve its problems with $423 million worth of free agents. The other team brought in a bunch of guys who spent about 423 million days in the trainer’s room.

Let me guess: the first team is the Yankees, and their spending didn’t do much to help them, because spending hard-earned money is evil. The second team is the Red Sox, whose commitments to players recovering from serious injuries was prudent and genius. Am I right?

Is the team that spent all those Steinbrenner family dollars really the team to beat? For that matter, did the team that spent all those dollars even have the better winter?

“For $423 million, the Yankees obviously got some nice pieces,” said one scout. “But in terms of filling needs, I think Boston did just as well, if not better.

Yes. Yes, I am.

I also strongly disagree with the scout’s assessment that the Red Sox’ additions filled needs more than the Yankees’. Mark Teixeira is replacing the old, immobile, and defensively inept Jason Giambi at first-base. That wasn’t a need? CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett are replacing Mike Mussina and the horrid Darrell Rasner/Sidney Ponson duo that made 35 (!) starts for the Yankees last year. That’s not filling a need? If you say so.

We know the names in the Yankees’ new stimulus package: CC SabathiaMark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. They were the biggest, brightest packages on the free-agent shelves, and the Yankees bought out the store.

An allusion to the economy. Topical. Hilarious, too. They were the “biggest” and “brightest” packages for a reason. They were arguably the three best players available on the market, and in a very deep class of free-agents, no less. The Yankees did exceedingly well in signing Sabathia and Teixeira, and Burnett carries an incredible reward with his significant risk (just like all the Red Sox players Stark is about to mention and tout for the very same reason). 

But the Red Sox’s additions were products of a whole different philosophy, not just a whole different checking account. The four free agents they imported — John SmoltzBrad PennyTakashi Saito and Rocco Baldelli — cost this team 4 million fewer guaranteed dollars ($12.5 million total) than the Yankees will pay Burnett alone this year.

Nevertheless, the upside of those men gives the Red Sox four potential impact players without the price tags, or long-term inflexibility, that come with handing out contracts that run through 2016.

Let’s go through the Red Sox’ additions, one by one. Smoltz is a 42 year old lifetime National Leaguer coming off major surgery on his throwing shoulder. PECOTA projects him to throw 85 innings of 3.57 ERA ball this year. Penny is a 31 year old lifetime National Leaguer in questionable physical condition who also has problems in his throwing shoulder. His rehab has already been slowed down this spring, and PECOTA projects him to throw 130 innings of 4.97 ERA ball. Saito is a 39 year old reliever – also pitching in the American League for the first time – who had elbow problems last year. He is projected to throw 55 innings and post a 2.93 ERA. Baldelli is a former Rays’ prospect whose mitochondria don’t work properly, fatiguing him prematurely. He’s slated to hit .263/.320/.443 this year, which is fine for a fourth outfielder. I don’t see many “impact players” there, particularly given the limited playing time (Smoltz, Saito, Baldelli) and outright inauspicious forecast (Penny). 

By signing these players, the Red Sox added 7-8 gross wins, as measured by WARP. By adding Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett, the Yankees added 17. The Yankees spent more and got more, the Sox spent less and got less. Also, it’s important to remember that the Red Sox needed less. They were better than the Yankees last year, and had fewer holes to fill, which is why they might still be the better team. The point is, the Yankees acquired more talent than the Red Sox did, because they needed to close the gap between them and the Rays and Red Sox.

The Red Sox don’t know yet whether Smoltz will make 23 starts or three, whether he’ll win 10 games or none, whether he’ll be a massive difference-maker or a total nonfactor. But they would rather have taken a $5.5 million gamble on what he can be than sign any free-agent pitcher for seven years (which was what the Yankees gave CC), or even five (the length of Burnett’s deal). 

“If Smoltz comes back healthy — and I’d bet on that — he’s their August-September impact guy,” said one scout. “To me, he’s like that ace you trade for at the deadline.”

I don’t know how both Stark and the scout can discount the possibility that Smoltz could be a total non-factor. Smoltz isn’t going to make 25 starts, and he isn’t going to make three. It’s going to be somewhere in between. PECOTA has him at 15, so let’s go with that. So, we’re betting that a 42 year old lifetime National Leaguer coming off shoulder surgery is going to come into the toughest division in baseball and be an “impact guy”? Somehow, this is better than signing Sabathia? If the Yankees signed Smoltz and the Red Sox signed Sabathia, the Yankees would be getting panned for not spending their money on the best talent available, while the Red Sox would be praised for building through the farm and spending on premium free-agents when necessary. You know it, and I know it.

“I think if we just use patience and good judgment,” Francona said, “we really have a chance to be rewarded.”

“If” #1.

Penny has already been shut down once this spring with shoulder fatigue. But he’s back on track to throw live batting practice before the end of the week. And unless he takes another U-turn, he’s still, theoretically, on schedule to be ready the first time the Red Sox need a fifth starter, on April 15.

Okay, so another lifetime National Leaguer with a declining strikeout rate, increasing walk rate, and a shoulder problem is going to come into the AL East and make a difference. If the Yankees signed Penny to this one year, incentive-laden deal, they’d be drilled for bottom-feeding despite their vast financial resources. But the Red Sox signed him, so it’s savvy and cost-effective.

One scout’s view of Penny’s potential impact: “I think he’s the big sleeper on that staff. If [pitching coach] John Farrell can’t get the best out of that guy, it’s doubtful anybody can.”

“If” #2.

Saito missed two months last year with a partially torn ligament in his elbow and chose not to have Tommy John surgery. So the Dodgers non-tendered him, and the Red Sox scooped him up for a mere $1.5 million guarantee (plus another $6 million in incentives if he’s healthy all year).

Torn ligament? 39 years old? Three-year career in the wretched NL West? That’s an impact player!

But he hasn’t missed a throwing session all spring. And we remind you, this is a man who has held opposing hitters to these insane numbers over the past three years: .182 average, .246 on-base percentage, .264 slugging percentage. So he can be far more than just another body in that bullpen.

In the NL West.

“If he’s healthy,” said one scout, “he’s a steal.”

“If” #3.

But given all the uncertainty about the neuromuscular ailment (channelopathy) that limits Baldelli’s availability, this team would be ecstatic if he just gave them a star-caliber insurance policy for all those days when J.D. Drew can’t make it out there.

The Baldelli portion of this column riles me up the least, but I will say that it’s crazy to call him “a star-caliber insurance policy.” Baldelli has never been a star, making it hard for him to be “star-caliber.” His career line is .281/.325/.445, and his best season was .302/.339/.533 in only 88 games. But somehow Drew and his .280/.408/.519 line missing “all those days” won’t be a problem for the Red Sox, because he’ll be replaced by a cheaper .281/.325/.445 line. Those crafty Red Sox. 

“We know that normally, we’d have no chance to get a guy like that,” Francona said. “And we know that there will be some times he’ll be unavailable. But we also know that when he is available, that’s a pretty potent bat to run out there against left-handed pitching.”

Wait, I thought Baldelli was a star-caliber player. Why is his own manager talking about him as a platoon player? And why might be not always be available? This doesn’t make sense. Everyone the Red Sox sign is a star.

A scout’s view: “This is another one of those low-risk, high-gain type moves. The way they’ll use Rocco is perfect for him.”

“The way they’ll use Rocco”? He’s a star! ESPN is telling me he can replace JD Drew. Stop talking about him like he’s a platoon player.

Also, “If” #4.

Do Smoltz and Penny equal Sabathia and Burnett?

No.

Depends how you look at it.

(sigh)

Over the long haul? Not a chance. 

You can’t question the intelligence of the Yankees giving Sabathia and Burnett long-term contracts, and then say that in the long haul, they’ll be good. That’s a contradiction.

But when it comes to pitching, the word that defines the Red Sox is “flexibility.” For 50 starts or so this year, if all goes right, Penny and Smoltz could give them just as much impact. 

If all goes right, these lifelong National Leaguers with shoulder problems who will have limited availability in the vastly superior AL East could help the Red Sox as much as Sabathia and Burnett. 

If my grandmother had a mustache, she’d be my grandfather.

We’ll say this for the Yankees: No team in baseball upgraded its rotation more than they did. But is that rotation more October-ready than the Red Sox’s potential rotation? Not on paper, it isn’t. Take a look at their respective postseason numbers:

(chart comparing October records for Smoltz-Beckett-Matsuzaka-Lester-Penny versus Sabathia-Burnett-Wang-Chamberlain-Pettitte)

Wins are the most asinine, unhelpful, useless, and misleading statistic in baseball. If you use wins, you shouldn’t be discussing baseball. I know this blog has gotten much more civil in its tone, but I am only willing to give so much ground. You can make a strong case for the Red Sox’ pitching superiority using acceptable statistics. Using wins does nothing but hurt an argument’s strength and the arguer’s credibility.

Also, FYI, that group of Red Sox pitchers has a career ERA+ of 120. The Yankees’ is 127 (discounting Chamberlain’s season as a reliever). But let’s not permit actually useful statistics to change anyone’s mind.

And Andy Pettitte‘s last postseason win was four years (and five starts) ago.

I’m genuinely disappointed in Stark on this one. Pettitte’s last postseason win was, indeed, four years ago. He beat the Atlanta Braves on October 5th, 2005. You know when Smoltz last won a game in the postseason? October 6th, 2005, against the Houston Astros. One day later. Way to manipulate the facts to support your argument, Mr. Stark. Genuinely disappointing.

Oh, the Red Sox have their issues. No doubt about that. They’re counting on Beckett and, especially, Mike Lowell to be healthy. They need Jacoby Ellsbury to be a force, now that he has the center field job full-time. 

They need Julio Lugo or Jed Lowrie to stabilize their shortstop roller coaster. And “if David Ortiz isn’t David Ortiz,” said one scout, “then all bets are off.”

Blasphemy. The Red Sox have no issues. They improved upon perfection by signing four players recovering from serious injuries, two of which are old. Silence thyself.

Nevertheless, unless all of the above goes wrong, the Red Sox are a team where — unlike many of the teams around them — all the pieces seem to fit.

Let me get this straight. If Beckett returns to form, Lowell is healthy and productive at 35 years old, Ellsbury improves upon his .330 OBP, Lugo or Lowrie performs well, Ortiz is effective after a serious wrist injury, Smoltz’s arm doesn’t fall off, Penny isn’t terrible, Saito’s elbow remains attached, and Baldelli’s mitochondria don’t explode, then “all the pieces seem to fit.”

That’s what I’m reading, right? I mean, I’m not making that up and altering the argument so that I can get irritated, right? I swear I’m reading that, if about ten different things go right, the Red Sox will be good. You can say that about literally any team in baseball. Look, I’m going to do it about the Toronto Blue Jays right now, and I’m not even a professional.

If Roy Halladay can stay healthy after seven seasons of heavy workloads, Jesse Litsch can continue to defy his low strikeout and high home run rates, David Purcey’s ERA drops to match his peripherals, Casey Janssen returns from labrum surgery and pitches effectively as a starter, BJ Ryan rebounds from yet another surgery, the bullpen repeats 2008’s amazing performance, Dustin McGowan and Brett Cecil provide second half rotation boosts, Vernon Wells can stay healthy, Scott Rolen can piece together one more durable season, and Travis Snider has a monster year at age 21, then the Blue Jays will be good. See? Not that hard, and certainly not that insightful.

This column offers nothing beyond the obvious. Stark and his assortment of anonymous scouts seem to think that if all sorts of risky and low-cost moves work out, and a bunch of other pre-existing problems resolve themselves, the Red Sox will be good. They also seem to think that their additions are superior to the Yankees’, ostensibly solely because they were cheaper. On one hand, it is awfully logical to say that the Red Sox’ additions are useful because it could push them from 95 wins to 97, which is quite a marginal increase. But that’s not what the column says. The column says that the Red Sox – based on pure talent added for the forthcoming 2009 season – may well have outmaneuvered the Yankees. That’s crazy.

You can find a lot of people who would rather have the players on the 2009 Red Sox over those on the 2009 Yankees. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would rather have Smoltz, Penny, Saito and Baldelli in 2009 than Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett. There’s a big difference.

 



 

 


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