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How Sox, Yankees match up in winter ball

Despite significant offseason moves by the Red Sox, the popular sentiment among national prognosticators is that the Yankees are still the team to beat. They say it has nothing to do with the Sox' inability to pull off the Alex Rodriguez-for-Manny Ramirez deal with the Texas Rangers. That deal -- which also would have produced the trade of Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for outfielder Magglio Ordonez -- wouldn't have been a significant upgrade from the status quo.

 

While that may be a valid point, the one move that might shift the balance of power Boston's way is the signing of closer Keith Foulke.

You could make a case that the Yankees' acquisition of Javier Vazquez from Montreal and Kevin Brown from the Dodgers make up for the loss of Andy Pettitte (Houston) and Roger Clemens (retired), and matches the Sox' signing of Curt Schilling.

You could certainly surmise that Gary Sheffield puts some pop into the Yankee lineup, and he should offer protection for other hitters.

You could argue that veteran Kenny Lofton will give New York a decent center fielder and leadoff hitter with speed, and allow Alfonso Soriano to hit lower in the lineup to take advantage of his power and speed (and take some of the pressure off him).

You can say adding Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill gives New York a formidable set-up combination leading into Mariano Rivera. The bullpen had been a sore spot last season.

But the one spot the Red Sox could never match the Yankees is at closer.

Say what you will about Grady Little's decision to stay with Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Disagree with or defend the move if you like, but if Rivera were in the Sox bullpen, Little would have made the change. It does not matter that Scott Williamson or Mike Timlin had pitched well. The Sox' action this offseason is proof that they do not have faith in Williamson as their closer.

Foulke will provide a dramatic improvement in a Red Sox team that came within five outs of reaching the World Series.

A-Rod or no A-Rod, the Sox are balanced on offense, and have solid starting pitching, relief pitching, and defense.

But debating this "who's best in the East?" without including the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays would be narrow-minded. Though the division is perceived as a two-team race, the Orioles -- who have added former AL MVP Miguel Tejada and 40-homer catcher Javy Lopez, with Vladimir Guerrero on the back burner -- have to be considered a contender, though their pitching might be a year away. The Blue Jays, who have made subtle changes, adding veteran pitching to go along with a run-producing lineup, should provide competition much longer into the season than they did the past two years.

For the moment we'll leave out the maturing Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Before the New Year, we'll break down the Yankees and Red Sox. Let the arguments begin.

Starters

Curt Schilling basically replaces John Burkett for Boston. The veteran ace, acquired from Arizona, is No. 1 or 1A with Pedro Martinez. Now the Red Sox have three guys who have won 20 games (Derek Lowe being the other), a fourth guy in Tim Wakefield who has gone through stretches in his career when he's carried a pitching staff, and competition for the fifth spot between Byung Hyun Kim and Bronson Arroyo.

Kim could always go back to the pen if there's an injury, as could Wakefield or Lowe.

Martinez, who will play with $17.5 million weighing down his pockets, will either be pitching with a clear mind or with the purpose of escaping Boston next season. Either way, the Sox are bound to get his best. Martinez's fragile right shoulder and Schilling's age (37) will be issues to keep in mind as the season unfolds, but is there a better 1-2 in baseball?

Compare this with the Yankees.

Martinez over Mike Mussina? Mussina won 17 to Martinez's 14 last season, but Pedro gets the edge if there are no health concerns. Mussina is a terrific pitcher with great stuff, but he's no Martinez.

Schilling and Javier Vazquez? Schilling would get the edge for his experience and accomplishments. Except for Schilling's brief stint in Baltimore, neither one has pitched in the AL, where the DH and overall better hitting changes ERAs, sometimes dramatically. Certainly, if you're building a team, Vazquez would be the guy, as he's entering the prime of his career. But he'll have added pressure going from playing some home games in San Juan (with the Expos) to the Bronx. Slight difference.

Lowe vs. Kevin Brown? Lowe racks up a lot of wins with his sinker and Brown can be dominating when healthy. Brown, who has been plagued by back trouble, is 39 years old and pitched 211 innings last season. But if anyone can bring AL hitters to their knees, it's Brown. This is a tossup.

Wakefield vs. Jose Contreras: Are there two guys who are so opposite? One is a knuckleballer, the other throws everything hard. Contreras has nasty stuff. The Yankees will have to determine with Contreras precisely what the Red Sox had to determine two years ago with Lowe: Is he better as a starter or a reliever? Contreras also had injury concerns last season, spoiling his debut with the Yankees after they outbid the Red Sox for his services. Wakefield is proven; Contreras isn't. And who believes his birth certificate?

The fifth starters could be the tiebreaker. Jon Lieber won 20 games for the Cubs in 2001 but missed all of last season with injuries. David Wells, a 15-game winner, will be coming off back surgery when he re-signs with the Yankees, but he gives manager Joe Torre a nice insurance policy and a lefty starter, something the Sox don't have. Are they better than Kim or Arroyo?

Bullpen

OK, Kevin Foulke isn't Mariano Rivera, but this is as close as it's ever been. Like Rivera, Foulke can give you two- or three-inning saves if he has to. How long Rivera can stay dominant is always a concern. And now Foulke must flourish in the Boston pressure-cooker.

The Yankees have acquired strength in the set-up roles with Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill to go along with the comebacking Steve Karsay. That's a solid righthanded setup trio, with Gabe White and Felix Heredia from the left side. Mike Timlin (1.43 ERA at home; 5.90 on the road) and Scott Williamson (if he's still with the Sox) have a chance to be top set-up guys. Alan Embree is also proven.

Catcher

Go back to the days of Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk, and there was the same debate as the one with Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek. It's a pick 'em, as are the backups -- John Flaherty (New York) and Doug Mirabelli (Boston). Varitek is entering the final year of his contract.

Infield

It's clear the Sox have improved their middle-infield defense with the signing of two-time Gold Glover Pokey Reese. He's not Ryne Sandberg or Lou Whitaker at the plate (he's not even Todd Walker), but he can turn the double play. Give Sox general manager Theo Epstein kudos; while he built one of the greatest offensive lineups in baseball history last season, defense was forgotten. Not this time.

The Yankees have defensive concerns, save for third baseman Aaron Boone. Alfonso Soriano, for now, is still the second baseman. There's no way the Sox can match his 38 home runs and 35 steals, but they've overtaken the Yankees at second on defense.

There's also concern among the Yankee baseball men that shortstop Derek Jeter loses a little more range every year, and with Jason Giambi likely to play first base, the pitching staff has to feel uneasy.

Sox third baseman Bill Mueller is the reigning AL batting champion and can nearly match Boone defensively. Will there be a dropoff by Mueller at the plate?

There's concern that Nomar Garciaparra, who struggled mightily in September and the postseason, has not been the same since his wrist injury. Still, Garciaparra-Jeter will be a tossup until one player falls off dramatically.

Neither Kevin Millar nor Giambi is a top-fielding first baseman. Millar had a superb season at the plate in 2003, but if healthy, Giambi (41 homers) is a force.

DH

David Ortiz will have to prove last season wasn't an aberration -- that he's coming into his prime. Who will fill this role for New York remains up in the air, but it's looking more and more as if it will be Bernie Williams, a clutch hitter. The Sox could use another righthanded hitter.

Outfield

In Gary Sheffield, the Yankees have an offensive answer for Manny Ramirez. Trot Nixon and Hideki Matsui are also close in ability, and the two center fielders -- Johnny Damon and Kenny Lofton -- are comparable, as well.

Manager

The Yankees' Joe Torre and the Red Sox' Terry Francona are at different ends of the spectrum. Torre is likely a lame duck. He lost his bench coach, Don Zimmer, because Zimmer had enough of owner George Steinbrenner's antics. Torre has lost Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, two players he enjoyed managing. He has indicated he will open up the center field job between Lofton and Williams, a tough decision for Torre, who has been very loyal to Williams, who was slowed with knee problems last season.

Francona has to come in and not only learn the landscape and mend fences, but he also has to establish himself. He's already been working on the Millar-Garciaparra flap, after Millar inserted his foot in his mouth when he said he'd take Rodriguez at a time when the A-Rod deal seemed ready to be made.

Francona also has to deal with the probability that the record-setting lineup of a year ago may fall off, and potential contract rumblings from Garciaparra, Lowe, Martinez, Varitek, Nixon, etc., all of whom might be in their final contract seasons.

Owners

Steinbrenner was being Steinbrenner this offseason, as he -- not GM Brian Cashman -- made the majority of the team's moves. Sox owner John Henry was also extremely hands-on. From the work he did in the Schilling courtship to negotiating with Texas owner Tom Hicks, to meeting with Rodriguez, Henry has been working hard. Steinbrenner has rings, forever squashing his biggest rival, but he's beginning to feel threatened that the Sox are making major moves to end their since-1918 drought. Henry, a former Yankees limited partner, owns a team in a city where he feels he has to bring a championship to make the $700 million investment worth it. Judging by Henry's actions, he's going for it.

Intangibles

For the most part, the Red Sox have good chemistry, while the Yankees have brought in chemistry-challenged players, including Brown, Sheffield, and Lofton. Zimmer's loss should not be underestimated, and the uneasiness in the front office between Cashman and Steinbrenner could trickle down to the field.

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