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In second halves, Sox have had a lock on second place

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 15, 2011 09:24 AM

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What we know now is what we suspected then, namely that the Red Sox and the Yankees are the two best teams in the American League coming out of the All-Star break. And with the teams tied in the loss column entering the start of the second half, those who believe in the value of history would undoubtedly note that New York has been the far better team down the stretch in recent years.

This year, the Red Sox might be able to get away with finishing second again and suffer no major penalty.

But beginning next season, the AL East championship could carry far greater value.

As much as anything else, this puts some of the focus on the trading deadline and, by definition, on the ownership, management and general managers of the two teams. Make of this what you will, but since Theo Epstein took over as general manager in the fall of 2002, the Red Sox have the best record of any major league team prior to the All-Star break. Counting this season, the Sox have an overall winning percentage of .592 during that time, a figure that translates into a 96-win pace.

The bad news? The Sox have won just one division during that span, that coming in 2007, when the Sox won their second world title of the John Henry ownership era. While the Sox rank fourth in winning percentage after the All-Star break under Epstein – a 91-win pace – the New York Yankees are the runaway major league leaders. The Yankees have played the second half at a .623 clip over the last eight years, a 101-win pace that easily outdistances any other team, including the Red Sox.

Translation: since the start of the 2003 season, the Yankees have outplayed the Red Sox in the second half by a margin that would produce a 10-game difference in the standings over a full season.

Between superpowers, especially, that’s a big gap.

Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of how the historic rivals have performed during the second half since Epstein became general manager:

Year Red Sox Yankees Diff
2003 40-29 44-25 -4
2004 50-26 46-30 +4
2005 46-29 49-27 -2.5
2006 33-43 47-29 -14
2007 43-32 51-25 -7.5
2008 38-27 39-28 even
2009 41-33 52-22 -11
2010 38-36 39-35 -1

Of course, during that span, the Red Sox have won two World Series titles while the Yankees have won one, which speaks to the relative meaninglessness of division titles during the wild card era. In the last nine years, of the 18 teams who have advanced to the World Series, seven have been wild card teams. Given that wild card teams have comprised 25 percent of the playoff field in any given year, the fact that they have accounted for nearly 39 percent of all World Series participants is beyond notable.

Now here’s the problem: beginning next season, as we have been led to believe, baseball will add a second wild card team in each league. As such there will be an extra round of the playoffs. For a team like, say, the Red Sox, this means the Sox will have to win three rounds instead of two, and that is before we even delve into the area of what an additional series will do to a team’s starting rotation.

For example, if the Red Sox were to win the first round in, say, two games – we’re assuming a three-game series – would the team’s No. 1 starter be able to pitch in Game 1 of the next round? Lest anyone forget, the Los Angeles Angels had to play for their playoff lives on the final weekend of the 2004 season. As a result, staff ace Bartolo Colon could not pitch Game 1 against the Red Sox, who promptly rolled to a 9-3 win behind Curt Schilling. Colon pitched Game 2 and took a 3-1 lead into the sixth inning before the Sox rallied for another win, an 8-3 decision that was a 4-3 game entering the ninth.

You get the drift. Baseball is headed for a playoff structure that is far more like the current postseason format in the NFL, where a first-round bye makes a big difference. And in baseball, you will need to win the division to get the bye.

All of this brings us back to Epstein and counterpart Brian Cashman, the latter of whom is in the final year of his contract. Regardless of whom the Yankees have as their general manager, New York has a history of making moves at the deadline. Aaron Boone, for instance, was a deadline pickup in 2003. (Ouch.) And while people like Esteban Loaiza, Shawn Chacon, Al Leiter, Bobby Abreu, Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, Eric Hinske, Jerry Hairston, Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood joined the Yankees with varying degrees of success (or failure), the point remains the same.

The Yankees almost certainly aren’t going to stand pat.

Historically, to their credit, Red Sox officials, too, have been active at the deadline. In 2002, prior to Epstein’s ascension as general manager, the Sox got Cliff Floyd. Byung-Hyun Kim and Scott Williamson were in-season acquisitions in 2003. Dave Roberts and Orlando Cabrera came in 2004. Tony Graffanino, Bobby Kielty, Eric Gagne, Jason Bay, Victor Martinez and Billy Wagner, among others, have been among Epstein’s acquisitions before July 31 or August 31 in recent years. Some have worked and some haven’t.

It is worth noting that in the two years the Red Sox have missed the playoffs under Epstein – 2006 and 2010 – the Sox essentially made no substantive moves during the season. Whether that was a cause or an effect is a chicken-or-the-egg argument that we almost certainly will debate to no resolution.

Recently, there were whispers that the Red Sox may not be willing to further invest in this team at the deadline this year, a notion Epstein seemingly dispelled. Time will certainly tell. It is difficult to imagine the Red Sox investing roughly $180 million in a team and then standing by to watch, but the degree of acquisition this season certainly may be affected. As a result, the American League East might very well be decided in the next several weeks, up to the August 31 waiver deadline that would allow a player to be eligible for the postseason.

This year, if the Red Sox lose out to the Yankees in the second half, the cost would be relatively minimal. Instead of facing Detroit or, say, Cleveland in the first round, the Sox would face Texas as the wild card team. That is a big difference. Just the same, big-picture thinkers would point out that you aren’t going to get to the World Series without beating somebody, so you could certainly argue that the playoffs are currently a pay now-or-pay later proposition.

Next year, however, that all changes. The wild card will mean more games, more opportunities to lose, more chances to have your pitching staff in disarray. And if the Red Sox are going to win divisions instead of wild card berths, now might be a good time to start.

By winning the second half.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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