Now that I’ve baited you with the headline, let me weasel into instant cop-out mode. I’m not ready to proclaim that the Red Sox will be looking down upon the Yankees in the American League East standings once the autumn rolls around.
It’s tempting because the Red Sox, with a sneaky-deep roster and the reasonable expectation that some long-proven veterans will bounce back from their 2012 injuries and struggles, are going to be much better than conventional wisdom suggests.
At the moment, I feel like “much better” means they top out at 87 wins while playing meaningful ballgames deep into September and, with some good fortune that is a couple of years overdue, perhaps into October. At the least, they’ll be decent and likable, a worthwhile and pleasant summer pastime again.
But the Yankees, who won the division, 26 games ahead of the last-place Red Sox, still have a lot going for them, at least on paper and based on past performance. Just not as much as usual.
And there’s the potential — the very real potential — for so much more to go wrong.
Actually, spring training is still in its early days, and much already has gone wrong in Tampa. Phil Hughes, who is being depended upon to finally live up to his potential in the rotation, is having back problems. Curtis Granderson, whose 84 homers the past two seasons are 10 more than anyone else in baseball, is out 10 weeks with a broken forearm. And Kevin Youkilis, the diminished former Sox star who was signed to replace the disgraced husk of Alex Rodriguez, suffered an oblique strain just this morning. It’s barely just begun and already the problems are mounting.
The Yankees have more star power than the Red Sox — start with sensational if occasionally maddening second baseman Robinson Cano and ace lefty CC Sabathia. But some of those other big names no longer have exclamation points at the end of their names, but question marks.
Mariano Rivera is a wonder of the world, but he’s coming off a knee injury that cost him almost all of last season, and he’s the last active player born in the ’60s. He’s nine days younger than me, for pete’s sake, and I’m in tatters. He seems ageless, but trust me, he will feel it one of these years.
Derek Jeter is 39 years old, and while his 2012 season was historically brilliant for a shortstop of that age, he’s returning from a broken ankle that could cost him a step or two he can’t afford to lose. The only shortstops in history to produce in their late 30s and early 40s at the level Jeter did last year are Luke Appling and Honus Wagner, a couple of ancient legends who, if I’m not mistaken, both faced Rivera on a barnstorming tour.
Mark Teixeira isn’t recovering from an injury like Jeter and Rivera, and he’s relatively young by Yankees standards (he turns 33 in April), but since his terrific first season in New York when he led the AL in homers (39), RBIs (122), and total bases (344) in 2009, he’s consistently trended downward, with his on-base percentage, slugging percentages and OPS declining in each of the last three seasons. Don’t tell Mazz, but it’s starting to look like a blessing that he shunned the Sox in the winter of 2008-09.
Perhaps their stars will be rejuvenated and healthy and will carry the Yankees to another postseason berth. It’s reasonable, especially in a division that features five differently structured, fascinating teams that all can stake a claim to being a postseason contender. But they’d better hope that happens, because they’re not getting there any other way.
As Jonah Keri noted in a terrific State of the Yankees address on Grantland Monday, it’s rather amazing how little depth is on this roster. Nick Swisher took his useful bat and look-at-me mannerisms to the bright lights of Cleveland, leaving an outfield of ancient Ichiro Suzuki, Brett Gardner, who missed most of last season with an elbow injury, and … Matt Diaz?
Russell Martin departed for Pittsburgh, leaving some uninspiring combination of Austin Romine, Chris Stewart, and Francisco Cervelli behind the plate. Rafael Soriano took his 42 saves to Washington, replaced by hard-throwing, underachieving tease David Aardsma. They’re hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with perennially damaged Travis Hafner. It’s a wonder they didn’t sign Grady Sizemore too.
There is undeniably a makeshift element to much of the Yankees’ roster, and with little help on the immediate horizon (slider specialist Mike Montgomery is their only young player who may make an immediate impact), if the injuries continue to mount and the older core starts to look like they belong standing next to Yogi at Old Timers’ Day, the floor could fall from under them in a hurry.
It’s hard to imagine that the Yankees could crumble in the calamitous manner the Red Sox did last year — Bobby Valentine isn’t their manager, for starters, and they’re unlikely to match the 1,587 man-games lost to injury that the Sox did a season ago (according to Baseball Prospectus).
But if certain things that could go wrong do go wrong — Jeter and Rivera aren’t the men they used to be, Teixeira continues his odd regression into the modern version of early ’90s Kent Hrbek, and the lack of depth catches up to them — they could find themselves surpassed by the Red Sox, who are unheralded but deep and have the promising likes of Jackie Bradley Jr. just a short bridge away.
Are the Red Sox better than the Yankees? I’m not ready to say so. Not yet. But it’s very close, and this much is certain: With the way the rosters are currently constructed, it’s the Yankees, and not the Red Sox, who have put themselves in a position in which a lot could go wrong, with virtually none of it endurable.