New faces abound as new era dawns for Red Sox and Yankees
NEW YORK -- The new, depreciated state of baseball's most storied rivalry has been building for a while, through free-agent departures, disabled-list placements and veterans' birthdays, but it seemed to arrive with trumpet-blaring fanfare as the starting lineups for the Red Sox and Yankees were introduced early Monday afternoon on Opening Day in the Bronx.
Four of the Yankees' nine regulars, including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, are on the disabled list; the Red Sox, losers of 93 games last season but 8-2 winners on Monday, are without injured icon David Ortiz.
As a result, the Yankees, whose age and injury issues were spoofed on the cover of The New Yorker, fielded an Opening Day lineup that, among other transgressions, featured Vernon Wells and Ben Francisco batting fifth and sixth, respectively, and in pregame ceremonies the club didn't announce Rodriguez at all, apparently to shield him from a cavalcade of boos.
So never mind that a clean-shaven Kevin Youkilis was batting clean-up in a pinstriped uniform (or that Manny Ramirez is playing in Taiwan, of all places), this isn't your older sibling's rivalry. Indeed, playoff contention is not longer a foregone conclusion for these clubs, which barely resemble the teams they were just a few years ago. The absences of Jeter, Rodriguez and Ortiz meant that only one player -- Yankees closer Mariano Rivera -- was active for Monday's opener who took part in the 2004 ALCS, the last postseason clash between these archrivals. One reminder of how much things have changed came from New York's 2003 ALCS Game 7 hero, Aaron Boone, now a broadcaster, who could be seen on a television in the Red Sox clubhouse before first pitch proclaiming the American League East to be "the Blue Jays' division to lose."
The cold reality for Boston and New York that will persist long beyond these Opening Day oddities is that there's a much better chance they'll finish fourth and fifth in the division than first and second. If that happens, the Sox and Yankees, who combined for 15 American League East titles, nine pennants and six World Series championships in the last 17 years, would both miss the playoffs in the same year for the first time since 1993.
Part of this, of course, is a result of the extraordinary parity across the majors right now, which is especially localized in the AL East. Parity often means mediocrity, but here it more closely means equality. Sure, the Jays and Rays are most pundits' favorites, but this is the rare division where all five ballclubs have a realistic shot at a playoff berth. While the Rays and Blue Jays appear to have taken steps forward this winter and the Orioles return the vast majority of their 93-win wild-card team from last year, none of those three is in position to run away with the division, leaving an opening for the Sox and Yankees to contend.
Both New York and Boston still have considerable talent on their rosters, though it's hard to say which team is in better shape to make a playoff run this season. The Yankees have more elite talent but less depth, especially now; the Red Sox have more promising young players but also have rotation questions and more ground to make up. The Yankees have more glaring weaknesses in the early incarnation of their roster, whereas the Red Sox simply have more skeptics after 2011's horrible collapse and 2012's horrible record.
"We know what we're capable of," centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who went 3-for-6 with two RBIs and a run scored on Monday, said of his team.
The rest of the baseball world is still trying to figure that out, for both clubs. It was hard to shed a lackluster feeling about their prospects after watching Opening Day, when each team's No. 1 starter slogged through just five innings apiece. New York's CC Sabathia needed 102 pitches to get 15 outs while allowing eight hits and four walks, and Boston's Jon Lester used 96 pitches before exiting at the same juncture, yielding two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out seven.
Both teams will depend on their rotations to step forward and cover for lineups that are significantly less fierce than we've grown accustomed to, but even there questions remain. We haven't yet seen whether Boston's Clay Buchholz and John Lackey will rebound or how Ryan Dempster will fare as an AL East resident; the Red Sox' rotation ranked 27th last year with a 5.19 ERA. The Yankees will rely heavily on Hiroki Kuroda (age 38) and Andy Pettitte (40), who are above average though aged, not to mention David Phelps, who pitched in relief on Monday, allowing a run on a hit and two walks in 1 1/3 innings.
One key difference: the Red Sox have more homegrown, major league-ready talent, with three starting position players -- third baseman Will Middlebrooks (15 homers last year), shortstop Jose Iglesias (a slick fielder in place of injured shortstop Stephen Drew) and leftfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (.419 spring average) -- who are in the first two years of their careers. On Monday, Iglesias hit three infield singles; Middlebrooks walked and scored; and Bradley walked three times, scoring two runs and added a great catch in deep left to rob Robinson Cano of an extra-base hit. "A lot of different contributions," Ellsbury said.
The Yankees, meanwhile, have patched holes with the aforementioned Wells and Francisco, not to mention Jayson Nix and Lyle Overbay. On Monday, those four journeymen combined to go 0-for-8 with two walks and a run.
"We have some new faces in the lineup," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "They're going to have the opportunity to step up, and they're going to have to do it. We need them to perform."
Just as the Yankees will need outsized contributions from their older acquisitions, so too will the Red Sox rely on their young players to exceed expectations, as their margins for error continue to shrink.