Wishful thinking, right? The Yankees, of course, when they're clicking, are the best team in the game, as they proved by posting the best record in baseball during the 2009 regular season, then winning the World Series. The thing about the '09 Yanks though...they were really, really lucky. I know, I know, there's no such thing as a "lucky" two-hundred-million-dollar team. The Steinbrenners paid handsomely for every one of those 114 wins and every one of those pretty rings which now adorn the private showrooms of their exclusive cast of aspiring billionaires. Fair enough.
What I'd like to point out, however, is that of none of the Yankees starting nine in '09 missed a significant stretch of time. Sure, A-Rod had the whole flexible hip thing (remember that?) which cost him April, but he still got 535 plate appearances and his annual 30 HR and 100 RBI. Jorge Posada missed a couple weeks midsummer, but he still got into more than twice as many games as he did in 2008. And the remainder of the starting seven all played at least 142 games. Even more importantly, four Yankee pitchers made 30+ starts. So, I'd like you to guess, how many franchises had eight players get 500+ plate appearances and four pitchers make 30+ starts in '09?
That's right, one and only one: the New York Yankees.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, got basically nothing from Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Smoltz, both of whom were supposed to be big contributors to their rotation, and Tim Wakefield missed most of the second half. The lost their starting shortstop, Jed Lowrie, for basically the whole season and got a significantly reduced effort from their starting third-baseman, Mike Lowell, whose hip injury limited him to a hobbled 434 at-bats. J.D. Drew, predictably, and Kevin Youkilis, unpredictably, also missed a few weeks apiece. And the Red Sox still managed to win 95 games.
So, imagine for a moment that New York had some similarly bad luck. Say, they lost A. J. Burnett for the season and Joba Chamberlain for half the season, as well as Melky Cabrera, and A-Rod didn't make it back until June, and even at that point, he was only half-strength. Would they have managed 95 wins? 90?
Are you willing to bet that they can repeat their clean bill of health?
If you're not, I don't think you should bet on them repeating anything else either. Obviously, I'd love to have New York's Opening Day lineup. I like it even a little more than Boston's. What I don't like is the fact that they don't have even a smidgeon of a back-up plan. Tell me, Yankee fans, who is your back-up middle infielder? Are you comfortable with him playing 120 games? Who are your sixth and seventh options at starting pitcher? Would you be content with them starting 10-15 games apiece?
Red Sox fans have much more affirmative answers to such questions, which is why I'm picking the BoSox to surge back to the top of the AL East. People have been noting Theo Epstein's emphasis on defense this offseason, but I'm far more impressed with his emphasis on depth. The Red Sox have multiple more-than-competent options at every single position on the field. If everybody stays healthy, their rotation is quite possibly the best in baseball. However, even if they were to lose a couple from their starting five, Tim Wakefield, Michael Bowden, and Boof Bonser are all very likable "sixth starters." Far preferable to, say, Chad Gaudin, Kei Igawa, and Chan Ho Park.
Yankees fans will tell you that if they do run into injury problems, the team will just go out and "buy" a replacement player. This is not as easy midseason as it is during the winter, especially since the Yankees farm system was significantly depleted in the Granderson and Vazquez trades. Would the Yankees be willing to give up Jesus Montero for a half-season rent-a-bat? If so, they could create more long-term problems, something Brian Cashman has promised to avoid in the "new era" of Yankee baseball.
Obviously, it won't surprise me if the Yankees are in the hunt for October. What would surprise me is if the their path to the postseason is as clean-cut as it was in 2009. The Red Sox are not all that stand in the way. The Rays were a bit of a disappointment last year. Their run differential alone suggest they should've won at least a couple more games. They managed to be an 84-win team in the toughest division in baseball despite the fact that several players on their roster had down years (Upton, Price, Pena, Burrell, Shields, etc.). The Rays didn't lose anybody of significance this offseason and they've got another crop of solid young players rising through the system (Wade Davis, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, etc.). 90-95 wins are a real possibility.
Baltimore, as many have observed, is no longer a patsy. They are still at least a year or two away from having a serious shot at contention, but on the days they get strong performances from their young starting pitchers they will make the big boys very uncomfortable.
Oh yeah, and remember last March when everybody was predicting that David Price, Matt Wieters, and Travis Snider were going to be like the best thing since sliced bread? This year they actually will be.
Projected Standings (That's right, I'm predicting it takes a 163rd game, started by C.C. "the Big Sleep" Sabathia, to separate New York from Tampa Bay):
Boston Red Sox 96-66
New York Yankees 92-71
Tampa Bay Rays 91-72
Baltimore Orioles 76-86
Toronto Blue Jays 60-102
M.V.P. Candidate: Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox
Cy Contender: C.C. Sabathia, Yankees
Rookie of the Year: Brett Wallace, Blue Jays
Breakout Candidates: David Price (Rays); Matt Wieters (Orioles); Travis Snider (Blue Jays); Jed Lowrie (Red Sox); Brett Cecil (Blue Jays); Dustin McGowan (Blue Jays); Jeremy Hermida (Red Sox); Kyle Drabek (Blue Jays); Felix Pie (Orioles); Troy Patton (Orioles)