The MLB season officially began last week in Japan, with the Mariners’ extra inning victory over Oakland, but for me it opens Thursday when reigning MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander takes the mound against Jon Lester and the Red Sox. Everywhere I look, the prognosticators state unequivocally that baseball’s best division is the AL East, which I can’t argue with. The same visionaries regard the Yankees as a lock for the playoffs – which I just can’t understand.
As readers of this blog know, I must admit my love for the Pinstripers, though my love expresses itself as pessimism this year. For the purposes of comparing the Rays, Sox and Yankees, I wanted to move around the diamond position by position and try to see what team (if any) stands out.
First Base: Adrian Gonzalez (Red Sox), Mark Teixeira (Yanks), Carlos Pena (Rays). I’m not sure this competition would even have been that close in each player’s prime, but in 2012 Gonzalez wins in a walk. Winner: BOSTON
Second Base: Dustin Pedroia (Bos), Robinson Cano (NYY), Zobrist/Rodriguez/?? (Rays). 2nd base comes down to Pedroia’s all around excellence versus Cano’s monstrous bat. Over the past 3 seasons, the pair have each posted a near identical 16.2 WAR. Cano produced a 314/361/529 triple slash with 82 HRs and 16 of 27 SBs, good for a 130 OPS+. Pedroia (with the caveat that he missed half of 2010) shows 299/377/467 with 55 for 72 on the base paths, good for a 121 OPS+ . Slight advantage to Cano, those his impatience at the plate shows with Pedroia’s superior OBP. In the field there is little comparison – UZR charts Cano as –6.4 over the period, with Pedroia a +31.1. WINNER: BOSTON
Shortstop: Mike Aviles (Bos), Derek Jester (NYY), Sean Rodriguez/Reid Brignac (Rays). Cap’n Jetes may have lost a step, and may struggle to post anything other than bottom dwelling defensive numbers, but I’m still taking him over this motley crew. WINNER: YANKEES.
Third Base: Kevin Youkilis (Bos), Alex Rodriguez (NYY), Evan Longoria (Rays). Kevin Youkilis may be the Greek God of Walks and one of baseball’s most underrated players. Alex Rodriguez is a first ballot hall of famer. Evan Longoria is 27 years old and is the best third baseman in baseball by a large margin. WINNER: RAYS
Left Field: Carl Crawford (Bos), Brett Gardner (NYY), Desmond Jennings (RAYS). Toughest call on the board. Crawford is targeting a late April/early May return following offseason surgery and suffered through a disastrous first year in Boston after 8 stellar years in Tampa. Brett Gardner has proved himself more than a 4th outfielder and defensive replacement (perhaps the best defender at any position in the majors), as he has posted strong OBP and contact rates as an everyday OF. Jennings is the wildcard – after finally getting his chance with Crawford gone, Jennings hit 10 HRs and stole 20 bases in only 63 games in the second half of 2011. In a year this is probably Rays in a walk, but right now Gardner is good enough on defense to make it a toss-up. WINNER: NYY/RAYS
Centerfield: Jacoby Ellsbury (Bos), Curtis Granderson (NYY), BJ Upton (Rays). BJ Upton might be the most talented of the trio, but he’s finally old enough for us to say he is never going to take that leap forward in plate discipline that would step him up into the class of his younger brother, so the competition comes down to Granderson or Ellsbury. Both exploded last year – Granderson, in his 30 year old season, hit 41 bombs in the Bronx, swiped 25 bags and finished 4th in the MVP balloting with a career best 262/364/552 line (394 wOBA). Ellsbury, whose previous career best was 9 HRs, hit 32, swiped 39 bags and posted a 402 wOBA (321/376/552). Over 4000 plate appearances, Granderson owns a career 363 wOBA; over 2250 PAs, Ellsbury’s wOBA is 362. Ellsbury’s defense is superior, but Granderson is solidly above average in the field. Either choice is acceptable – for me, Granderson’s explosion in 2011 against LHPs is not sustainable (In 850 plate appearances prior to 2011, Curtis Granderson hit 20 HRs against left handed pitching. In 219 trips to the dish in 2011, he hit 16. His HR/FB rate, a 13.9% over 3400 plate appearances jumped to 20.5% last season), Ellsbury is younger and better with the glove so he gets the edge. WINNER: BOSTON
Right Field: Ryan Sweeney (Bos), Nick Swisher (NYY), Matt Joyce/Ben Zobrist (Rays). Right field benefits from Joe Maddon’s strength’s as the game’s best manager – Joyce will start against RHPs (career 369 wOBA vLHP) and perhaps some lefties, while Zobrist will likely man RF against LHPs (career 361 wOBA) while moving to 2B against right handers. When Sweeney came to Oakland from Chicago I saw an all-star in the making, but his power never materialized. As sabermetrics have overtaken the baseball world Nick Swisher has developed a new found appreciation despite the low BA and strikeouts, but in the end the Zobrist/Joyce combo is better offensively and defensively. WINNER: RAYS
Catcher: I would list the players here, but why? Russell Martin. Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Kelly Shoppach. Jose Molina. Francisco Cervelli. Gone are the days of Campanella and Berra, Bench and Munson. I refuse to pretend any team is winning behind the plate.
Pitching: Mariano Rivera keeps producing even though his age matches his jersey number, but Tampa rolls out David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and newcomer Matt Moore each time through the rotation. CC Sabathia might be the most reliable starter in the AL East, but Michael Pineda is nursing a shoulder that has his velocity off 3-4 MPH from last year, Phil Hughes is a perpetual question mark, Ivan Nova’s 16 wins mask mediocre peripherals. Jon Lester is an ace and Josh Beckett is battle tested in big games, and perhaps Roy Oswalt will wind up in Fenway in June but nobody can match up with the Rays over 162 games. Barring injury, their starting staff carries the day. WINNER: RAYS.
What does the final tally tell us? As far as I can tell the Yankees are superior at one position – the one manned by their 38 year old captain who wouldn’t be permitted to roam shortstop on most other infields (and Since 1950, exactly 1 player has posted a 3 WAR season playing 75% of his time at SS (Omar Vizquel for the 2006 San Francisco Giants – who posted most of his value with the glove not the bat)). Their starting rotation is in a bit of disarray (and this is not even based on the fact that Freddy Garcia resides in it). Alex Rodriguez played 99 games last year. Their closer is 42. And they play in the toughest division in baseball. In the NL West, the Yanks are a playoff team – but in the AL East, this looks like an 85-87 win club that finishes just ahead of the improving Toronto Blue Jays. They have the financial wherewithal to fill holes at the deadline — but this year the holes are too deep.