Here’s a question: if the Red Sox are performing poorly enough to miss the playoffs, should Yankee fans root for them to make it? Put another way, given that Boston has been 2007 Mets-level bad in September, are there enough flaws there that Yankees fans should root for Boston to beat out Tampa and Los Angeles and make for an easy target, should they squeak by through to the ALCS? Between the Rays and the Sox, who is the weakest link?
The Red Sox case
Boston has a myriad of problems. One problem is the lack of performance they’ve gotten from the corner outfielder slots. Carl Crawford’s first year of his big contract has been a disaster. J.D. Drew has missed time and his replacements haven’t exactly lit up the league. Drew may be back at some point, but it’s clear that the corner outfield spots for Boston currently represent a problem with no easy fix.
The Sox are also suffering through injuries, although not as many as last year. Youkilis has a back injury, a hip injury and a sports hernia. Despite the rain on Friday, Youkilis did some batting off a tee, and Francona indicated that he “still felt it”, which makes sense since the injury will ultimately require surgery. As a result, Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham reported that it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll return at all this year, perhaps as a pinch-hitter at best. Obviously this is a significant blow to the Red Sox. Youkilis is one of their best hitters, and he’s also one of the most potent right-handed hitters in a lineup dominated by lefties. One of those lefties, Adrian Gonzalez, is also hurting. Gonzalez is dealing with a rotator cuff injury that causes him pain every time he swings the bat. It’s also sapped him of his opposite-field power. If you’re keeping track at home, two of the Sox four best hitters (the other two being Pedroia and Ellsbury) are dealing with serious injuries.
There’s also the wilderness that is their rotation. In addition to not paying his child support, Erik Bedard has – surprise! – injury and durability concerns. Meanwhile, John Lackey is just flat terrible. Weiland, Miller and Wakefield all represent last-resort options, the kind of guys you’d want to kick around for the 25th spot on the playoff roster but not pencil in for a Game 3 or Game 4 start. Aceves has been well above-average, but it appears to be too late to switch him to the rotation. Even the front of the rotation, Lester and Beckett, has lost a bit of its shine. For the second year in a row, Lester’s walks are a little higher than what you’d expect from someone with his talent, and his strikeouts have dipped. Beckett’s injury created a bit of uncertainty around him, and while he did rack up the strikeouts in his last outing against Baltimore, he lost his way late in the game and gave up the lead. New York has rotation questions too, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that Boston’s issues are severe and won’t be remedied until this offseason at the earliest.
The Sox are still a decent team. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Gonzalez are exceptional hitters. Papelbon is having a great year, and if Bard regains his form they could have one of the best late game combos in the playoffs. The nature of the playoffs is wild and unpredictable, and a suddenly hot offense backed by a strong Lester and Beckett and closed with Bard and Papelbon could carry the Sox to the World Series. At the same time, it’d be silly to deny that this team has major issues.
The Rays’ Case
The case for the Rays as the weakest link revolves around their average offense and their iffy bullpen. Calling their offense average is entirely just. Their team wRC+ is 100, which defines average. Their lineup is bolstered by the likes of Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist, but there are still weak spots in that lineup. Parenthetically, one has to wonder how much closer the Rays would be to Boston had Manny Ramirez given them 500 at-bats this season.
Their bullpen is also a point of weakness, described to me by R.J. Anderson as Tampa’s “dirty little secret”. It’s simply not as good as it has been in the past. While Farnsworth had been solid for the Rays thus far, he’s dealing with elbow soreness. Set-up man Joel Peralta has been respectable, but behind him are a slew of guys best utilized in platoon matchup scenarios. Plenty of them have serious control issues, meaning that Maddon’s ability to mix and match in the late innings is compromised a bit.
The Rays are strong in their pitching staff. As frontline tandems go, it’s hard to do better than David Price and James Shields. These two would be absolutely frightening in a short series. The Yankees wouldn’t face them until the ALCS, so they’d get a crack at Niemann and Hellickson too, but the fact remains that Price and Shields are two of the best pitchers in baseball. Finally, there’s the Matt Moore factor. He’s likely headed to the bullpen, and a reprise of David Price’s usage in the 2008 playoffs would make the Rays’ end of game crew very tough, especially if they get Kyle Farnsworth back at full strength. He’s certainly the X factor.
So which team is a more formidable opponent, and for which team should the Yankee fans be rooting to make the playoffs? It’s a matter of preference. Personally, even granting all of Boston’s issues and the fact that they’re an average at best team right now, I’d like them out as soon as possible. Doesn’t the prospect of three games in Boston in October in the ALCS, with the pennant on the line, make you want to reach for a bottle of Pepto? The Rays may be just as good as Boston right now, even better. But as Moshe Mandel said to me the other day, they may be just close enough that it’d be nice to see the Sox complete this collapse and miss the playoffs altogether. No Big Papi heroics and Sweet Caroline for me, thank you very much.