Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York had a chance to sit down with Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira the other day. Despite all of the naysayers, Teixeira tells Marchand not to count the Yankees out.
“We’re the underdogs this year,” Teixeira said. “I love it. No one is picking us right now. Everyone in here should be looking forward to winning a championship. When you put on the pinstripes that is exactly what your goal should be every year. I think everyone understands that just because the public may not be picking us it doesn’t mean we don’t believe it in here.”
While it might seem completely crazy to call a team that boasts a $200M payroll an underdog, the description fits. By a show of hands (Please don’t raise your hand. You’re sitting at a computer, and I can’t see you), who really thinks the Yankees have a chance to make the playoffs this year? Seriously. If you said yes, you’re in the minority. I’m right their with you, but you’re definitely in the minority.
It’s true. The Red Sox offseason was tremendous. They pulled the trigger on a trade that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston; came out of nowhere to sign an incredibly talented and valuable left fielder in Carl Crawford; and added much needed depth to their bullpen by adding Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler to their middle relief core. All-in-all, the 2010-2011 offseason was one of their most productive in recent memory.
The Yankees, on the other hand, had an offseason filled with controversy and missed opportunities. The Derek Jeter negotiations became public, messy, and personal; Mo Rivera nearly signed with the Red Sox; Cliff Lee, their number one free agent target, signed with the Phillies; Rafael Soriano signed with the Yankees despite Brian Cashman’s insistence he wasn’t interested in giving up his first round draft pick to sign the former closer; lefty stalwart Andy Pettitte retired; and two “has beens” (Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon) were signed to compete for the number four and five slots in the rotation. To say their offseason didn’t go as planned is an understatement of mass proportions.
Still, Teixeria’s comments got me thinking. Is it fair to assume that the Red Sox are both the favorites for the AL East (the MLB spread moneyline favors the Red Sox at -150) and a lock for the playoffs, while the Yankees are destined to be on the outside looking in? I’m not so sure it is.
When most people talk about the impact Crawford, Gonzalez, Jenks, and Wheeler will have on the Red Sox 2011 win total, they rarely discuss the affect of losing Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. Why is this important? Just as the incoming players have value, so do the outgoing players. Last season, Beltre and Martinez were two of the Red Sox most valuable players combining for a 10.9 wins above the replacement level (WAR). Gonzalez and Crawford, on the other hand, project to be worth 5.5 and 5.4 WAR (or 10.9 WAR) respectively. (These projections were done using a three year weighted WAR calculation.) Essentially, if the projections hold, Beltre/Martinez for Gonzalez/Crawford is an even swap.* Therefore, we shouldn’t expect a measurable increase in the Red Sox 89 win total from the Crawford and Gonzalez acquisitions alone.
* It’s important to note that the Beltre/Martinez combo is unlikely to repeat their 10.9 WAR performance in 2011. Still, when we compare Beltre/Martinez’s actual performance to Gonzalez/Crawford’s projected performance, it’s a wash.
What about Jenks and Wheeler, the men tasked with replacing the Ramirez/Delcarmen/Bowden/Schoenoeweis replacement level monster? Surely, they have to be an upgrade, right? While Jenks and Wheeler have the reputation of being quality relief pitchers, they don’t project to be significantly better than the above named “replacement level monster.” In 2011, Jenks and Wheeler project to provide 1.1 and 0.1 WAR (1.2 WAR combined) in value respectively. The “replacement level monster,” on the other hand, cost the Red Sox -0.5 WAR in 2010. While 1.7 WAR is certainly a sizable improvement in performance, one could still logically question the wisdom behind spending $9M on for a relatively small marginal value. Still, the marginal value is meaningful, and theoretically bumps the Red Sox theoretical win total from 89 to 91.
By this point, you’re probably thinking, “Are you serious, Chip? Do you really only expect the Red Sox to win only 91 games this season?” No. I’m just pointing out that we can’t make too many assumptions about the Red Sox win total just because they’ve made some “upgrades”. Those upgrades, in particular Crawford and Gonzalez, are long-term upgrades, not short-term. Therefore, we need to view their impact through the appropriate lens. If the Red Sox are going to see an increase in their win total from 2010 to 2011, those additional wins likely come from Youkilis, Pedroia, Beckett, Ellsbury, and Cameron, who should be healthy enough to provide value for a full season. After accounting for both the additional 9-11 WAR those five players should provide, along with typical age related performance regression, the Red Sox are a solid bet to win 95-98 games in 2011 with a very good shot at winning the division title.
What about the Yankees? The Yankees are bringing back essentially the same team in 2011 as they had in 2010. Offensively, they’ve added Russell Martin, which moves Posada to DH. Once you account for the value that Posada loses from moving from C to DH, and the value Cervelli loses due to a reduction in playing time, Martin’s acquisition ends up being a wash in terms of value. Elsewhere on the diamond, Teixeira projects to regain the 1.0-1.5 WAR in value he lost last year due to poor luck on balls in play, while Gardner projects to lose the same amount of value due to defensive and BABIP regression.
As for the starting pitching staff, while the Yankees will lose the 2.2 WAR provided by Pettitte and Vazquez, they should be able to make up the difference (plus an additional 1-2 extra wins) from whomever pitches out of the four and five slots. In the bullpen, Soriano’s addition will not only add depth to the bullpen, but also should add at least one marginal win over his predecessor, Kerry Wood. Considering the volatility in relief pitcher performance, that projection might be a bit on the high side, but it’s one I think is fair. After accounting for age related regression, the Yankees look like a solid bet for 93-96 wins and at least a Wild Card berth.*
* Just imagine if the Yankees had signed Cliff Lee. With Lee projected to be worth around 6 WAR this season, we could have been talking about the Yankees being projected to be a 97-99 win team. Luckily for us, he signed with the Phillies.
Recent projections by Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA show a very tight race between the Red Sox and Yankees with the Red Sox winning 92 games, and the Yankees winning 91. The recent CAIRO projections have the gap between Red Sox and Yankees being a little wider with the Red Sox winning 96 games on average and the Yankees winning 92. As for the data coming out of both projection systems, it’s important to note that it’s still early, and there could still be movement between now and opening day. Still, we’re unlikely to see any earth shattering changes in the mean time.
As you can see, it’s not a foregone conclusion the Yankees will miss the playoffs. In fact, the Yankees have a team that’s capable of not only making the playoffs, but also winning the World Series. They might not be optimally built for a run deep into the playoffs right now, but they have incredibly deep pockets that aid them in acquiring a big name talent at the July 31st trading deadline. That’s why you can never count them out. Being optimistic about the Red Sox’s chances to take down the Yankees is a great thing, but don’t let that cloud your view on reality.