Rivals in Exile: Play Ball

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both–whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

Ben Jacobs: So, tomorrow’s the big day. Are you going to get up early (or stay up late) to see your Yankees get the season started?

I mentioned at work the other day that I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d try to be awake to watch the game and one of my co-workers said, “Why would you? Are you a glutton for punishment?”

While it’s true that the Yankees will probably win, I wouldn’t be watching the game in the hopes that they lose (although it would be nice). I’d be watching because it’s been five months since a meaningful game’s been played, and I’m ready to watch a baseball game that counts in the standings, even if it means having to listen to Michael Kay at five in the morning.

I’m somewhat torn on the subject of baseball starting the season half a world away. On the one hand, it helps increase worldwide interest in the sport. On the other hand, it means local fans can’t attend their team’s first “home” game and the game is played at an awful time and all the traveling isn’t really fair to the teams involved. Actually, that last part should go in the pro column as far as I’m concerned.

After their trip to Japan in 2000, the Mets lost five of their next seven games and the Cubs lost five of their next six games. If the same thing happens to the Yankees, I certainly won’t complain.

Anyway, since I can’t decide which of those is more important, I’ll say that I’m in favor of it for one reason – the season starts a week earlier.

Instead of spending the next week talking about the end of Spring Training, everybody can talk about the first two games of the season and how good or bad the Yankees looked upon unveiling their revamped winning machine.

The snow is finally off the ground in Rochester, and I’m ready for some baseball.

Larry Mahnken: Don’t get too excited about the snow being gone, Ben. This is Rochester, it could snow any day now.

I don’t think that we can necessarily tell whether or not the Yankees will suffer when they come back from Japan. There’s the sample size issue for starters (not to mention that the Cubs finished last anyway, and playing the top two teams in the NL Central coming back from Japan), but the Yankees also have a longer layoff when they come back than the Mets and Cubs did. There’s an exhibition game on Saturday against the Tigers, but they don’t play a real game until six days after the second one in Japan.

Not to mention that their first two back are against the Devil Rays. Coming back from Japan ain’t gonna be a problem.

As for me, I’ve got no problem with the five a.m. start – I’ve got to get up that early on Thursday to go make bagels, the only question is whether I go to bed early or stay up all night playing Final Fantasy XI.

What does temper my enthusiasm is the matchup itself. The attraction is the venue, not the matchup, because the expectation going in is that the Yankees are going to roll over the Devil Rays. Sure, the Rays might win, but I don’t think I’d be too excited by that.

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I’m excited because it’s Opening Day, and it’s finally time for real baseball. But I’ll be more excited when they play the Sox in a few weeks.

Speaking of those losers, it occurs to me that they’re facing the same situation the Yankees did going into last season: the impending free agency of key players. The Yankees lost three of their starting pitchers last season, while two of Boston’s top three starters are eligible this offseason. But what’s more, their starting shortstop, catcher, first baseman, second baseman and top setup reliever are all free agents, and their starting third baseman has a team option coming up, as do two other top relievers.

It’s not the doomsday scenario some want it to be and the Red Sox will retool rather than rebuild, but the potential for massive turnover is there, perhaps as extreme as what we saw in The Bronx this offseason. Except the Red Sox have a budget.

Boston’s not going to fade any time soon, but this might be their best chance to win it all for a while. They’ll keep some, perhaps most of their free agents, but some have to go. Who do you think should go and stay, and who do you think will go and stay?

BJ: Jeez, it’s finally time for the 2004 season to start and now you want me to think about the 2004 off-season? Alright, I’ll play along. First, let’s make a couple of assumptions, hopefully reasonable ones.

First, let’s assume the Red Sox want to keep their payroll, at least for salary cap purposes, in the $110-120 million range. Second, let’s assume something about two of the options. Kevin Millar‘s option becomes guaranteed if he has 800 plate appearances over the first two years of his deal, and he had 618 plate appearances last year. Alan Embree‘s option becomes guaranteed if he makes at least 50 appearances, which he’s done in seven consecutive seasons. So, let’s assume both of those options become guaranteed years.

That gives the Red Sox 10 players on their 25-man roster under contract for 2005 for approximately $70 million (thanks to Dugout Dollars for much of the contract information). So, the question is how they want to spend the remaining $40-50 million on the final 15 players.

The two big free agents are obviously Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra. I think the Red Sox should re-sign both players and I think they ultimately will re-sign both players.

If I had to guess contract specifics, I’d say Martinez will sign for three years at $14 million per season and Garciaparra will sign for four years at $14 million per season. Either or both players may also get some sort of option that could become guaranteed.

Assuming that’s what happens, it would put the Red Sox payroll around $98 million for 12 players. The next decision, then, becomes very easy. Boston does not bring back Derek Lowe.

I like Lowe. I think he’s a good pitcher who’s been a great value for the Red Sox over the last six years. However, next year is when he’ll finally be able to get paid what he’s worth (or more than that) and the Red Sox won’t need to keep him at that price. With a rotation of Martinez, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Byung-Hyun Kim and Bronson Arroyo, Boston should be in pretty good shape.

Next, we need to consider Jason Varitek and David Ortiz. The Red Sox probably cannot keep both players and may not even be able to keep one.

If Kelly Shoppach is as good in Pawtucket this year as he has been in the minor leagues the last two seasons, the Red Sox may decide they can let Varitek leave and go with Shoppach next year. Ideally, though, they’d probably like to sign Varitek to a two-year deal and have Shoppach back him up starting next year with the idea of taking over as the starter in 2007.

Ortiz seems likely to be gone to me. Maybe if the Red Sox weren’t going to be tied to Millar’s option, they could keep Ortiz and find a bargain first baseman. Instead, they’ll need to keep Millar and probably find a bargain designated hitter, which shouldn’t be impossible to do.

For these two, I’m going to guess that they sign Varitek to a two-year, $15-million deal and replace Ortiz with a million-dollar DH. That puts the 2005 payroll around $107 million for 14 players.

Bill Mueller, as you said, has a $2.1-million option for 2005. This decision has several scenarios, all of which will depend heavily on what happens in 2004.

If Mueller has another very good season and Kevin Youkilis struggles in Pawtucket, I’m pretty sure the Red Sox will exercise Mueller’s option. If Mueller regresses severely and Youkilis tears up Triple-A, they’ll probably let Mueller go and make Youkilis the starting third baseman.

The other scenarios are more difficult. If both players do very well or both players struggle mightily, it’s hard to say which direction the Red Sox will want to go in. Same with the scenario in which both players are merely average this year. Ultimately, I think the Red Sox will let Mueller go if Youkilis gives any indication that he’s ready for the majors because it would save them nearly $2 million.

Finally, I think the Red Sox will exercise the option on Mike Timlin, allow Scott Williamson to go to a team where he can be the closer and fill second base with a bargain player.

So, before the 2004 season has even started, here’s my 25-man roster for the Red Sox for 2005:

C Jason Varitek
1B Kevin Millar
2B Bargain Bin
3B Kevin Youkilis
SS Nomar Garciaparra
LF Manny Ramirez
CF Johnny Damon
RF Trot Nixon
DH Bargain Bin

SP Pedro Martinez
SP Curt Schilling
SP Tim Wakefield
SP Byung-Hyun Kim
SP Bronson Arroyo
CL Keith Foulke
RP Mike Timlin
RP Alan Embree

That would cost about $110 million and leave another $10 million to fill out the bench and the rest of the bullpen. If that’s not what ends up happening, well, I never claimed to be a psychic.

LM: Yeah, I guess it is a little early to be talking about next offseason, but that team certainly looks less intimidating than this one. Still a very good team, but more in the mold of the pre-Epstein teams, rather than this year’s potential monster. This is probably Boston’s best shot to win it all, and of course, the Yankees would have to be their main hurdle, wouldn’t they?

I’m excited that things are finally getting underway, but this spring really has been boring, hasn’t it? There have been injuries, but nothing that will keep anyone out for an extended period. There’s been sniping between Steinbrenner and Henry, but Selig put the kibosh on that pretty fast; it was the same with the steroid talk. The only roster battles have been for the last spots in the lineup, and no star players have slumped enough to cause concern. It’s just… boring.

That’s the price of being good, I suppose. You know what to expect, so the only things that get especial attention are the negatives. But I think the expectations are so high that, as the season goes on, it will seem like there are more negatives than positives, even though both teams will be winning games.

The offseason seemed so much more interesting, and I think it’s because we didn’t know what was going to happen. Free agency went pretty much as we thought, but the trades – Schilling, Vazquez, Brown and A-Rod, those were all surprises. There was something to talk about. Now, it’s all speculation and anticipation, but nothing’s actually happening. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait any longer.

BJ: You’re probably right that next year’s Boston team will not be as imposing as this year’s. That’s part of the reason why I won’t be jumping with joy if the Yankees lose both games to the Devil Rays in Japan, although I will be amused.

Last year, after everything that happened, I took nothing positive out of the Yankees losing to the Marlins in the World Series. It was the third consecutive season in which I got to see the Yankees not win it all, and that loses it’s special appeal after awhile.

No, the Yankees losing won’t make me all that happy this season. The only thing that will really give me joy is the Red Sox winning. Especially since, as you said, this is their best shot in awhile, and maybe for awhile.

You’re right about two other things as well – it’s been an extremely boring month and it’s a very good thing that we don’t have to wait anymore.

Let’s play ball.

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