The Evil Empire Strikes Back

Friday, December 27 2002 @ 10:16 AM EST

Contributed by: Coach

Say what you will about the New York Yankees -- Red Sox officials had plenty to say about their divisional rivals after Team Steinbrenner outbid them for Jose Contreras -- they are committed to doing whatever it takes to win.

"Evil Empire" isn't my choice of words; that's what Boston CEO Larry "Sour Grapes" Lucchino called the Yanks. Compared to the true emerging power in the AL East (your Toronto Blue Jays) both the big-budget free-spenders are losing their grip on baseball reality. The Red Sox, in fact, may have "won" by losing out on Contreras; they are now forced to look elsewhere to keep up, and may return their attention to the less-risky, similarly-priced Bartolo Colon. Here's another Daily News article about the newest Cuban superstar in the Bronx. The $32 MM investment won't bankrupt George if it doesn't work out, nor will the $21 MM he threw at Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui. But if both players turn out to be just average, or either is really disappointing, that's a lot of money down the drain, especially considering the tax ramifications and other liabilities like Rondell and Raul.

It's a huge roll of the dice by the Yankees, and I wonder if the decision to commit $15 million for each of the next three seasons to two unproven big-league rookies was made by Brian Cashman or his Boss. Even if Matsui hits .300 with 40 HR and Contreras wins 20 games (I will bet against both propositions) there are question marks in the Big Apple. The bullpen, with one-year-wonder Chris Hammond replacing old reliable Mike Stanton, plus the highly combustible Steve Karsay and the suddenly fragile Mo Rivera, is no longer an automatic strength. The rotation will depend on Mike Mussina, who wasn't very good last year. The rapidly aging Rocket could be another costly mistake, and despite all his physical talent, Jeff Weaver can charitably be described as a head case. If Contreras finds big-leaguers harder to get out than Taiwanese amateurs, this team could lose a lot of high-scoring games.

The Red Sox are committed to a committee -- last year's closer Ugie Urbina, the newest overpaid Ranger, wasn't exactly automatic in the late innings, but guys like Mike Timlin, Alan Embree and Bob Howry are going to blow a lot of saves, and despite what Bill James' stats indicate about "proper" use of relievers, there could be some confusion and finger-pointing among the athletes. (My hero Whitey Herzog -- get well, Rat -- agrees with the stathead gospel; he believes in using an ace reliever for two innings every other day, not one inning every day.) It's rather obvious that your best short man is far more valuable in the seventh or eighth inning of a tie game than in the ninth with a three-run lead, but in Boston, "best" may be a relative term. Still, the hitters can produce runs, so if Pedro's arm doesn't fall off, and if AL hitters keep swinging at the low Lowe slider, and if the BoSox land a third solid starter, they might survive a shaky 'pen to make the divisional race close.

What should be encouraging to Blue Jays fans is that neither expensive powerhouse is built to last. The farm system cupboards are bare of immediate help, and there are a lot of increasingly creaky wheels in the lineups. It's "win now or else" in Beantown and the Bronx, while Toronto can focus on improving and maturing in 2003, then taking advantage of their newly-flexible payroll (and just as important, lack of ties to mediocre players) to add the right finishing touches for a serious pennant drive the following year.