There is one simple reason why the Boston Red Sox are 31-14 and comfortably nestled atop the American League East, and the New York Yankees as 20-24 and 10.5 games behind. The Red Sox are a team, and the Yankees are a collection of players. It also helps that Boston has three pitchers – Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka – who can be counted upon to deliver a clutch start to end a losing streak while the Yankees only have one in Andy Pettitte.
The Sox do not lack superstars with Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in the lineup. And Matsuzaka definitely draws a crowd. Most of this team, though, is composed of “professional” players who know their roles – guys like Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew, Coco Crisp and reserves such as Alex Cora and Eric Hinske. Jonathan Papelbon is developing into a superstar since he is the most dominant closer in the game, but even the bullpen is loaded with gritty relievers who fill a role like Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez, Kyle Snyder and Brendan Donnelly.
I found it amusing when Johnny Damon told the media how excited he was to be joining a Yankees lineup filled with All-Stars. A team that looks great on paper doesn’t necessarily lead to success on the field. The underachieving Yankees are proof of that. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada are three of the best players in the game offensively at their position. Jason Giambi was once a great player, as was Bobby Abreu and Damon. Robinson Cano is capable of winning multiple batting titles, and Hideki Matsui is steady. Yet, for some reason, these guys do not mesh well as a team. The Yankees will not seriously contend for a World Series title until A-Rod opts out of his contract, Giambi is dumped, Abreu and Damon leave, and Brian Cashman (if he remains with the team) rebuilds the rotation. Only Chien-Ming Wang (who is not as effective as he was last season) and Philip Hughes (who looks like a future ace, but not this year) look like long-term fixtures in the rotation.
Chemistry is meaningless when you don’t have depth and talent, but when you do have the latter two, chemistry can transform a good team into an exceptional one. The Sox have definitely not wrapped up the American League East, and it is far too soon to plan a World Series party, but Red Sox Nation has every reason to feel confident about this team’s chances because they have depth and talent in the rotation, bullpen and lineup, and they are a true team – much like in 2004.
If you compare the Sox and Yankees position by position, only Ramirez in left (compared to Matsui), David Ortiz at DH (compared to Giambi) and Kevin Youkilis (compared to Mientkiewicz) at first are better individual players (of course, the Sox rotation and bullpen are significantly better than the Yankees). When you compare the Sox and Yankees as a complete team, though, there is no question that Boston is a level above the Bombers. The Sox play with passion and confidence, knowing that they can rally from a deficit, even late in a game. The Yankees lack heart and swagger. No opponent – not even the Tampa Bay Devil Rays – is afraid to face the Bombers, even at storied Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees farm system is deep, and you will see more players promoted from within, but there is no doubt that New York will continue to sign and trade for high-salary players to fill voids, as evidenced by their willingness to give Roger Clemens a prorated $28 million contract this year to give them 25 starts of five to six innings. The Sox will certainly spend to fill voids as well, but in smaller doses, as evidenced by how their roster is currently composed. Maybe the Yankees will learn that a roster stocked with underperforming primadonna superstars is not the recipe for a World Series title. Until they do learn this lesson, Red Sox Nation and the rest of the American League will reap the benefits.