Around The Bases: VOL I; Red Sox and Yankees the Teams to Beat in the AL

BeckettThe 2010 Major League Baseball season kicked off last night with a bang. The reigning World Champion New York Yankees went to Fenway Park and lost to their divisional arch rival Boston Red Sox 8-7. Right from the opening pitch, the game felt more like a playoff game than the opening game of the season.

The game featured multiple lead changes, a steal of home plate on a double steal, back-to-back home runs, and some terrific defensive plays by both clubs. If this is any indication of what the rest of season is going to be like, hold on to your hats. We’re going to be in for a wild one.

Once again, as in previous seasons, the Red Sox and Yankees are two of the teams that are favored to battle it out for the American League.

The Red Sox are a slightly different team than last season, losing some power at the plate with the loss of slugger Jason Bay to free agency. But what they lost in power they more than gained in defense with the acquisition of third baseman Adrian Beltre (2009: 8 HR, 44 RBI, .265) and shortstop Marco Scutaro (2009: 12 HR, 60 RBI, .282), both coming via free agency.

Beltre, coming from the Seattle Mariners, has long been considered one of the best third baseman in the American League. Offensively, most years he’ll give you 25 HR with 95-100 RBI. Last season he only played 111 games so it skewed his average a little.

Since Nomar Garciaparra left the team in 2004, the Red Sox have yet to settle on a good, solid shortstop. They have that now in Scutaro, whose last team was the Toronto Blue Jays.

To replace Bay, the Sox picked up Mike Cameron (2009: 24 HR, 70 RBI, .250), another excellent defensive player who left the Mets. Cameron has long been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. He’s fast and he’s accurate. To make room for him, they moved Jacoby Ellsbury from center field to left field, and moved Cameron into center.

To shore up their pitching, they signed free agent nemesis John Lackey from the Angels of Southern CA. Lackey, always a Red Sox killer, is now going to be wearing the Olde Towne uniform for a few years. The Angels ace (2009: 11-8, ERA 3.83) falls to 3rd in the Red Sox rotation behind staff ace Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.

The rest of the rotation is filled by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield, with Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, and Josh Bard (who throws 100 MPH consistently) coming out of the bullpen, and Jonathon Papelbon closing. On paper, that is a formidable pitching staff by any estimation.

With the acquisition of Beltre and Scutaro added to the infield that already had Dustin Pedroia at second base and Kevin Youkilis at first base, the Red Sox have what is considered to be one of the best infields in all of baseball.

Pedroia is a former Rookie of the Year and AL MVP while Youkilis is a multiple Gold Glove winner with a lifetime .293 average.

Behind the plate, Victor Martinez, a mid-season pick-up last year, is a vast offensive improvement over team captain Jason Varitek. Varitek, who has earned the respect of everyone around him, has been in a deep decline over the past couple of seasons and has accepted a back-up position to Martinez.

The Yankees, on the other hand, are much the same as they were when they won the World Series just a few short months ago. Gone are designated hitter Hideki Matsui and center fielder Johnny Damon. Matsui went to the left coast to replace Vlad Guerero on the Angels and Damon went to Detroit to replace the departed Granderson, who came to New York.

In their place are Curtis Granderson in center field, obtained via free agency from the Detroit Tigers and Nick Johnson, back to the Yankees after a tour in Florida and Washington.

Both are great assets to the Yankees already solid lineup. Granderson adds both speed and power. Last season he led off for the Tigers and led the league with 25 HR. In ’07 he had 26 stolen bases while only getting caught once. He trailed off last season with only 20 stolen bases while getting caught 6 times. He started off his career as a New York Yankee with a power shot to deep center, over the Yankees’ bullpen.

Johnson is versatile, being able to play DH, left field, and first base. On the downside he only hit 8 HR in 133 games last season only 38 games in ’08 and he didn’t play at all in ’07, but in ’06 he belted out 23 HR with 77 RBI, both career highs. Very underwhelming for a guy his size. He never really played up to his potential.

Some other, less obvious changes are a slight shakeup in the Yankees’ rotation. Manager Joe Girardi has moved last year’s on again off again starter Joba Chamberlain into the bullpen full-time and in his place has inserted Phil Hughes, out of the bullpen last season.

Also missing from the bullpen is Phil Coke, an effective reliever and set-up guy for superstar closer Mariano Rivera. Time will tell whether that loss will hurt the team or not.

The rest of the rotation is still rock-solid with the powerhouse C.C. Sabathia as the ace (19-8, ERA 3.37), followed by A.J. Burnett (13-9, ERA 4.04), and the always dominating Andy Pettitte (14-8, ERA 4.16).

The infield is comparable to the Red Sox in terms of talent. Mark Texieria returns at first base. He’s easily considered the best first baseman in the AL. At second is Robinson Cano who seems to improve every season.

Derek Jeter is the Yankees’ permanent fixture at shortstop and although he has lost a step, he’s still a force in the field. Alex Rodriguez is back at third, healthier than he has been in a long time and already on a short list for AL MVP. Last season he became the first person in baseball history to reach 30 HR and 100 RBI for 13 seasons, and there’s no reason not to believe he won’t make it 14.

There is very good reason for the experts to predict either of these teams to win the AL pennant this season. They are both dominant, powerful teams that are easily the two best teams in the American League. It wouldn’t be any surprise to see both of them win between 95 and 100 games this season.

As the season begins, it appears that it will be tough for any team in the AL to compete once they get to the post-season. But, that’s why they play the whole season. You never know what’s going to happen.

One thing for sure, it’s going to be one hell of a season.