Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dave's View: Position Players

The last part in my Boston/New York head-to-head comparison is, in many ways, the most contentious of all. Comparing position players is guaranteed to generate arguments and chaos, even amongst fans of the same team.

Keep in mind, this isn't just a comparison of bats. It's a comparison of gloves as well. Keeping a run from crossing the plate is as important as knocking in a run. So rather than match up batter to batter, I am matching up fielder to fielder. Either way has it's drawbacks, but I like this one better. So, with that in mind...

Catcher: Jason Varitek vs. Jorge Posada

When it comes to the stick, Posada has the edge. Even if 'Tek bounces back from last year's horror show, he'll still likely have an average under .250. I would guess Posada will be around .275 and have a better OBP.

But the glove? I still think that Varitek wins in that department. Posada was out for much of 2008, but Varitek still had a better fielding percentage, range factor and catcher's ERA (CERA) than Posada in 2008. Just as he did in 2007. I don't see any reason that won't continue in 2009.

Decision: Push - Posada's bat and Varitek's glove cancel out each other. The truth is that these two veterans are very close to one another in production and fielding. If you want to get hyper-technical, 'Tek may have a slightly better season overall since he is more familiar with the majority of Boston's rotation, whereas Posada has two new starters to deal with.

First Base: Kevin Youkilis vs. Mark Teixeira

Two players in their prime. Two players who can put up the numbers with their bat. Two players who have a solid glove at first.

Youkilis was the 2008 Hank Aaron Award winner in the AL. He put up career numbers (29 HR, 115 RBI, .958 OPS) and had his usual great fielding performance at first. Teixeira actually did a little better at the plate (33 HR, 121 RBI, .962 OPS) but was inferior to Youkilis at first with his glove. I don't see this changing in 2009.

Decision: Push - Get used to seeing that a lot. The Sox and Yankees are comparable at many positions, and this is another one of them. Teixeira will likely have the better year at the plate, but I would wager on Youkilis having the better glove since he's familiar with Fenway and his teammates, something Teixiera doesn't have going for him.

Second Base: Dustin Pedroia vs. Robinson Cano

The defending AL MVP and one of New York's up-and-comers. Pedroia had an amazing season in 2008. He not only won the MVP but also tacked on the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards for second base. He's only 26, so there is no reason to not think he can't keep up this level of production.

Cano was the first next-gen everyday player from New York's farm system to stick in the majors. He could easily match Pedroia's offensive output, although with his swing he tends to strike out more and get on base less. But his glove simply isn't as good as Dustin's. I think even Aviv would have to acknowledge that.

Decision: Boston - This isn't a dig on Cano, who is better than a lot of people think. But he isn't the complete package that Pedroia gives Boston. If Cano could raise up his fielding, this would be a push as well.

Shortstop: Jed Lowrie vs. Derek Jeter

A mismatch on paper. You have a second-year guy in Boston against a living legend. The new kid and Mr. Yankee. But the thing's closer than you would think.

Lowrie is going to have to improve his batting. A .258 average and .739 OPS isn't going to get it done year-after-year. What Lowrie does have going for him is a stellar glove. Last year he was flawless at short and there is no reason he can't keep it up in 2009. Also keep in mind he was playing injured most of 2008.

Jeter is still a solid leadoff batter, although his average, RBI, hits and OPS have declined each of the past three years. But that's a decline from great to good. Jeter's problem is his glove. He simply doesn't have the range he used to and his glove was never that great to begin with. Now he is decidedly average as a fielder.

Decision: Push - This will cause some major issues with Yankee fans, and it is understandable. But Lowrie is better on the field and Jeter is at the plate. As a total player, Lowrie is Jeter's equal at this point in his career. If I was feeling really evil, I could easily argue that Lowrie will be better overall in 2009. But that's for another post.

Third Base: Mike Lowell vs. A-Rod

Don't worry, Yankee fans. Even I can't make a case for Lowell here. Coming off a hip injury and getting up in age, he simply isn't the player he was in 2007 when he won the World Series MVP? You remember the World Series, right Yankee fans?

And A-Rod is A-Rod. Even with the drug scandal and the personal drama and the erotic moments with a mirror, he is still the best hitting third-baseman in the game and one of the better fielders.

Decision: New York - Boston evens out here for the first month when Cody Ransom fills in for the injured A-Rod. But once A-Rod comes back, New York wins this hands down. Caveat: if A-Rod doesn't come back this could swing to a push depending on Lowell's production.

Left Field: Jason Bay vs. Johnny Damon

You know what you are getting with Bay; around 30 homers and 100 RBI, give or take a couple either way. You are also getting a solid fielder; Bay had one error with the Sox last year and four overall in 2008. And at age 30, he is entering a contract year. And while Bay plays hard every game, expect even more production with money on the line.

Damon is getting old and slowing down. That isn't a well-deserved dig at him but simply the truth. Even by his standards his arm is pathetically weak. And last year was, in my opinion, the classic "bump year", where an aging veteran arrests his decline for one last season before the bottom falls out (see Willie Mays in 1971, Cecil Cooper in 1985). Time has simply caught up to him.

Decision: Boston - Bay is in his prime and entering a contract year while Damon is playing out the string. Boston holds the advantage here.

Center Field: Jacoby Ellsbury vs. Brett Gardner

Ellsbury enters what some consider a make-or-break year while Gardner tries to prove he belongs on the big stage. Both players will be inspired to have strong seasons.

It's more likely that Ellsbury will achieve that goal. He should be able to fix the major flaw in his swing (missing those inside fastballs) and improve upon his .280 average while improving his already-solid steal numbers (50 SB with an 82% success rate). And his fielding...he played all three outfield positions, racked up 1174 innings and committed zero errors. He deserved a Gold Glove for that performance.

Gardner is an unknown. His bat was weak in his short time up in 2008 (.228 BA, .582 OPS) but he looked good in the outfield with no errors in 306 innings. I would guess his batting numbers get a little better while his fielding percentage drops somewhat.

Decision: Boston - Ellsbury is simply the better talent between these two young players. It's not that Gardner is a bad player, just that Ellsbury has the potential to be an All-Star on a regular basis. Whether he achieves that goal is still a matter of debate, but he is the better player right now.

Right Field: J.D. Drew vs. Xavier Nady

J.D. Drew...the most frustrating player on the Sox. When healthy, he is a rare talent. But that's the problem; rarely is he healthy for long periods of time. Not once in his career has he played 150 or more games. But by the same token, his lowest OPS in the past six years was .796 and he always is producing and scoring runs. When he isn't on the DL. And while he isn't a Gold Glove player in right, he gets the job done most of the time.

For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why the Yankees were considering moving Nady in the off-season. Yes, his production dropped when he came over from Pittsburgh, but he wasn't horrendous. And he was flawless when playing in right field. Add to that he is only 30 years old and I think Nady will do better than people think.

Decision: New York - If I thought Drew would be healthy, I would give this to Boston. But you and I and everyone else knows that won't happen. Drew will pull a muscle or get a hangnail and sit on the DL. At the same time, I think Nady will prove a lot of nay-sayers wrong.

DH: David Ortiz vs. Hideki Matsui

The big question is whether these two guys can stay healthy all year. If they can, both can put up huge numbers.

But if they do both stay healthy, I think Ortiz gets the edge. Papi is younger and has more power. But Matsui has looked better in the spring. Truth is, until we get a month or so into the season, we won't know who is better at the DH spot.

Decision: Push - Still too many questions about both guys coming into the season. We won't know how healthy they are until they get about 100 at-bats under their respective belts. But if they are both healthy and playing to their best, Ortiz is the better hitter.


Not a position per se, but still very important. These are the guys who fill in the gaps, who rest your starters, who play the second game in a doubleheader. You may not think about them much, but they can make or break a season.

The Sox have a decent bench. George Kottaras has earned a shot at the big time. He had a solid spring and caught Time Wakefield quite well. Nick Green, a former Yankee, holds the utility infielder spot as Julio Lugo heals up (take your time, Julio). Rocco Baldelli is the steal of the off-season as the fourth outfielder. But the revelation has been Chris Carter, who has been raking the ball. If Papi goes down, he is a legit replacement at DH. And to think Theo traded Wily Mo Pena to the Nationals for Carter. Another legacy of Jim Bowden.

The Yankees have Melky Cabrera, who is in danger of entering Wily Mo territory as a player who runs out of options and sees his career suffer for it. Nick Swisher could end up as a steal for New York if he can do better than his .219 BA last year. I'd also guess he's a little pissed that Teixiera was brought in and took the starting job at first and Nady is starting in right. Molina isn't the worst backup catcher in the game. And Aviv can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that Ramiro Pena is on the bench as well. New York's answer to Jed Lowrie, it still is an open question if he can make it in the majors. But if he pans out, he could force the "Jeter to center" issue to the fore.

Decision: Push - I really wanted to put Boston here because of Baldelli. Both benches have talent and production...if everyone plays to their potential. But both benches will also change when injured starters return. So we really won't know about the benches until we are well into the season.

Final Verdict: Boston (by a hair)

The Sox win 3-2 over New York with five pushes. As the season goes, Boston could pull away or New York could overtake the Sox. As with everything else, Boston and New York are close to one another. But Boston is just a bit better. And that is why they'll definitely be in the post-season and the Yankees will be dueling with the Rays for the wild-card spot.

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