Brian Cashman may or may not have had an ulterior motive when he recently said the Red Sox are "better" than the Yankees. That was too close to heresy to be taken at face value even the Sox wondered what the Yankee GM was up to.
An elementary exercise in reverse psychology? A shifting of the chess pieces on the eve of pitchers and catchers? Perhaps. Or maybe Cashman was being dead-cold honest, repeating what most baseball executives are saying about the balance of power in the American League. The Sox haven't just caught and passed the Bombers this winter, says one industry observer, "They're head and shoulders above everyone else" on the way to the World Series.
It's hard to find anyone who isn't predicting a Sox-Phillies World Series in 2011 -- the first time in years both leagues have, on paper, been so singularly dominated. The Phillies have what could be the greatest starting rotation in history, assuming everyone stays healthy. And the Sox . . . well, their balance is what figures to separate them from the Yankees.
So maybe the question isn't whether Cashman was looking for a way to get into Boston's head, but whether there's anyone out there who can prevent this Amtrak World Series.
The Sox, after all, might've been the majors' best team in 2010, had they not been decimated by injuries. They led the AL in trips to the disabled list (23) and finished fourth overall with more than 1,050 games lost to the DL. The cost was staggering: more than $20 million paid out to players unable to perform.
So what did they do? Let Adrian Beltre walk, add Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the offense, put Bobby Jenks in the bullpen, and assemble what one American League GM says is "a 100-win team" that has no close seconds.
The Red Sox' offense will be especially dangerous to a Yankee rotation that has just 2 1/2 working components. Even without Crawford and Gonzalez, Fenway Park ranked first in the AL in park factor for doubles in 2010. In other words, there's plenty of room in the gaps for Crawford's line drives and speed, and Gonzalez, says one scout, "could hit 50 home runs with those (Fenway) dimensions."
But that's not to say the Yankees are sunk. Remember, they have three full months to make a monster trade. Second, a new pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, just might resurrect A.J. Burnett. And unfavorable contract aside, Rafael Soriano gives Joe Girardi lockdown security after the seventh inning.
Cashman is right when he says, "Our bullpen is better (than Boston's)." There's one other variable that just might work in the Yankees' favor as well. The fact that the industry has fallen out of love with Cashman's roster -- they're too old, too thin on pitching, too reliant on troubled stars like Burnett -- actually could help.
"The fans (in New York) might not see it this way, but the pressure is off the Yankees right now and on the Red Sox," one talent evaluator said. "When was the last time everyone picked against the Yankees like this? If Girardi is smart, he uses it as a rallying cry."
"That might be true," said another exec, informed of that line of thinking. "But don't ask me to feel sorry for the Yankees. People say (Derek) Jeter is too old, (Jorge) Posada is done, (Andy) Pettitte is gone? Please. The Yankees will find a way to get it done. They always do."
If so, the Bombers won't be alone in their pursuit of the Sox. The A's, blessed with the AL's top starting rotation in 2010 (3.47), could be the summer's stealth team, although the Rangers, even without Cliff Lee, still are the West's elite. The Twins still are the favorites in the Central Division, leaving the Yankees, Tigers and A's as the likely combatants for the wild card.
The Phillies, meanwhile, are so loaded with pitching, they already seem ready to make history. Put it this way: Only the Giants have a chance to match up with Lee and Roy Halladay on back-to-back nights. Otherwise, it's going to be a long season for NL opponents (especially the Mets) who have to deal with superhuman strike-zone efficiency at Citizens Bank Park.
Halladay has ranked in the top five in walks-per-innings and strikeouts-to-walks for the last five years.
Only Lee has matched him, having ranked first in both categories in 2010. No teammates have ever finished 1-2, which is bad news for those who preach long at-bats and working the count.
Put it this way: The three starting pitchers with the highest first-pitch strike percentage in 2010 were Lee (70.8 percent), Carl Pavano (68) and Halladay (67.6). Just how is Mike Pelfrey, as the Mets' de facto ace in Johan Santana's absence, going to top that?
If the Giants can't stop the Phillies -- and given Tim Lincecum's workload in the last three seasons (692 1/3 innings, including the postseason), that's iffy -- there appears to be a straight, unfettered path to the World Series.
There's one more reason to believe in the Phillies' perfect fate, too: They have the right manager for a golden era. Said one industry elder, "If anyone knows how to play a winning hand, it's Charlie (Manuel). He's smart enough to leave a good thing alone."