Coming off a World Series win and with a young core in place, the Red Sox were in a strong position to sit tight in the offseason, figuring out only what to do with aging veterans (but key 2007) pieces Mike Lowell and Curt Schilling, both of whom were eligible for free agency.
They resolved those questions quickly, re-signing both in deals the team would come to regret. Other moves were minor, aimed at reinforcing the bench and bullpen, as the Sox traded for David Aardsma and signed Sean Casey.
The Yankees, meanwhile, had a pressing need: to re-sign Alex Rodriguez, who had caused a stir when he opted out of his contract by holding a sign reading, "Screw you, Cashman!" as he parachuted onto the Coors Field grass in the middle of World Series Game 4. Then he slugged Jonathan Papelbon in the face. (He later explained: "Well, who hasn't wanted to do that?")
While negotiations continued, the Yankees also made some minor moves, signing LaTroy Hawkins and releasing Andy Phillips. The Yankees, in much the same situation as the Red Sox with their key veteran pieces, then re-signed Andy Pettitte to a one-year deal, Rodriguez to a 10-year contract and Mariano Rivera to a three-year deal. Finally, in a surprising coup de grâce that shifted for generations the balance of power in the AL East, the Yankees signed Billy Crystal to a one-day contract near the end of spring training.
With so little movement from either team, it seemed likely the East would be what it was in 2007 — a close battle, with perhaps a slight edge to the Red Sox. When SG did his simulations — adding two more systems (Hardball Times and his own CAIRO) — that March, here's what he found (second part):
- Yankees: 93-69, 917 RS, 791 RA, 41% Div, 22% WC
- Red Sox: 92-70, 868 RS, 751 RA, 40% Div, 20% WC
- TB Rays: 87-75, 832 RS, 760 RA, 14% Div, 17% WC
- Yankees: 97-65, 914 RS, 739 RA, 62%, 18%
- Red Sox: 92-70, 887 RS, 779 RA, 27%, 27%
- Blue Jays: 87-74, 780 RS, 720 RA, 10%, 17%
- TB Rays: 80-82, 849 RS, 843 RA, 1%, 4%
- Red Sox: 93-69, 834 RS, 707 RA, 49%, 27%
- Yankees: 93-69, 950 RS, 815 RA, 41%, 30%
- Blue Jays: 85-77, 780 RS, 752 RA, 8%, 15%
- TB Rays: 81-81, 814 RS, 828 RA, 2%, 6%
- Yankees: 97-65, 892 RS, 727 RA, 67%, 18%
- Red Sox: 91-71, 837 RS, 729 RA, 24%, 33%
- TB Rays: 86-76, 785 RS, 721 RA, 9%, 18%
- Yankees: 99-63, 931 RS, 740 RA, 71%, 17%
- Red Sox: 91-71, 841 RS, 744 RA, 16%, 33%
- Blue Jays: 90-72, 754 RS, 665 RA, 13%, 29%
- TB Rays: 77-85, 798 RS, 827 RA, 1%, 2%
- Red Sox: 94-68, 874 RS, 734 RA, 49%, 25%
- Yankees: 93-69, 940 RS, 802 RA, 39%, 30%
- Blue Jays: 86-76, 779 RS, 714 RA, 10%, 18%
- TB Rays: 81-81, 818 RS, 806 RA, 2%, 8%
Average them together, and here's what they looked like:
- Yankees: 95-67, 924 RS, 769 RA, 54%, 23%
- Red Sox: 92-70, 857 RS, 741 RA, 34%, 28%
- Blue Jays: 85-77, 774 RS, 773 RA, 8%, 15%
- TB Rays: 82-80, 816 RS, 797 RA, 5%, 9%
Wow. No three projections of the six agreed on how the AL East would finish.
Four picked the Yankees to finish first and the Sox second, but two of those had the Rays third while two picked the Blue Jays. The two that picked the Sox ahead of the Yankees had the Blue Jays finishing third.
The projection system that gave the Rays the best shot of winning the division, PECOTA, also had the Yankees winning 97 games and taking the AL East easily.
- TB Rays: 97-65, 774 RS, 671 RA
- Red Sox: 95-67, 845 RS, 694 RA
- Yankees: 89-73, 789 RS, 727 RA
- Blue Jays: 86-76, 714 RS, 610 RA
None of the projection systems anticipated two things: the Rays putting things together so quickly, and the Yankees collapsing into third place ("just" 89 wins, matching the Sox' 2010 total, fwiw). They all actually did a pretty good job with the Red Sox and Blue Jays. The Sox performed three games better than the average while the Jays were actually one game better than projected despite finishing in fourth. But the Rays beat their average by15 games, and the Yankees underperformed theirs by six.
The Rays' young pitchers matured quickly and well, and the team's defense was outstanding, which allowed the club to allow 120 runs fewer than projected. The offense also did slightly better than thought.
A similar, though much less drastic, dynamic was at work with Boston's projections. The Sox allowed nearly 50 runs fewer than expected because Jon Lester broke out as an ace with a 144 ERA+ in 210 innings while Daisuke Matsuzaka posted the most maddening 160 ERA+ season possible in 167 innings. Tim Wakefield had one of his best seasons in recent memory, and Josh Beckett also was solid, though injuries toward the end of the season would cost the Sox in the playoffs. In the end, the Sox would miss Schilling, whose hurt shoulder, discovered shortly after he signed his one-year deal, cost him the entire season and led ultimately to his retirement, but in the regular season the Sox managed to cover for his absence with some excellent spot starting.
The Sox received stellar replacement pitching from rookie Justin Masterson (147 ERA+ in 88 innings, including nine starts) and good performances from Paul Byrd (97) and Bartolo Colon (114) in a combined 15 starts. In all, 11 pitchers started a game for Boston that year, and the Sox received average or better performance from eight of them. The only real flop was Clay Buchholz, whose 69 ERA+ in 16 games likely cost the Sox the division. The bullpen remained excellent, as Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez and Hideki Okajima provided solid relief, covering for Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen and Aardsma, who were abysmal.
On offense, the Sox played at or slightly below expectations. On the plus side, Dustin Pedroia proved his Rookie of the Year season was no fluke by following it up with an MVP campaign. Likewise, Kevin Youkilis broke out as an offensive star at age 29. With his son's health no longer a concern, J.D. Drew broke out and carried the club on his back when David Ortiz went down with a wrist injury during the summer. Injuries became a major story throughout the year, mercifully knocking out Julio Lugo and providing Jed Lowrie a chance to produce (while playing through a broken wrist of his own) but also sidelining Manny Ramirez, ultimately leading to a messy breakup in which the Sox traded him and received Jason Bay in return. Bay effectively replaced Ramirez's production, however.
Nothing really went right for the Yankees offensively in 2008. They were expected to score more than 900 runs; instead they couldn't break 800. That 10- to 11-run gap was too much to overcome, especially when injuries struck the pitching staff.
First, Jorge Posada was limited to 51 games by injury, leaving Jose Molina (51 OPS+), Chad Moeller (69) and Ivan Rodriguez (51) to suck up 500 plate appearances. Then Robinson Cano endured a hellacious season-long slump on both offense and defense. Derek Jeter posted his worst season in 11 years. Melky Cabrera continued his inability to hit, and Hideki Matsui produced the worst season he'd ever had in America. Only Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu performed as expected — and even Rodriguez was unable to repeat the heights of his MVP campaign the season before.
On the mound, things were less than ideal. Carl Pavano appeared in just seven games, Chien-Ming Wang's season ended early, and while Mike Mussina surged back to end his career with a well-deserved 20-win season, Andy Pettitte posted a below-average ERA+ for the first time. To replace Wang and Pavano, the Yanks turned to Darrell Rasner, who was mediocre, Sidney Ponson, who was bad, Phil Hughes, who was worse, and Ian Kennedy, who was worst. Those four plus Pavano started 51 games, and none posted an ERA better than 5.40. Joba Chamberlain also started 12 games, performing very well in June and July, but a shoulder injury derailed him in August, and he returned to the bullpen in September to protect his arm.
The battered Red Sox came close to another World Series appearance (arguably the difference was Terry Francona choosing to let the injured, struggling Beckett start the third inning of Game 2), but lost in seven games to Tampa, who then lost to Philadelphia in the World Series.
The Yankees, meanwhile, got an early start on an offseason that would prove to be lucrative — for them and for a trio of high-profile free agents.