The Red Sox and Yankees are aiming to make their rivalry great again. It’s a campaign fans on both sides of this partisan baseball divide can get behind.
The ancient enemies start a nationally televised three-game series at Yankee Stadium Tuesday with first place in the American League East hanging in the balance.
The resurgent Yankees are two games ahead of the Red Sox and ahead of schedule in their reboot. The Red Sox are starting to gain some traction. They return to Yankee Stadium for the first time since last September, when they were swept and forced to awkwardly celebrate clinching the division after losing on a walkoff grand slam in the second game of a three-game set. It was a harbinger of the Sox’ playoff doom.
Let’s be honest, this rivalry needed a reset. We’re a long way from the fever pitch of the late 1990s and early to mid aughts. You have to go back to 2011 to find a season when both teams were wire-to-wire contenders. They haven’t made the playoffs together since 2009.
The Red Sox-Yankees dance of disdain had grown a bit stale. It felt more obligatory than engrossing with its interminable time-of-game numbers and blatant oversaturation for ratings purposes. Now, the rivalry has been stoked and restocked with fresh players and fresh story lines that make it compelling again for reasons other than geography, familiarity, and history.
Thus far, the Yankees have stolen a bit of the Red Sox’ thunder and their blueprint. The Sox were supposed to be the team staking a claim to the AL East with their enviable young core. But the Bronx Bombers are atop the division, thanks in part to their youth movement.
Gronk-sized rookie right fielder Aaron Judge entered Monday leading the majors in home runs with 18. Young starting pitchers Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery have stabilized New York’s rotation. Slugging catcher Gary Sanchez, who finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting last season after hitting 20 home runs in just 53 games, is now healthy and finding his power stroke.
The Yankee youngsters have stolen the spotlight from the Sox’ foundational four of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi. We could be headed for a new golden age of the rivalry. Maybe Betts vs. Judge becomes the new Nomar Garciaparra vs. Derek Jeter, Carlton Fisk vs. Thurman Munson, or, if we’re really going to get heady, Ted Williams vs. Joe DiMaggio.
The stage for the rivalry to be revived was actually set back at the Winter Meetings in December when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman reacted to the Red Sox trading for Chris Sale by declaring them “the Golden State Warriors of baseball now.”
His remarks put pressure on the Red Sox to blow away the field, portrayed the Yankees as hopeless underdogs, and were reminiscent of former Sox president Larry Lucchino declaring the Yankees “the Evil Empire” after the Bronx Bombers outbid the Sox for Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras.
So far, the Sox have more resembled the Los Angeles Clippers — a talented team that fails to live up to expectations and is snake-bitten by injuries — than Kevin Durant & Co. Just when the Sox get David Price back, they lose Eduardo Rodriguez from their rotation. Bradley and Benintendi have busted out of their batting slumps to buttress the lineup. But there will be no Dustin Pedroia in this series; he isn’t eligible to return from his sprained wrist until Friday.
Winning this series would help establish an identity for the 2017 Red Sox.
The teams have undergone a bit of a role reversal in terms of approach, even if the Yankees still have a higher payroll than the Golden State Warriors of Yawkey Way. (The Yankees had an Opening Day payroll of $201.5 million, compared with the Sox’ $199.8 million.) The Yankees have lost some of their Steinbrennerian haste and impetuousness. They’re the ones hoarding prospects. The Red Sox have lost their Cheringtonian cautiousness and are less deliberate and more aggressive.
Cashman is trying to build a Theo Epstein-style player development machine like the one that provided the Yankees with Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte. After gorging themselves at the high-priced player buffet, Cashman wants a more organic approach. However, the Yankees did dole out a five-year, $86 million deal to reunite with closer Aroldis Chapman, who is on the disabled list with rotator cuff inflammation.
By contrast, the Red Sox are taking more of a win-now approach, depleting their farm system to supplement their core. The Sox were lauded for having one of the best farm systems in baseball the last few years, but those players have graduated to the majors or been traded away to acquire closer Craig Kimbrel, Sale, and Tuesday night’s starter, Drew Pomeranz. They also appear to have been wasted on injured middle reliever Tyler Thornburg.
Now, it’s the Yankees who are darlings of the baseball prospect industrial complex. Both ESPN scouting expert Keith Law and Baseball America ranked the Yankees’ farm system as the second-best in baseball.
Despite that, there are many similarities between the Red Sox and Yankees. Both teams have big payrolls, the second- and third-highest in baseball. Both teams have gaping holes at third base while they wait for uber-prospects to mature to man the position (Boston’s Rafael Devers and the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres). Both teams are banking on resurgent seasons from high-priced former Cy Young Award-winning lefties (Price and CC Sabathia).
Both teams have overpowering bullpens. Yankees relievers have the best batting average against in baseball at .201 and also lead in slugging percentage (.300) and OPS allowed (.581). The Red Sox actually have a better relievers’ ERA (2.98) than the Yankees, thanks to how untouchable Kimbrel has been this season.
It feels like every one of these games is going to matter again. The Sox are 0-2 against the Yankees this year (an April 25 contest at Fenway was rained out and rescheduled as part of a July 16 doubleheader). They went 11-8 against the Pinstripes last season. Still, it was the most Red Sox-Yankees tableau ever for the Sox to have their AL East title celebration dampened by their eternal antagonists getting a two-out grand slam from a washed-up Mark Teixeira.
The rivalry has been more ennui than edge-of-your-seat intensity lately, but no more.
It’s not just the rivalry that is being renewed in the Bronx. It’s the relevance of it too.