FORT MYERS, Fla. — Eight games.
For the Yankees, who went 100-62 last year, finishing that far behind the Red Sox in the American League East was a sobering reality. Not to mention losing to them in the Division Series, then living in the shadow of their rival’s shiny new World Series trophy during a long, cold winter.
So on Opening Day of the Grapefruit League, down at Fenway South, it was only natural to ask Aaron Boone if his Yankees have found those eight games somewhere this offseason and discovered a way to close the gap.
“I have no idea,” Boone said, laughing. “That’s the beauty of all this. We get to hopefully have a good spring, build up our guys, stay healthy, and then we get to find out.”
Boone’s answer, however, was not entirely true. Brian Cashman, armed with Hal Steinbrenner’s checkbook, targeted a specific path this offseason toward dethroning the Red Sox, and much of that route went through the bullpen.
The Yankees invested a total of $66 million to bring back Zack Britton and sign Adam Ottavino, two of the top free-agent relievers on the market. That pair, now teamed with Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances, gives them four closer-quality arms in what Boone envisions to be an eight-man pen. Maybe even five, if you want to count Chad Green.
And the Red Sox? They’ve basically shunned their free-agent closer, Craig Kimbrel, a seven-time All-Star with 333 career saves, and let October hero Joe Kelly walk (he wound up signing a three-year, $25 million contract with the Dodgers).
Unless Kimbrel gets spooked by the stunning lack of interest and asks to return at a bargain rate, the Red Sox seem prepared to go with Matt Barnes -- two career saves, 4.14 ERA, 1.36 WHIP -- as their closer and Ryan Brasier, the 31-year-old surprise of last season, in the setup role.
Beyond that, it’s likely to be a jumbled collection that should include Heath Hembree, Brian Johnson, Tyler Thornburg, Brandon Workman and knuckleballer Steven Wright. If nothing else, that relief corp isn’t costing the Red Sox a whole lot, somewhere in the neighborhood of $10M. Looking at that crew, the Red Sox could have used Britton, Ottavino or Jeurys Familia to add a more proven closer, but they never showed heavy interest in the bullpen market.
Was that arrogance on the part of the defending champs, who silenced their critics a year ago by flicking a switch and becoming a shutdown pen when it counted in October? Listening to Alex Cora before Saturday’s game, they just sound confident in their ability to commandeer a large pool of capable arms with a smart manager at the wheel.
Cora also believes he can get length from his rotation, especially now that Chris Sale is healthy and David Price has flipped his Boston narrative. They also bet big on Nathan Eovaldi, re-signing him to a four-year, $68 million contract. For a team that already has spent $240 million on their 2019 payroll -- again the highest in the sport -- the Red Sox evidently picked the bullpen as the place to exercise cost control, the opposite philosophy of the Yankees.
“As you guys know, our strength is [the rotation],'' Cora said. “They shorten up the game. I don’t know how [the Yankees] are going to manage the game with their starters, but their strength is their bullpen. We saw it last year. They went to those guys very often whenever we played them, and we did a good job against their starters, to get them out early.
“I feel like, in this game, there’s no right or wrong. Just at the end, the players decide what happens on the field.”
Go around the diamond, and these two teams win their share of positional battles. Only in the bullpen does the advantage -- on paper -- heavily tilt toward the Yankees.
By constructing a closer-heavy relief corps, Boone now can go practically inning-by-inning from the fifth on without even worrying about anything matchup-related, although he did refer to Ottavino as a “righty assassin.”
Cashman has pretty much removed the need to manage a game in the late innings. Just plug-and-play, as he likes to say.
“In our case, I think, the core of guys we’ve built not only did we feel are great but have the track record that follows,” Boone said. “There’s so many things that go into making those kind of evaluations and decisions. But we were able to have that flexibility to add in some places, so hopefully it’s something that pays off for us.”
True to the rivalry, Cora paid what he felt was sufficient praise to the Yankees’ bullpen makeover but also took a swipe in the process. When asked about the Yankees’ high-priced additions, Cora made sure to bring up a critical defection: David Robertson, who signed a two-year, $23 million deal with the Phillies.
“At the same time, Robertson is not there,” Cora said. “He was actually the best reliever they had against us last year, if you look at the numbers. He pitched in the fifth, he pitched in the eighth, he pitched in the ninth. He held runners. He was outstanding. It was tough to run against him. Ottavino did an outstanding job in Colorado . . . but Robertson was a good one, too.”
Robertson pitched a total of 8 1/3 innings against the Red Sox last season. He didn’t allow a run, gave up three hits and struck out nine. The guess here, however, is that although this is his first taste of the sport’s fiercest grudge match, Ottavino should be a sufficient replacement for Robertson.
Cora, however, already is in midseason form when it comes to tweaking his Bronx buddies. Too bad we have to wait another five weeks for this to get real again.