MLB’s fiercest rivalry heats up

Only six weeks after they battled for the American League pennant, the Yankees and Red Sox are now battling to load their roster to make a run at next year’s fall classic.

Days after the Red Sox announced their acquisition of ace pitcher Curt Schilling, the so-called “Evil Empire” has struck back, signing reliever Tom Gordon and reportedly reaching a deal with slugger Gary Sheffield.

The intensity of the AL East pennant race and the riveting ALCS has carried over into the free agent and trade markets in the off-season. As numerous rumors circulate about each side’s next move, it seems as if there are no other players in this high budget game. But despite the fact that these dealings are only another indicator of the exasperated economic problems in Major League Baseball, a rivalry like this is great for the game.

Since the arrival of GM Theo Epstein in Boston, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has reached an even greater level of intensity. It all began last winter when the Yankees won the competition to sign Jose Contreras, causing Red Sox President Larry Lucchino to name the Yankees the “Evil Empire.” Then, Boston reversed its Contreras defeat and angered George Steinbrenner by outmaneuvering New York to acquire relievers Scott Sauerbeck and Scott Williamson.

The Schilling deal was another Epstein blow to the Yankees. Although the pitcher had announced that he would only waive his no-trade clause to join the Yankees or Phillies, Epstein won Schilling over during Thanksgiving dinner and overnight set up the most dominant 1-2 pitching combination in baseball. The Yankees front office has responded by inking Gordon and negotiating with Sheffield, as well as resigning ALCS hero Aaron Boone.

Even with the recent flurry of activity, these teams are far from finished. The Yankees are likely to resign Andy Pettitte, but another starter will probably be acquired to face down Martinez and Schilling. Bartolo Colon is on the market and Javier Vazquez is a potential trade target.

Recently, rumors have surfaced that the Yankees are looking to deal Jeff Weaver to the Dodgers in a package for Kevin Brown. Hmm — I wonder who would get the better end of that deal. And Gordon won’t be the last addition to the shaky New York bullpen, as the Yankees are already looking to sign Paul Quantrill.

The Red Sox need to bolster their bullpen as well. That means that one of the AL’s top closers, Keith Foulke or Eddie Guardado, will likely end up in Boston soon. Oh yeah, the Red Sox need a manager too.

As the arms race continues, it isn’t clear if these moves are good for baseball or even the Yankees and Red Sox. OK, it’s hard to argue against signing Curt Schilling, but he is 37 and coming off an injury-wrought 2003 season. Boston’s other star pitcher, Pedro Martinez, is of suspect health himself. Next year, the Red Sox will have a risky $30 million invested in these two questionable right arms.

Meanwhile, the quality of Yankees teams has declined noticeably since the team began relying on netting big name sluggers. During the championship run from 1996 to 2000, New York built its team by picking up lower priced “character” guys. Those teams had great chemistry, playing solid defense and moving runners effectively. In the four World Championship seasons, the Yankees never had a player hit more than 30 home runs.

For the last few seasons, the Yankees have gone against their successful strategy by forming a team that is too reliant on home runs and struggles to score in key situations by failing to advance runners with productive outs. Joe Torre could call on those championship teams to hit and run in big spots, but now he has too many guys who are liable to swing and miss. Jason Giambi, Robin Ventura, Raul Mondesi and, now, Sheffield have all been part of this trend.

As for the other 28 Major League teams, they can have the leftovers. With many big market teams slashing payroll, the Yankees and Red Sox seem to have the first shot on all the big names on the market. Other teams will need New York and Boston to fill their needs with other players or to pass on a player in order to make the acquisition.

The rest of baseball may suffer, but this year’s off-season will take the best rivalry in professional sports to new heights.

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