FT. MYERS, Fla. – Joe Girardi borrowed from the Ralph Houk Handbook last fall, restricting his rotation to an exclusive group of three once the leaves turned. It was the right call. CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte accounted for every postseason start, and the Yankees won title No. 27.
In December, general manager Brian Cashman acquired veteran Javier Vazquez from the Braves. Girardi again has a rotation he can trust, regardless of whether Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes throws fifth.
And yet, I'm wary of the effect that those big postseason pitches will have in The Year After.
Burnett may have answered critics by earning a ring in his first year as a Yankee, but let's not forget that he led the AL in walks and had a 5.27 postseason ERA. And Pettitte needed extra rest to compensate for shoulder trouble late last season.
The Yankees had a good rotation in 2009, but we shouldn't mistake it for a dominant one. And it's hard to get excellent pitching in back-to-back Octobers.
So here it is, my first wince-at-the-keyboard prediction of the year:
The Red Sox will have a better rotation than the Yankees in 2010.
If the statement seems absurd, well, it shouldn't. The Yankees had only the fifth-best rotation ERA in the AL last year. The Red Sox ranked eighth.
So we're not talking about a huge spread to start, and I believe Boston will outpitch its rival for two principal reasons:
1. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and the newly signed John Lackey are going to perform better (collectively) than Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte.
2. At 25, Clay Buchholz is about to become a big-time starter in the major leagues.
"We're set right now to have a very good rotation," Lester said over the weekend. "With that being said, we had that last year. We had a lot of bullets in our gun, and it just didn't work out. ... If we all stay healthy and pitch well, things will take care of themselves."
Said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein: "If things break right, starting pitching will be a strength of this ballclub."
The Red Sox received a quality start only 40 percent of the time last year when someone other than Lester or Beckett took the ball. I wouldn't be surprised to see that number approach 45 percent this year. And that could amount to a five- or six-win swing -- as long as the offense remains respectable. (I say it will. Others disagree.)
Boston should have a lower team ERA overall this year, in part because of something that has nothing to do with Lackey's arrival or Buchholz's development. With Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron in the everyday lineup, the Red Sox should be a vastly improved defensive team.
Meanwhile, the Yankees' staff may start looking tired roundabout the middle of August. Maybe sooner.
"They all pitched well -- they all dominated," Lester said of the Yankees' postseason effort. "That's what you need. That's what we did in '07.
"They logged a lot of innings on short rest, and those are the hardest innings. CC pitched a lot of innings on three days' rest. Any time you go to the World Series, there's going to be a quick turnaround."
Lackey has yet to throw a meaningful pitch for the Red Sox, but he's already one of the most proven postseason performers in the room. He won the Angels' World Series clincher in 2002 and humbled his future Boston teammates over 7 1/3 scoreless innings during the AL Division Series last October.
Even if Lackey proves to be Boston's biggest pitching acquisition since Curt Schilling -- and I think he will -- Buchholz could be the difference-maker for the '10 staff.
Buchholz threw 196 innings last year (postseason included), and they were split almost evenly between Class AAA and the majors. He was last seen exiting his impressive postseason debut, a win in hand, only to watch the Angels rally against Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth.
Buchholz said over the weekend that he has put on 11 pounds since the end of last season. He's stronger in the upper body, which bodes well for his chances of reaching the 200-inning mark this year.
The Red Sox haven't said for certain that Buchholz will be in their rotation. (Buchholz is aware of this, having told me, "I don't have a contract. There's no guarantee I'm going to be in the starting five.") And yet if they trusted him to pitch an elimination game in October '09, the Red Sox probably won't flinch when the No. 4 or 5 spot comes up at Kauffman Stadium this April.
"He feels good about himself," Epstein observed. "I think he's prepared to go out and win a job here (and) become a staple in the rotation."
And yet, this could get complicated, with Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka still involved in the starter derby. If Buchholz makes the rotation, one of the veterans will be adversely affected. Sorry. That's the math.
Then again, who expects Wakefield and Matsuzaka to make 30 starts apiece? (Last year's combined total: 33.) Perhaps they will alternate between the disabled list and No. 5 starter's role. And if neither can do the job, then it might be time for Epstein to find a journeyman capable of going 10-0, as the Yankees did with Aaron Small in 2005.
But this isn't about a No. 5 starter. The real issues arise when the manager can't trust No. 3 and No. 4. The Red Sox lived that last year. Not anymore.