It's easy to group the Red Sox and the Yankees together. Heck, during the Rays' amazing run last summer the two ancient rivals almost became one word. ('Can the upstart Rays really hold off the YankeesandRedSox?'). And the rush to mash them into one Northeast superpower makes sense, at least on the surface.
Rabid fanbases that are more alike than they would like to admit. Century-old tradition. Deep coffers. Expectations of success that would seem ridiculous anywhere else. There's no doubt the franchises have plenty in common.
But from a baseball operations standpoint, it's getting harder and harder to see numerous similarities. Consider the players Boston has signed this winter: Brad Penny, Josh Bard, Rocco Baldelli and John Smoltz. CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett those guys ain't.
Of course, the Red Sox are still big spenders. They were something like $12 million short in the Teixeira sweepstakes, depending on who you believe, and they've given out a few whoppers over the years like the Daisuke Matsuzaka ($103 million between the posting fee and his contract) and J.D. Drew ($70 million) deals.
Perception doesn't quite match reality, though. Matsuzaka and Drew are the only free agents to receive deals worth more than $50 million since Theo Epstein took over as general manager. David Ortiz is the only other player to receive a deal in excess of that under the Epstein regime.
They've still spent quite freely -- $36 million for Julio Lugo, $37.5 million for an aging Mike Lowell, $8 million for a lost season of Curt Schilling -- but the point here is that they're not even in the same universe as the Yankees, some of it by design and some of it by necessity.
Excluding this year's glut of signings, the Yankees have crossed the $50 million threshold with four different players since 2006 alone. That's created a cycle in New York where big-money free agents are used to paper over weaknesses and holes left by other aging big-money free agents.
On top of it all, they very rarely let their own guys go and are willing to wildly overpay and/or bid against themselves to keep them -- that includes everyone from Jorge Posada to Alex Rodriguez. The Red Sox, conversely, allowed Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon to walk away in their respective primes the moment their contract demands became too steep.
It's game that no team other than the Yankees can afford to play. That isn't a value judgment, by the way -- the Yankees operate well within the rules -- but it is a reality for Boston and the rest of the AL East. The Red Sox have a financial advantage over the rest of their division, but they leverage it in a much different way.
They invest more in the draft than just about any other team and that filters through the rest of their organization. Because of it, they have exceptional depth (preventing them from signing a bunch of big ticket free agents every year just to compete) and flexibility (allowing them to extend the players they really value -- most recently Dustin Pedroia -- and to swing blockbuster trades without watering down the farm system -- think Josh Beckett and Jason Bay).
It also explains Boston's strategy in free agency. It will make exceptions for players like Teixeira, yes, but generally it avoids enormous financial commitments on the open market, settling instead for a series of short-term, high-dollar wagers.
The Red Sox can not afford to go dollar-for-dollar with the Yankees, but they can afford something that most teams -- including the Braves and Rays and Dodgers this winter -- can not, a $5 million bet on Penny here, another $5 million bet on Smoltz there and a $500,000 bet on Baldelli.
It's possible -- maybe even likely -- that at least one of those players will completely flame out next year in Boston. It might get very little return from all three. But the potential is there for any one of them to pay off in a big way. With the Red Sox as talented and as wealthy as they are, those gambles are well worth it.
The Yankees, well, they don't gamble in free agency, they go right out and buy the whole casino. Both teams have had plenty of success this decade, but it's time to realize that they've gone about it in very different fashion.