It's been obvious to me, and to most observers with an understanding of how the post-season tends to work, that the Red Sox and Yankees would not be gracing center stage when the 2006 World Series kicks off this October. Both teams were seriously flawed in those areas that win championships, at least as the prevailing wisdom goes - pitching and defense. In addition, both teams weren't that likeable, the Sox having lost their lovable "idiots" charm with the addition of the mercenary Wells and the somewhat inscrutable (and error-prone) Renteria as well as the loss of some of their more colorful characters, and the Yankees struggling unsuccessfully to regain the respectable professionalism of the Paul O'Neill era. The Yanks are never likeable, but you could respect that ballclub even as a Sox fan. They played baseball the right way, and comported themselves with a quality that was apparent even from a distance.
As it turns out, the current Yankees ballclub may be the most easily disliked team we'll see in some time, for a couple of reasons.
First off, the payroll. It's not just unfair, it's insulting. The real message to everyone who doesn't subscribe to YES is "we don't even have to make an attempt to play fairly with you, you're beneath us". Looking and listening around the country, there is more anti-Yankee sentiment now than I've ever seen, and I've spent 20 years trying to drum it up. The Steinbrenner mentality (read: Bush administration mentality) is that Might Makes Right. Welcome to the Dark Ages, folks!
Second, the cheating. On top of the $200-million plus dollars a year they're spending on these guys, they also feel the need to cheat. Both Giambi and Sheffield have essentially admitted to using performance enhancers, and the saddest story of all is that unless you live in a world clouded by fever dreams, it's fairly obvious Giambi is back on them. It's impossible to know all the hows and wherefores, but anyone who hits the gym in their 30s knows that the muscle doesn't pile on free'n'easy anymore, certainly not with the ability to lift anything for days afterward. For Jason to have thrown on 25 pounds of muscle in 6 months while simultaneously finding his hitting stroke, well, God just didn't build us like that. While it enrages me that the Sox coughed up the 2003 ALCS in significant part due to his two drug-enhanced HRs off Pedro, I pity him his future.
However, and this is the interesting final point, the MLB's luxury tax is actually starting to even the playing field a bit. Two years ago this same team of Yanks would have most likely entered the playoffs with a rotation that included Ben Sheets after a midseason acquisition, or at least entered 2006 with him after signing him in the offseason. The money Milwaukee received from the revenue sharing deal helped them to sign their ace to a multi-year contract. If small market teams continue to make smart decisions with their young players, the future may see them continuing to make the signings they need to compete, and limiting big-market teams' ability to win all the top-dollar players. Sure, as long as Scott Boras is alive the Yankees will get more than their fair share of the pie, but the environment appears to be tempered.
So this could, maybe, might mean future Yankee teams might be human enough that they are no longer universally hated. They may play prospects they actually developed. They may not spend twice as much on their starting rotation than several small-market teams' entire payroll. It's a good thing.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, are now a couple-three years into being a big-market team but thinking like a middle-market team. They didn't realize the fruits of this modality shift in 2005 and may not in 2006, but in 2007 the landscape will most likely have shifted. If all goes well they will have 3/5 of their starting rotation populated by players they drafted and developed. The middle of the infield may be the same. They will attempt to leverage their dollars to overpay for the missing pieces in competition with the Yankees, rather than go toe to toe on spend with them at every position, which is not feasible, even with the rabid fanbase known as Red Sox Nation behind them. In the near future, it looks like Sox teams will be build on the principles of balance and constistency, and this should translate into contention with their resources. This is Theo Epstein's legacy, one which I hope he continues to build from Yawkey Way (read: please get his contract done).
Clearly, the Sox are not alone in this approach to general management. Even as we speak, the remaining 2005 playoff agenda features teams that were built with balanced spending and development and a healthy respect for playing the game the right way. Sure, the team I root for and the team I love to hate are out of it, but I'm finding myself happy enough just being able to watch great baseball. No matter which of these teams end up in the final showdown, we should be treated to an epic World Series, untainted by the spectre of animosity that has shadowed the AL East for so long.
I'm kind of looking forward to it.