The three best teams in baseball all play in the same division. The Yankees will face intense competition as they seek to defend their 2009 AL East and World Series crowns. In the first segment of a 3-part series, we match them up position-by-position to see how the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees compare against each other offensively.

DH:
Burrell .343
Ortiz .371
Johnson .375

Those numbers are each player’s wOBA projection. The number comes from averaging the Bill James, CHONE, ZiPS, Marcel, and Fans projection — courtesy of Fangraphs.

Pat the Bat may well beat his projection if healthy, but the Rays are a clearly a step behind at DH.

Nell Carter is 35, is now three years removed from being an elite hitter, and has a three-year trend of declining walk rate, contact rate, and power. His power in the second-half last year is a sign of hope, but this projection would represent a rebound close to his career average. There’s more downside than upside in it.

The Stick, on the other hand, has quite a bit going for him. His power outage last season looks like a one-year aberration. He’s moving to a park that should do wonders to correct that. This is his first chance to be a regular DH and stem the tide of disease that has left his body withered and weathered. Unlike his designated colleagues, his reverse platoon splits mean that managers will not gain an edge by matching up against him in high-leverage situations.

Advantage: Yankees

C:
Navarro/Shoppach .301/.335
Martinez .365
Posada .356

Baseball Prospectus has the Rays giving Navarro the better part of a timeshare at catcher. Based on the hitting projections and Shoppach’s serious power upside (he flashed some ridiculous pop in Cleveland two years ago), they’d do better to make the starting job KShop’s to lose. Either way, their production behind the plate is not going to be in the same class as the big boys.

Victor Martinez is the best hitting catcher in baseball behind Joe Mauer. He has proven to be very durable, with only an injury-plagued 2008 marring an impeccable record of high-plate appearance years.

Posada has continued to outpace Father Time, and he is still a great hitting catcher. But he will turn 39 this year, and his performance and playing time are going to fall. Hopefully, it will be a slow, graceful decline. Hopefully, he stays healthy all year. And hopefully, AJ can get over his urinephobia so Jorge doesn’t have to sit every day Burnett pitches.

Advantage: Sox

1B:
Pena .378
Youkilis .386
Teixeira: .396

Pena has the most raw power of the group, but he also has the worst strike zone control. Presumably his broken hand is healed, but he’s still a step behind his counterparts.

Youuuuukkkkkkkkkkkkkkk turned in a monster season in ’09 and has established himself as one of the best hitters in the league. His .359 BABIP is going to come down a bit and he’s unlikely to reach those storied heights again.

Tex has had a wOBA over .400 for three years running. He has an elite and stable skill set. At 30, he’s a year younger than the Greek God of Goat-Like Facial Hair. Teixeira is the best and most reliable hitter of the bunch.

Advantage: Yankees

2B:
Rodriguez .332
Pedroia .368
Cano .355

The Rays acquired Sean Rodriguez from the Angels last year in the Scott Kazmir deal. He has put up great minor league numbers and his spring training performance has put him in line for a majority of the PAs at 2B. The Rays also have Willy Aybar and super-sub, Ben Zobrist. When Zobrist plays 2B, he gives the Rays the best offensive production at this position. As it stands, SRod’s presence here mean the Rays will finish 3rd in offensive production at this position too.

Standing just 4-feet tall, Dustin Pedroia and his friend PECOTA proved all the scouts and haters wrong. He’s become one of the best hitting second basemen in the AL. While his skills don’t hint at him reaching another level, he is entering his peak production season at age 27 — so there’s no reason to expect anything less than he’s shown so far.

Every old-fogey, ex-player TV broadcaster feels the need to say that “This Cano kid is gonna win a batting title some day.” Probably because they keep hearing other old-fogies repeating the same trope over and over again. Despite that deep analysis, Robbie Cano still has a career 4.2% walk rate. He’s also year older than Pedroia, so there’s not much hope for more upside.

Advantage: Sox

SS:
Bartlett .340
Scutaro .334
Jeter .362

Bartlett came out of nowhere to post a .389 wOBA last year. He did this in at age 30 and with a .364 BABIP. Translation: It’s not going to happen again. On the bright side, whenever I hear his name I always think of A. Bartlett Giamatti, who wrote the greatest baseball essay of all-time.

Scutaro is a similar story, showing a marked improvement in his age 34 season. However, Scutaro showed actual skill improvement, particularly in his walk rate. That may stick, but he still just had his career year. Shortstop is Theo’s Kryptonite.

Do you know Derek Jeter? Have you accepted him into your heart? Jeter completes the trifecta of shortstops who had an unexpected spike in production at a late age. So, the projection systems call for a large regression. That still leaves Jeter as the class of the field. There’s also the fact that Derek Sanderson Jeter transcends normal physical boundaries, so who knows what the guy is capable of doing at 36 years of age.

Advantage: Yankees

3B:
Longoria .384
Beltre .334
Rodriguez .406

There is a broad consensus that Longoria is the best value in baseball. He’s young, he’s cheap, he’s a superior defender, and he has one of the top bats at his position.

As an average hitter with an elite glove, Beltre certainly provides the Red Sox with value. And, getting out of Seattle will help his offensive numbers. In fact, the Green Monster can give a huge boost to a righty-pull hitter (cf: Garciaparra, Nomar). Nonetheless, from an offensive perspective, Beltre can’t hold the jockstrap of these other two third basemen.

He’s 35 and ARod is still the best hitter on any of these three teams, regardless of position. Only the hip can slow him down.

Advantage: Yankees

LF:
Crawford .355
Ellsbury .350
Gardner .331

Crawford rebounded from injury to put up a very valuable season last year, which in turn made every MSM writer write the same exact boilerplate about how the Yankees are destined to sign him in 2011. We at NoMaas are already on record disagreeing with this notion. But, we still recognize that Crawford is, at present, an All Star-caliber LF — a tremendous defender with an above average bat and elite speed.

Elssbury profiles surprisingly similarly to Crawford. Neither walk or strikeout much, and both have top tier speed. They project for an almost equivalent wOBA. The defensive metrics say that the biggest difference is in their defense, where Ellsbury is rated well-below average. However, Theo Epstein has explained that these metrics are bunk and that the Red Sox’s own mojo has Ellsbury as a top notch CF. Whatever.

While Brian Cashman is down with the NoMizzle, he didn’t take our counsel and keep Gardner as a CF. That means that this is the only position where the Yankees will finish last among the three teams.

Advantage: Rays

CF:
Upton .350
Cameron .335
Granderson .363

All three of these centerfielders have a decent shot at beating their projection. For Upton, the key is health. If his shoulder is at full strength, he has huge upside.

The projection systems might be at bit bearish on Cameron because of his age (he turned 63 in January and already has the cushion of social security checks to augment his MLB salary). But, Boston’s racial pioneer has showed no signs of slowing over recent seasons. Like Beltre, he may add a handful of doubles with the help of the Green Monster.

The story for Granderson is the stadium switch. Comerica did not seem to agree with Curtis, as hit far better on the road. Now he moves into a home park perfectly suited for his lefty, flyball generating swing.

Advantage: Yankees

RF:
Zobrist .370
Drew .371
Swish .360

Ben “Super U” Zobrist figures to spend the plurality of his time in right field. His breakout campaign last year was well supported by his skills, and his new level appears to be real. He dramatically increased his already above-average walk rate, and the power has now been proven for two seasons.

Drew has always been a great hitter (career wOBA: .386), but his penchant for getting hurt is not just famous, it’s INfamous. Now 35-years old, can he pick up his skirt and make it through a whole season? Drew’s value, as always, will depend on his not straining a muscle with every step.

Swish rebounded from a dreadful (and dreadfully unlucky) 2008 to post a career season. The switch from Big & Rich to Boogie Down Productions should give him another boost as he looks to keeps the good times rolling. South Bronx, the South South Bronx!

This position is really too close to call. Zobrist and Drew project to be the better hitters, but Swish makes up the difference by holding down the fort every day to build up the runs created.

Advantage: Nobody

In sum, the Rays are clearly in a lower tier when it comes to offense. The Red Sox have one of baseball’s premier offenses, which makes them a major threat to win the AL East. But once again, the leader in runs scored figures to be your World Champion New York Yankees.

Joe Girardi Joe Madden Terry Francona
Who will end up on top?