NESN Debates: Is it Important for Red Sox to Win AL East Title?

 NESN Debates: Is it Important for Red Sox to Win AL East Title? Editor's note: Each week, NESN.com's editorial staff will debate a topic via email in a feature called "Field Judges." We'll post the conversation and the ruling on NESN.com.

This week's question(s): Does it matter if the Red Sox win the division, which leads to the follow-up question, should they do all they can to win the AL East?

Mike Cole, Assistant Editor, 11:46 a.m., Wednesday

Good morning all,
I hope this finds you well. It's that time of the week — albeit a little late — for everyone to fight for second place behind yours truly on the NESN debate team in this week's Field Judges.

With the Yankees in town for what now looks like a spirited three-game set, we're going to talk baseball again this week. More specifically, we're talking the AL East. From a Red Sox point of view, this is kind of a two-part question. Does it matter if the Red Sox win the division, which leads to the follow-up question, should they do all they can to win the AL East?

There are a ton of factors involved here. Does who you would play in the first round matter? Do you place a greater emphasis on getting healthy, getting rested and getting your rotation in order? Are you just competitive and say if there's a race for the division, you should go for the win?

Tons to debate. So let's have at it my friends.

Ben Watanabe, Assistant Editor, 4:24 p.m., Wednesday

I remember in 1995 when winning the division pennant was kind of a big deal. The Red Sox were still affected by the curse and fans had not quite adjusted to the idea that the wild card entrant had as good a chance of winning the World Series as anyone else. People still bought "Division champs" T-shirts and we all thought it was a big deal. Nine years later, the Red Sox won it all and many people hardly noticed they did it via the wild card. Other than home field advantage -– which only served to assure the Red Sox celebrated both the 2004 and 2007 titles away from Fenway Park – the difference between the division title and the wild card is negligible.

So I'll now pull a complete 180 and declare that, yes, it is important for the Red Sox to win the AL East this season. Other than a love of contradicting myself, I'm somewhat swayed by the proposed realignment. By next season, we could have an odd number of teams in each league, a wild card play-in game, and three days off between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason for division winners. The whole thing is going to feel a lot different. They're considering doing away with the concept of division winners altogether and simply taking the top four teams from each league as an alternative to the "play-in" series. This would be more fair for clubs like Tampa Bay and Toronto, who often put a product on the field at least as good or better than the junk that comes out of the AL Central.

If this is the last year any team will be able to stake a claim to the title of "American League East Division Champions," I'd like the Red Sox to own it. Just think, the Red Sox would forever be the reigning AL East champs. I think we’d all rather the Red Sox have those bragging rights than the Yankees.

Michael Hurley, Senior Assistant Editor, 10:04 a.m., Thursday

Nobody likes a fence-sitter, but in this situation, there is no choice.

It's as simple as this: Yes, winning the division is important, because when your home ballpark is as unique as Fenway, you’d like to play there as much as possible in October. It's important because you can generally pick your ALDS schedule, which allows you to pick your days off. It's important, on a lesser level, to call yourself AL East champs, as Ben said. Plus, it’s always nice for the Red Sox when they finish the season better than the Yankees. For all the successes of the past eight years or so, that's only happened twice since the strike.

While all of that is important, here is what’s more important: Health and the rotation. Terry Francona is just not going to burn out his regulars to win a title when they've got the wild card locked up. He's not. You can look at 2008 for a recent example. The Sox had a chance to win the division if they swept the Yankees at Fenway Park. Instead, in the series opener, Francona gave at-bats to Chris Carter, Jonathan Van Every and Jeff Bailey. Gil Velazquez started at second, Kevin Cash behind the plate. David Pauley made one of his two starts that night, and he got shelled (seven runs in 2 2/3 innings).

The Sox lost 19-8. They happily accepted their playoff berth as the wild card.

Obviously, that postseason didn't end as they'd hoped, but the message was clear. Terry Francona values resting his position players and setting up his rotation over going for broke and winning the division. If the Red Sox can take care of both, they'll be happy, but that clubhouse knows there are bigger fish to fry than a division title.

I tend to agree with him, too. If the Red Sox needed two wins to close out the season and win the division, would you want Jon Lester and Josh Beckett to pitch those games, thereby setting up either John Lackey, Erik Bedard or Andrew Miller to start Game 1 of the ALDS?

Tony Lee, NESN.com Red Sox beat writer, 12:10 p.m., Friday

Two recent comments stand out to me when thinking about this issue.

One came from newly acquired Red Sox outfielder Conor Jackson, who was asked upon his arrival what it will be like to be on the home side at Fenway Park.

"Any time you come here to play as an opposing player, it’s intimidating," Jackson said. “There are definitely fans that get in your head.”

Another comment came from manager Terry Francona when he was asked about the debate last week.

"There's advantages, obviously, to playing at home [in the playoffs]," he said.

Now, it should be noted that Francona also stressed his reluctance to win the division at all costs and emphasized the importance of being rested and ready, and Mr. Hurley pointed out a fine example of that mindset. But when we're talking about October, we're usually talking about tight games in short series with very little margin for error. It would seem that any "intimidation" or "advantages" gained by playing at Fenway Park as many times as possible is certainly worth striving for.

That's not to say Francona should do everything he can to beat out the Yankees. And having home field advantage in the postseason is not even a sure thing (home teams were 13-19 in the 2010 playoffs). Yes, the tournament can become a crapshoot. As we sit here today, though, the thought of playing those first two tone-setting games in Boston is vastly different from the idea of beginning in a place like Texas or Detroit. Same goes for a potential deciding Game 5, regardless of what the home-road history in October might suggest.

Entering Friday's play, the top three playoff contenders outside of the division — Detroit, Texas and Anaheim — were separated by 3 1/2 games. And we know the AL East is up for grabs, hence the debate in the first place. That means forecasting who plays who is somewhat pointless right now. What we do know is what awaits the division winner in terms of where it plays, and I'll take an opportunity to start the postseason at home any day.

This debate can really rage in the final week of the season, when we have a better idea of who the opponent will be and how the Red Sox rotation is lined up. At that point, Francona can assess the situation and either put his foot on the gas or pull back on the reins, give Kyle Weiland a start and sit Dustin Pedroia, or whatever he needs to do.

Until then, his club should be doing all it can to ensure it opens October (it's actually Sept. 30 this year) at home, where intimidation and advantages await.

Mike Cole

The more I think about this, it seems like it really is too early to debate, but with the Yankees in town this week, it made sense. We may even get a better idea of how important the outcome of this question is this weekend when Texas, a potential playoff opponent, comes into town with something to prove after last week.

Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I think you have to lean toward being sharp and ready and most importantly, healthy, when the playoffs start. Winning the division is nice, but when you are as good as the Red Sox are, don't you feel that you can go into any park and win? I sure think so.

Now, there is something to be said for having homefield, particularly when you play your home games at Fenway. But, there's also something to be said, as Hurley touched upon, for having Beckett and Lester (or Lester and Beckett) ready to go in Games 1 and 2 in say, Texas.

That's the biggest thing to me. I feel like the Red Sox are good enough to beat anyone, anywhere. For further proof of this, please see Boston's 42-26 record away from the Fens. Am I manipulating the stats by using regular season numbers to proof a playoff point? Am I swayed by the fact that the Sox wiped out the Rangers last week deep in the heart of Texas? You bet and yessir. But this is my space, so tough noogies.

I'm also with T-Lee in my advice to Terry Francona, though: Just keep winning, my man. Win this series. And then the next. And then maybe the next. Build your lead in the early weeks of September and then put your feet up, chew some bubble gum and break out the fuzzy fleece for October because you'll be going to open the playoffs at home — and as AL East champions.

Oh, and steer clear of David Pauley.

RULING

We had a 180 and a guy sitting on a fence, but the answer is somewhat clear. The consensus seems to be that winning the AL East and getting to play at Fenway Park to open any series that isn't the World Series, is the way to go, at least for now. Just don't get anybody hurt.

Yardbarker

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