Thus ends baseball’s first decade of the 21st century.
It was a decade that featured several great teams, but few great World Series. The Yankees hoisted the first and final championship trophies of the period from 2000-09. For most, they established themselves as the “team of the decade” thanks to two championships, two additional pennants, and nine playoff appearances in the 10-year stretch.
Both of the Yankees’ triumphs featured little more than the glimmer of drama. That was true for most of the World Series in the decade. There were some great storylines that impacted not just a year but generations, most notably the titles for the 2004 Red Sox and the 2005 championship for the White Sox.
But aside from a mesmerizing Fall Classic in 2001 when the Diamondbacks beat New York and, arguably, the Marlins’ shocking upset over the Yankees in 2003, few World Series were long enough and dramatic enough to stand out as truly great.
Nonetheless, that takes nothing away from the teams that claimed the championships. Surely, they should not be faulted for simply flattening their opponents en route to the World Series.
While the Yankees were likely the top franchise over the course of the decade, it is interesting to contemplate which of the 10 World Series winners was the best team. Stacked up against each other, which year’s champion was the best?
NO. 10: 2006 CARDINALS
Regular-season record: 83-78 – fewest wins of any World Series winner in the decade
vs. teams over .500: 21-26 (.447) – worst record against teams over .500, and fewest games against teams over .500
Expected record (as calculated by Pythagorean formula, which calculates expected wins based on runs scored and runs allowed): 82-79
Playoffs: 11-5 (1 elimination game)
Strengths: Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright
Weaknesses: Non-existent lineup depth, non-existent starting depth, absence of bullpen stability
This team is the poster child for the fact that the postseason takes on a life of its own, and that any of the eight teams in October can win it all.
The Cardinals made it to the playoffs only because baseball’s rules dictate that the International League, er, N.L. Central needed a postseason representative. The Cardinals thus backed in with a team that was awful in the regular season.
That said, this team did have the benefit of arguably the best hitter and pitcher in the National League. Nonetheless, in baseball, such a tandem rarely guarantees much more than a .500 record (witness the Cardinals’ regular-season performance). In retrospect, it is absurd to think that the likes of Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver and Anthony Reyes could prove dominating, at times, in the most meaningful games of the year.
David Eckstein as World Series MVP? This was lightning in a bottle.
NO. 9: 2003 MARLINS
Regular-season record: 91-71
vs. teams over .500: 53-48
Expected record: 87-75
Playoffs: 11-6 (3 elimination games)
Strengths: Incredible young talent, a singularly dominant postseason pitcher (Josh Beckett), a manager who seemed to hit the jackpot with every gut decision, team speed
Weaknesses: Pitiful outfield production, unpredictable pitching staff
The talent on this Marlins team was, at times, incredible. Not only did the team feature an emergent postseason force in Josh Beckett as well as other long-on-promise starters such as Brad Penny, Dontrelle Willis and Carl Pavano (yes, back when he was promising), but the lineup had speed (Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo), young power hitters in or entering their primes (Mike Lowell, Derrek Lee, Ivan Rodriguez) and a young phenom in Miguel Cabrera.
Even so, this team had no business doing what it did. They were 10 games under .500 on May 22, and they had players who were so young (Beckett was 23, Cabrera 20, Willis 21, Penny 25) that they should have been dealing simultaneously with puberty and developmental issues, perhaps en route to positioning themselves to win in the next year or two.
But Trader Jack McKeon just kept rolling sevens, and Beckett was as dominant as any postseason pitcher in the decade. For perspective: he was great in 2007, when he had a 1.20 ERA in four playoff appearances spanning 30 innings – but he pitched more than 40 percent more innings in forging a 2.11 ERA in 42.2 innings in 2003, a simply enormous workload that was the single most significant factor in the Marlins’ run to the title.
NO. 8: 2000 YANKEES
Regular-season record: 87-74
vs. teams over .500: 42-43
Expected record: 85-76
Playoffs: 11-5 (1 elimination game)
Strengths: Extraordinary production up-the-middle (Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams), Hall of Fame closer, mid-year acquisition (Dave Justice) who was great, postseason rotation experience
Weaknesses: Loads of regular-season underperformers on this team
Based on record, expected record and record against teams with a .500-or-better record, this team could compete with the Cardinals for the worst World Series winner of the decade.
That said, the team’s poor record was largely a byproduct of a sleep-walk over the final couple weeks of the regular season, when the Yankees had an insurmountable division lead over the Red Sox.
Several of their players just had down years at the same time during the 2000 regular season – below their 1999 and 2001 performances – leading to this team being given a position slightly ahead of where its record and regular-season numbers suggested it should rank.
In October, of course, the team flipped the switch. The pitching staff went from mediocre (at times, even poor) in the regular season (4.76 team ERA) to overpowering in the postseason. Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, in particular, went from decent to great in October.
NO. 7: 2008 PHILLIES
Regular-season record: 92-70
vs. teams over .500: 43-46
Expected record: 93-69
Playoffs: 11-3 (no elimination games)
Strengths: Power out the wazoo, team speed, young ace (Cole Hamels), excellent bullpen anchored by closer (Brad Lidge) who didn’t blow a save opportunity
Weaknesses: Mediocre on-base skills, absence of rotation depth behind Hamels
Make no mistake: the 2008 Phillies were a very, very good team – in a separate category from teams 8-10 in this list.
Even so, it had flaws. Indeed, but for the Mets’ late-season collapse, the Phillies might not have made the playoffs (they were on the outside looking in as late as mid-September).
The team could be beaten by good pitching (witness the 43-46 record against teams with records over .500) as a result of its incredibly aggressive offensive approach. Moreover, the rotation behind Hamles – Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers, Joe Blanton, Kyle Kendrick – was hardly intimidating.
But in October, other starters stepped up on Team Hamels, and the Phillies sluggers (most notably Ryan Howard and Chase Utley) mashed when it mattered.
NO. 6: 2005 WHITE SOX
Regular-season record: 99-63
vs. teams over .500: 39-33
Expected record: 91-71
Playoffs: 11-1 (no elimination games) – best postseason record of the decade
Strengths: Consistently solid rotation, power
Weaknesses: Bullpen instability, poor run production/on-base skills
This was a team of lunch-pail professionals, with few stars. Aside from Mark Buehrle, who could become a fringe candidate, there are exactly zero potential Hall of Famers who were members of this team.
In 2005, however, the White Sox managed to squeeze great – and extremely healthy – years out of a group of starters that will never be confused for the ‘90s Braves. Behind Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland were all very, very good – far better, in fact, than they would be at nearly any other point in their careers.
Meanwhile, a team that had to shuffle between closers down the stretch found a playoff anchor in Bobby Jenks. He was a huge (pardon the pun) presence in the postseason.
Even so, in retrospect, this team had no business winning 99 games. It had one of the worst offenses in the American League – aside from Paul Konerko, no other player in the free-swinging lineup combined power with a respectable degree of patience.
In the postseason, the team’s pitching was simply extraordinary. Though the Indians threatened them for about a week in late-September, the White Sox were a wire-to-wire team that spent a year churning out wins beyond their abilities.
Hindsight suggests that this bunch might not have been as good as the Indians team that it beat in the A.L. Central. But a harmonic convergence of events led them to a season of glory. Could the same group replicate that in any other year? Probably not.
NO. 5: 2002 ANGELS
Regular-season record: 99-63
vs. teams over .500: 38-42
Expected record: 101-61 – tied for the best expected record
Playoffs: 11-5 (2 elimination games)
Strengths: Spectacular bullpen, productive lineup
Weaknesses: Absence of dominant starters, no elite power hitters
This was a weird team.
The only players who emerged from this Angels team and achieved stardom (John Lackey, Francisco Rodriguez) were rookies who spent less than half a season with this club. In all likelihood, no player from this group will ever make it to the Hall of Fame.
All kinds of oddities characterized the players’ performances that year. Ramon Ortiz had no business finishing with a sub-4.00 ERA in a year when he allowed 40 homers. Jarrod Washburn was an ace (18-6, 3.15) without any swing-and-miss pitches.
Their lineup had some very productive members, such as Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus and Garrett Anderson. Meanwhile, scrappy players such as David Eckstein, Scott Spiezio and Adam Kennedy performed at or near career-best levels.
The team did have a bullpen that could regularly churn out four dominating innings – particularly once Rodriguez emerged as a force in the playoffs in front of super-closer Troy Percival. This was arguably the first group since the 1990 Reds to win a World Series with its primary strength lying in the bullpen.
Like the White Sox, this was a team that had everything click at the right moment, but it’s hard to imagine that the same group could have replicated its amazing season in any other year.
NO. 4: 2001 DIAMONDBACKS
Regular-season record: 92-70
vs. teams over .500: 42-43
Expected record: 94-68
Playoffs: 11-6 (2 elimination games)
Strengths: Hall of Fame-caliber aces (Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling), a player having an absurdly good year (Luis Gonzalez)
Weaknesses: Absence of lineup depth, absence of rotation depth, closer prone to crumple publicly
This ranking may well represent too great an emphasis on great players as opposed to a well-built, top-to-bottom roster. The Diamondbacks had two great players in Johnson and Schilling, and one player who inexplicably assembled a season for the ages in Gonzalez, who swatted 57 homers, drove in 142, walked 100 times and had a 1.188 OPS.
Aside from that, the D-backs had a couple of very solid contributors (Reggie Sanders, Mark Grace), a couple of interesting but ultimately erratic arms in B.K. Kim and Miguel Batista, and little else.
Even so, wouldn’t you give this team a fighting chance to beat any other World Series winner this decade on the basis of Johnson and Schilling alone?
THE BIG THREE
The 2009 Yankees, 2007 Red Sox and 2004 Red Sox occupy a separate stratosphere from the other World Series winners this decade. The lineup depth of all three teams was unbelievable. All three featured closers who were forces in October. All three featured rotations capable of dominating in the postseason.
The fact that these three teams were the best of the World Series winners this decade is a pretty good indication about what it takes to build a winner in the American League East. Teams with glaring deficiencies do not survive baseball’s most brutal division. Greatness is a mandate for teams to emerge from the A.L. East with 95 or more wins. A position-by-position look at the top three champions of the past 10 years serves as a reminder of that notion. (See chart.)
So, choosing the best team from among those three counts as an exercise in splitting hairs. Here is how we did so:
NO. 3: 2004 RED SOX
Regular-season record: 98-64
vs. teams over .500: 42-31 (.575 winning percentage, second best of any World Series winner this decade against clubs with winning records)
Expected record: 98-64
Playoffs: 11-3 (4 elimination games)
Strengths: Incredible middle of the order complemented by ability to mash top to bottom, elite top two starters, workhorse closer
Weaknesses: Defense, injured ace, questions entering postseason about rest of rotation
The 2003-04 Red Sox lineups steamrolled opponents. It was next to impossible for even elite pitchers to keep this team from its offensive fireworks. Once the team acquired Curt Schilling as a complement to Pedro Martinez, and added Keith Foulke to the back end of the bullpen, it seemingly had a beginning-to-end formula for dominance.
Shortcomings did emerge. The team’s defense was appallingly bad at several positions, necessitating wholesale defensive replacements towards the end of games. Moreover, a rotation that appeared on paper to be dominant with Schilling, Martinez and Derek Lowe, proved surprisingly suspect at times over the year.
Martinez was great for most of the year, but struggled in September, and it seemed reasonable to wonder if he was running on fumes with his velocity rarely cracking 90 mph. Lowe performed so poorly that he was removed from the rotation entering the postseason, only to reappear in it during the playoff run.
This was a team that required more holes to be patched than the top two entrants into this discussion. For that reason, it ends up ranking slightly behind the decade’s best.
NO. 2: 2007 RED SOX
Regular-season record: 96-66
vs. teams over .500: 44-40
Expected record: 101-61 (tied for the best expected record)
Playoffs: 11-3 (3 elimination games)
Strengths: Balance: a deep lineup, two of the most dominant postseason starters of all time, excellent defense, untouchable closer, solid setup man
Weaknesses: Bullpen behind Hideki Okajima, rotation questions (health, performance) behind Beckett, some apparent lineup holes
The ’07 Sox were a wire-to-wire winner that pulled away from the pack in the A.L. East in the season’s first month and a half and, consequently, got to spend the rest of the year aligning itself for the postseason. The strategy paid enormous dividends, as Josh Beckett was positioned to dominate for the postseason, and other players – such as Manny Ramirez – were similarly given lengthy spells to rest.
This was probably the most balanced team of any of the World Series winners. There were no glaring weaknesses.
That said, there were some questions. Schilling was making the adjustment to a diminished arsenal. Daisuke Matsuzaka had performed unevenly in his first year in Major League Baseball. Ramirez – in a season when his numbers were the worst of his Red Sox career – missed almost all of the final several weeks of the season with an oblique injury, and so it was unclear whether he and David Ortiz would be able to deliver their customary beat-downs to opposing pitchers.
Ultimately, the questions were answered in dramatic fashion by a superb team that had any number of ways to beat opponents. The Sox were above average, even well above average at times, with their offense, defense, rotation and bullpen.
The biggest – and perhaps only – slight against the team was that it was only slightly better than .500 against teams with winning records. The Sox’ .524 winning percentage against such teams ranked fifth among the 10 World Series winners this decade, suggesting a club that could be handled on occasion by elite opponents.
No. 1: 2009 Yankees
Regular-season record: 102-60 – most wins of any World Series winner in the decade
vs. teams over .500: 52-35 (.598) – best record against over .500 teams in the decade
Expected record: 95-67 (though expected record once A-Rod returned on May 8 would have translated to 101-61)
Playoffs: 11-4 (no elimination games)
Strengths: Power, lineup depth, switch-hitters all over the lineup, ace, closer, swing-and-miss middle relievers
Weaknesses: Age, defense, rotation behind ace
They took possession of first place on July 21 and never relinquished it. No team in the decade cruised in a fashion along the lines of the Yankees. New York never had to break a sweat over the final two months of the regular season, and they were one of three teams (along with the 2008 Phillies and 2005 White Sox) in the decade who did not face a single elimination game in the postseason.
The 2009 Yankees featured two certain Hall of Famers (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera), another player who will get in if voters do not punish him for his steroid admission (Alex Rodriguez), two more fringe candidates (Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada) and two players in their primes on Hall of Fame tracks (Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia). They banged out more than 100 wins and pulled away in a brutal American League East that was likely the single most challenging division of the decade.
The defense was not perfect, but it was viable, thanks in no small part to the improvement brought by Mark Teixeira at first base and surprising improvements (most of the time) in the play of second baseman Robinson Cano. Though some quibbled at times about the team's middle relievers, Phil Hughes and David Robertson (and, when he was in the bullpen, Joba Chamberlain) all represented tremendous arms to bridge the game to Mariano Rivera.
There were also questions about A.J. Burnett (makeup) and Andy Pettitte (age, arsenal) … but when your issues revolve around one pitcher with perhaps the best pure stuff in the majors, and another with the most postseason wins in baseball history, you have a damn good team.