The difference in the rivalry this time out, is that the Yankees need pitching more than the Red Sox do. That's a role reversal, putting the Santana sweepstakes in a new perspective for the old rivalry.
As things stand now, the Yankees could begin the 2008 season with two or perhaps even three young pitchers in their starting rotation. The talented trio of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain is a tribute to the fact that the Yankees have embraced a new organizational direction, which is an old organizational direction in the game: Find, develop and nurture your own pitching. This is a more reliable method than buying somebody else's pitching, particularly at today's prices.
But starting two or three young pitchers, no matter how talented they are, is a ticket to having some bumps in the long and winding regular season road. As much as this trio represents a potentially bright future, the Yankees aren't much into transitional seasons. Hence the allure of Santana, twice a Cy Young Award winner, left-handed, healthy, 29 years old next March.
In his Winter Meetings manager-meets-the-media session on Tuesday, the Yankees' new skipper, Joe Girardi, said what must be said, deflecting the Santana possibilities and defending the chances of the current roster.
"I don't get too caught up in what might be," Girardi said. "You go up to the room and you look at the board and you see what you have and what you don't have and you focus on what you have."
To the question of whether the Yankees could win a championship with the starting rotation in its present state, featuring at least two young starters, Girardi responded: "Yes. It is our job to get there as a club. (The young pitchers) are expected to step up and I think they're ready to take that step."
Even if you completely agree with that analysis, Santana's presence could turn the Yankee rotation from a work in progress toward a work of art. And as catcher Jorge Posada has already pointed out, Santana would give the Yankees what they haven't had in recent years, an actual October ace. The postseason scenario has been numbingly similar for the Yanks in recent Octobers. They run into top-shelf pitching that is capable of shutting down even the best offense -- and that means the Yankees' offense -- and their own pitchers are not great enough to respond in kind.
The Red Sox, on other hand, do not have a starting pitching need that is this pressing. They already had, by the numbers, the best pitching in the American League in 2007. They already had a stabilized rotation, even though the talented youngsters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were not fully plugged into it. And now they have a genuine postseason ace in Josh Beckett. He qualifies in that category because he has dominated two Octobers; in 2003 and 2007.
For the Red Sox, the addition of Santana would be more than icing on the cake, because Johan Santana is more than anybody's icing. But it would be adding a superb pitcher to an area of the team that is already superior to the rest of the league. It would put the Red Sox in a starting pitching class by themselves, which is, given the worldwide pitching shortage, the stuff of dreams in contemporary baseball.
True, whichever team could pry Santana loose from the Minnesota Twins would lose at least one promising young starter in return. And to complete the deal, that team would have to pay Santana a record amount of money. The current popular estimate is for a long-term deal that would come to rest somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million. Not long ago that figure for a pitcher would have been unimaginable. But if Barry Zito gets $126 million, suddenly $150 million for Santana becomes understandable, and maybe, in the midst of this inflationary spiral, even defensible.
The Yankees could be accused of bailing out on their developmental program if they trade promising young pitching for Santana. But this would not be like some of the expensive pitching acquisitions the Yankees have attempted in recent seasons. The Yankees have repeatedly paid top dollar for big-name pitching, but big-name pitching in the declining phase. Think Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, and yes, even Roger Clemens.
Johan Santana doesn't fit that profile. A man in the prime of his career, he has only had four seasons as a full-time starter in the Majors. The end should not be anywhere near for this pitcher. His medium-term future can be projected largely as a series of victories.
Perhaps the Twins will not find any of the offers sufficient, and will, even though they apparently cannot hope to re-sign him, will keep him well into the season, before attempting to get a roster windfall in a trade deadline deal. Perhaps the Angels, back in the Santana derby themselves, will make an offer that the Twins cannot refuse and then Santana could elevate the chances of a team on the opposite side of the continent.
But at this point, the search for Santana remains part of the rivalry, a rivalry that has assumed a relentless, 365-day aspect. It is December and the clubs are currently operating out of suites in the Opryland Resort and Convention Center. But it might as well be late September in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.
"It never really stops," Girardi said. "It never takes a break."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.