Remember back when the Yankees were in search of starting pitching? Well, barring a trade, Joe Girardi and the Yankee brain trust suddenly have a different problem. Quantity is no longer an issue, but the quality may leave something to be desired.
While the team and the fans should be comfortable when CC Sabathia takes the ball, the next three spots in the rotation figure to be taken by two second-year players and a 37 year old Japanese import from the NL. Hiroki Kuroda has enough of a track record that I’m reasonably confident he can fill out the third or fourth spot in the rotation, pitching to an ERA of around four and chewing up 180 or so innings. Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova were rookie sensations. The question isn’t whether they have the talent to compete in the majors, but rather if they can duplicate the success they had last year. Still, those questions pale in comparison with the headache that awaits Joe Girardi when trying to find a fifth starter.
The Yankees look to head to Tampa with three options for the 5 hole. Each could conceivably be the best 5th starter in baseball. Or any one of the trio could be the worst pitcher in the league. I’m talking, of course, about AJ Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes. One will break camp with that job, one will be in the bullpen as the long guy/spot starter and one should be a set-up guy.
Hughes: The Yankees desperately want the former first rounder to prove he can be a starter. After all, they’ve invested a ton of time and money into the Southern California native, and starting pitchers prove more valuable over the long-term than relievers. The problem is, Hughes has been a mediocre starter, but has proven lights out as a short reliever. In 71 career starts, Hughes has thrown to a 4.90 ERA while allowing opposing hitters to whack him around to a .751 OPS. In 49 relief appearance, he has a 1.44 ERA while holding opponents to a .470 OPS. To top it off, this is a kid who has spent considerable chunks of time on the DL since coming to the show. And yes, I know he was 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA in the first half of 2010 as a starter. But those numbers were an enigma, as his FIP (essentially, an ERA that doesn’t depend on fielders making great plays) was closer to his career normal ERA, 4.57. In other words, Hughes’ one great stretch as a starter came thanks to his teammates bailing him out more than anything else. And when that luck wore off in the second half, he returned to giving up runs in bunches. (Anyone remember the way Texas clubbed him mercilessly in the ALCS?) So while I can understand Hughes’ desire to be a starter, his best career move is to accept a role as a short reliever. Oddly enough, the Yankees should also accept that eventuality.
Garcia: Look, there’s no doubt that if comparing Freddy Garcia to AJ Burnett stuff-wise, this isn’t even a contest. Garcia is routinely around 89mph now with his fastball, while that’s about the speed AJ throws his change. Despite that, Garcia has outpitched AJ over the past few seasons. The problem for Freddy is that he hasn’t outpitched AJ by enough to get the nod for the fifth rotation spot out of Spring Training. The crafty veteran earned his contract for this season by figuring out ways to wiggle out of men-on-base jams all last summer, but it’s too much to expect a similar magician act this year. Besides, Garcia is on a one year, $5 million deal while AJ still has two years and $31 million left on his. Although the Yankees never admit that contracts come into these decisions, we all saw last season that they do – and will again this year. Freddy will still make the team, replacing the departed Bartolo Colon as the long man out of the pen.
Burnett: I’m not sure what the Yankees were expecting when they handed Burnett that ginormous contract in 2009, but I doubt a 34-35 record and 4.79 ERA was it. (Hopefully, they never spend like that on an erratic, 32 year old pitcher again). Still, it is one of the factors working in his favor when it comes time to pick a fifth starter. There can be no doubt that the Yanks will never be able to deal AJ and that albatross of a contract by burying him on the bench. Besides, there is one other thing that keeps AJ in the rotation: the fact he still has one of the best arms in the game. There is always the hope that this is the year he finally figures out how to be consistently good. Let’s face it: all you’re really hoping for is 25 starts and 150 innings of 4.75 ERA pitching out of the final rotation spot, and AJ is certainly capable of that. Of course, he also has the kind of talent that could turn in 20 spectacular starts. And he’s proven enough of an enigma that he could just as easily turn in 20 of the most horrendous pitching performances known to man. Since he has to be the odds-on favorite to be the 5th starter, we all better hope for the former.
So, there you have it. My best guess as to how the rotation will shake out come April. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!