(I know I already used this picture. Deal with it.)
We're going to change things up a bit for the rotation preview and split it into 2 parts. The reason for this, you ask? The Yankees haven't officially announced who their 4th and 5th starters are going to be. So today, we'll focus on the top of the rotation, where jobs are locked in and the order is set, and tomorrow or whenever Joe gets around to finishing out the rotation, we'll touch on that too.
As for that top of the rotation, it looks very similar to last year's, minus one big retired piece. As he has the last 2 seasons, CC Sabathia will be the ace at the top of the rotation. The big fella had another great year in 2010, and did it all despite having a bad knee that required surgery after the season. That surgery inspired CC to shed some weight in the offseason as he heads into what could be an opt-out year needing to prove that he's worth whatever additional money he will be looking for. Behind the Jeter situation, CC opting out will be the most talked about subplot in Yankeeland, but Carsten is enough of a professional to not let that distract him from getting the job done on the hill. And with the growth he has made becoming a complete pitcher and his improved physical condition, it would be crazy to expect anything less than another 18-20-win, 200+-inning, 2.75-3.25-ERA, 1.10-1.20-WHIP season from him in 2011.
Behind CC will be the tandem of Dr. Burnett and Mr. A.J., the schizophrenic man who can be amongst the best or worst pitchers in the game at any given moment of any given game he's in. After a disastrous 2010 campaign that was more Mr. A.J. than Dr. Burnett, A.J. spent time this offseason working with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild on fixing his mechanical issues, and maybe some of his mental ones. A.J. has looked good in Spring Training, showing an ability to repeat his delivery better and shake off bad pitches, but the true litmus test will be when he's on the hill in a high-pressure situation and has to make a pitch. While they aren't what they used to be, A.J.'s fastball-curveball combo can still generate swings and misses when he locates the pitches, and he is developing his changeup into a pitch that can be very useful in setting up the other two. It would be hard not to, considering how awful his 2010 was, but I expect A.J. to rebound from that mess and be more of a #2 starter this season than the #5 he was last year.
The last of definite 3 is Phil Hughes, who is essentially stepping into the "stopper" role that Andy Pettitte had locked down the last couple seasons. Like A.J., Phil has spent significant time this Spring Training working on his changeup, as he realized that not using it early in 2010 came back to haunt him later in the year. Hughes is also experimenting with his cutter, incorporating a little slider-like action into it to add to his arsenal. His primary stuff is good, no question about that. But Hughes needs to develop 2 more reliable secondary pitches to take the next step towards being a legit top-line starter. The good news this year is that the kid gloves officially come off Hughes and he'll be allowed to do his thing on the mound without worrying about inning/pitch counts. And with a guy with a track record like Larry Rothschild's handling him, Hughes should get the help he needs in his development. He made the All Star team in 2010 with just 2 pitches. Imagine what he could do this year with 3 or 4.