Tuesday, April 3, 2012

2012 AB4AR Season Preview: The Rotation

(Hey new guy!  Courtesy of The AP)

For the first time in what seems like ages, the Yankees enter a season without major questions in the rotation.  Sure, there are still questions, but not of the usual "Who's going to be the __th starter?" variety that has been the norm for the past few years.  The Yankees went out this offseason and made moves to fortify both the depth and the talent level of their rotation, starting with the new contract for CC and ending with the surprise signing and un-retirement of Andrew Eugene Pettitte.  There have been a few bumps in the road in Spring Training leading up to the final determination of the starting 5, and some who were thought to be a part of the Opening Day rotation won't be, but the Yankees head into the 2012 season with a no-doubt starting 5 intact and plenty of reserves on standby to cover for injuries or ineffectiveness.  The 2011 rotation ended up being sneaky good, much better than most people anticipated.  Expectations are much higher for 2012's group and they should be.  Despite the recent injury issues, there is no reason that the rotation can't be a major strength for the Bombers in 2012.

Starting at the top, CC Sabathia will once again be the ace of the staff, and as aces go you can't do a whole lot better than CC.  He's big, he's durable, he gives his team lots of innings, and he produces at a Cy Young-worthy level in those innings.  At this point, CC's transformation from thrower to pitcher is complete, as he has a firm grasp on all the pitchers in his arsenal and knows how to use them all to be effective against any type of hitter and any lineup.  The hefty lefty is coming off of his best season in pinstripes (3.00/2.88/3.02 with 8.72 K/9 and 2.31 BB/9 in 237.1 IP in 2011) and will be looking to build on that with another re-commitment to managing his weight.  He shed some pounds before arriving at camp last year, but over the course of the season put it all back on.  He has dropped a few LBs again in 2012, and is planning to make a concerted effor to keep it off and keep himself fresh over the long haul.  Despite his size, CC has never been a big injury risk, but as he starts to transition further into his 30s that injury risk becomes greater and the Yankees want to do everything they can to keep him healthy.  He's struggled with his command a bit in camp this year, specifically his fastball, but right now there's no reason to expect anything other than another stellar year from him.

More after the jump

Behind CC in the rotation will be the first of the Yankees' new acquisitions, former LA Dodger Hiroki Kuroda.  There's nothing flashy about Kuroda's game, but the guy has been damn effective in his time in the Majors.  He pitches quality innings, throws strikes, keeps the ball down in the zone, and when he's on he generates a lot of weak contact and groundballs, something that will be appreciated in a hitter's park like Yankee Stadium.  Kuroda is expected to provide stability and consistency behind CC in the rotation and even though he is a first-timer in New York he should do just that.  At age 36, he isn't likely to be affected by the intense media scrutiny that has done others in during their time in New York, and his pitching profile also makes him less likely to experience a major decline in performance by switching leagues.  His numbers might take a bit of a hit, but overall Kuroda should provide exactly what the Yankees are looking for in their #2 starter.  200+ innings and a FIP in the mid-to-high 3.00s would be fantastic.

The #3 starter to open the year is somebody Yankee fans are very familiar with and somebody with a lot to prove this year in Phil Hughes.  He got a little fat and happy after his breakthrough 2010 season, washed 2011 down the drain thanks to poor conditioning and shoulder fatigue, and came back to camp in 2012 in shape and ready to re-establish himself as a key piece of the present and future rotation.  All Hughes has done since showing up is be the best starting pitcher in camp, earning himself the #3 spot instead of the #5 he was supposed to be competing for.  Hughes finally seems to be putting all the pieces together that made him a hot prospect.  His fastball velocity is back up and he's been locating it very well in all his ST outings, his curveball looks much sharper and has been swing-and-miss good at times, and his changeup has developed into a useful pitch.  If he can stay healthy, Hughes is more than capable of putting up a repeat of his 2010 season, if not an improvement upon those numbers.

The next spot in the rotation is the wild card spot, and that wild card is Ivan Nova.  Nova surprised a lot of people with his 16-win rookie season last year.  He was marginally effective in the first half of the season and then closed with a bang after coming back from an undeserved demotion to Triple-A and showcasing much better fastball command and an improved slider.  He pitched lights out in his ALDS Game 1 start/relief appearance and created some higher expectations for himself for 2012.  Having only a few months of elevated performance to work off of, it's unknown whether Nova can repeat what he did in 2011 and meet those expectations or possibly even exceed them.  His command has been very hit-or-miss this spring, and without electric stuff that's what gets him into trouble.  But there's no denying that Nova's stuff and demeanor on the mound is better than originally advertised, and if he can build on what he did in the 2nd half of last season, he could give the Yankees well above-average production and value from the fourth spot in the rotation.

Closing out the starting 5 is the one remaining back end savior from last year's rotation, Freddy Garcia.  Freddy was staring down the barrel of bullpen duty until Michael Pineda was put on the DL, but with how he's pitched in camp it certainly looks like last year's rebound was no fluke.  Garcia is even less flashy than Kuroda but he knows how to pitch and mixes his offspeed stuff well to generate weak contact from right and left-handed hitters.  He's also a master of picking his spots with his fastball to maximize its value as a pitch that sits in the high 80s.  He's probably the leading candidate to experience some regression in his numbers from last year given the type of pitcher he is and the type of park in which he's pitching, but Freddy can definitely give the Yankees value from the back of the rotation while he's still a part of it.  The better he pitches, the more difficult he will make the Yankees' decision of what to do with him.

The Yankee rotation is in a much better place to open the 2012 season than it was a year ago, and that's not even counting Andy Pettitte and Michael Pineda.  Barring injury or extreme ineffectiveness, Pettitte is going to be in the Yankee rotation at some point this season, and ST disappointments or not, the Yankees didn't trade away their best prospect to have Pineda languish in Triple-A all year.  Once he's back to full strength, a spot will be made for him.  This type of depth will keep everybody on their toes all year and will create incentive (and pressure) for Hughes, Nova, and Garcia to pitch well.  Regardless of who ends up being in the rotation at any given time, the Yankees can feel confident that they'll have a guy on the mound capable of giving them at least a good outing every single game, and that's a great luxury to have.

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