After the disaster that was 2008, the Yankees went out in the '08-'09 offseason and spent nearly a quarter billion dollars to improve their starting pitching. The results of that spending spree (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte) were the key cogs in last season's rotation and the only cogs throughout the postseason, leading the Yankees to their first World Series title since 2000.
With the organization's new dedication to keeping their already astronomical payroll in line, there weren't any big blockbuster deals this offseason, but the Yankees still managed to strengthen their rotation for 2010 with a trade and a promotion from within. Those new faces combined with last year's Big 3 should form one of the strongest rotations in baseball.
returns as the ace and anchor of the rotation after a great first year in pinstripes. His performance as the regular season progressed and even more in the postseason signified the completion of his transformation from hard-throwing kid to polished Major League pitcher. Gone are the days of CC just rocking and firing; now he has mastered his off-speed pitches, thinks more on the mound, and paces himself throughout each start, knowing there is always another battle to fight. That newfound approach to the game was especially important in keeping Sabathia fresh through last season as there were concerns about his size and conditioning becoming an issue.
Having already justified his $161-million contract with an ALCS MVP and a World Series ring in his first year, Sabathia should be even better in 2010. His cutter and changeup were vital pitches for him in the postseason and should serve him well this year as CC spent the better part of Spring Training working on getting the feel for those back. When his slider is on it's virtually unhittable, especially when it's diving to the back foot of right-handed hitters, and when needed, CC can still ratchet up the heat on his fastball. He's the most complete, dominant pitcher on the staff with a temperament perfectly suited to pitching under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium, and is looking at another season with 200+ innings, 15-20 wins, an ERA in the low-to-mid 3.00's, and more consideration for AL Cy Young.
had a season of ups and downs last year and will be looking for more consistency in 2010. While some of his overall peripheral numbers were good in '09, Burnett too often switched between throwing 7 or 8 shutout innings and then going out next time and getting yanked after giving up 6 or 7 runs in 3 innings. Burnett's issues were all based around command or lack thereof and those command problems were reflected in his high walk and wild pitch totals. Much like CC, A.J. has dynamite stuff and when he's on his fastball-curveball combo is as devastating as any in the game. Burnett's problem, as it's always been, is being on and staying on.
Burnett found a security blanket with Jose Molina after clashing with Jorge earlier in the year, but this year he won't have that benefit and has already made great efforts to work with Jorge and iron out their differences from last year. Early reviews from both of them and from observers are that they are on the same page and working together much better than last year. That fact, along with A.J. spending a lot of time working on improving his changeup during Spring Training should help him fix some of last year's problems. Burnett is a horse, so the innings and strikeouts are always going to be there. If he can cut down on the walks and wild pitches and use his changeup to keep batters off-balance and not sit on the heater or the curve, he can improve greatly on last year's numbers and potentially give the Yankees the best 1-2 punch in the league.
Just like Derek Jeter yesterday, there isn't much you have to say about Andy Pettitte
. If A.J. Burnett is the Forrest Gump "box o' chocolates" in the Yankee rotation, then Andy is the pack of Bazooka bubble gum; you know exactly what you're going to get with him.
With his velocity long diminished, Andy has transitioned seamlessly to being primarily a finesse pitcher, kind of Tom Glavine-y if you will (and I think you will). His cutter is now his best pitch and Andy uses it to induce ground balls and swings and misses from righties. His curveball can still be a killer too when he's got good command of it, and Andy mixes in enough 4-seam fastballs, changeups, and some sinkers to keep batters on their toes every time they step in the box. Because he has the ability to throw any pitch at any time in the count, you've either got to guess right or have him miss his target completely to get good wood on the ball.
Andy is the elder statesmen of the rotation, but last season he got stronger as the season wore on, continuing all the way through the playoffs where he pitched on short rest. He is a big injury risk this year at his age and it would be a shock if he put up the same kind of numbers he did last year, but with improved depth behind him in the rotation and a stacked bullpen, the Yankees don’t need and probably aren't expecting him to. Anything close to what he did in '09 is gravy for the Yankees, as long as they have him as healthy as possible for the postseason.
The new guy to the party this year, Javier Vazquez
, is someone who's been here before. After a night-and-day 2004, Javy was shipped out of town and now comes back after traveling to Arizona, Chicago, and Atlanta a more mature and polished pitcher than he was before he left.
Just like Burnett, Vazquez has always had the stuff to be successful. And just like Burnett, Javy's success comes down to being consistent and mentally focused. Now that he has spent some time working on his craft, Javy has changed his approach on the mound to include more off-speed pitches and that new approach brought him his greatest season of his career last year with the Braves. He likely won’t put up those numbers this year being back in the AL East, but it is certainly not out of this world to expect him to pitch in the mid-to-high 3.00's in ERA and log 200+ innings. Any team in baseball would kill to get that kind of production from their 4th starter and the Yankees would be ecstatic about that as well after what Chien-Ming Wang did last year. Nobody is expecting Vazquez to compete for the Cy Young, but an above-average year and 12-15 wins aren't out of the question.
Last but not least, the winner of the rotation sweepstakes, Phil Hughes
. Phil has been one of the crown jewels of the Yankee system since what seems like about 1987, but between injuries, rotation depth, and competition, has never been able to firmly entrench himself on the staff. Last year Hughes found a home and great success (cue the Borat thumbs up) in the bullpen after being shifted there to make room for the returning CMW. While the fewer innings pitched as a result of being a reliever last year will force the Yankees to limit Hughes' innings this season, I feel like the experience and confidence he gained out of the 'pen should help him as he makes the transition back to the rotation.
Hughes, like many other Yankee pitchers, spent the better part of Spring Training working on his changeup, which will give him 4 pitches to work with as a starter. His cutter and curveball were both greatly improved last year, and if he can continue to master the changeup and develop consistent command of his fastball, Hughes can be a more than serviceable 5th starter.
He's still one of the youngest players in the AL (he's only 23; that's younger than me for Christ's sake!) so there's no rush to perform at an All-Star level, and we will undoubtedly see Sergio Mitre a/o Alfredo Aceves for a few starts to keep his innings down, but barring another injury setback I see Hughes finally settling into a starter's role this year and moving towards becoming the top-of-the-rotation stud that the Yankees have envisioned him as for the last 4-5 years.
1) CC Sabathia
2) A.J. Burnett
3) Andy Pettitte
4) Javy Vazquez
5) Phil Hughes
Overall this rotation is much better than what the Yanks opened 2009 with. They have 3 guys capable of throwing 200+ innings and 2 other guys who can easily get 150-170 innings of above-league average output. The only lingering concern could be the after-effects of last postseason's workload on the top 3, but steps have already been taken this spring to limit workloads, especially Pettitte's, in an effort to ease that concern. One thing is for sure, this year the rotation has fewer question marks than last year, and with how last year turned out that's a good sign for 2010.