Monday, March 19, 2012

2012 Storylines: Rotation (Over)Depth

(Pretty sure this guy is going to have a spot in the rotation.  Courtesy of The AP)

We're less than three weeks away from Opening Day, so rather than continue to look back at moves made or not made, look too far ahead to 2014, or spend too much time analyzing 20 plate appearances in Spring Training, it's probably best to start focusing on what the upcoming 2012 season has in store for the Bronx Bombers. Consider this the official kickoff of the 2012 AB4AR season preview series as we start broad, looking at the overall themes and storylines that will define the 2012 New York Yankees, and then narrow it down to the specific players once it becomes clear who will make up the 25-man roster. Pitching wins championships, and the Yankees find themselves with plenty of pitching right now, so after the jump I'll delve into the Yankees' suddenly overstocked rotation and how it could shake out over the course of 162 games.

There's a saying in baseball that you can never have too much starting pitching, and the Yankees have followed that saying heading into this season more than I can ever remember. They made upgrading a rotation that faltered in the postseason again their number one priority this offseason and followed through on that commitment in spades. CC Sabathia is back to anchor the staff again, and Ivan Nova is looking to follow up on his surprisingly successful rookie campaign and prove to everyone that 2011 was not just an overachievement. Beyond them, nothing was written in ink on the depth chart and there has been serious turnover behind them to fill out the last three slots in the rotation.

The Yankees uncharacteristically stayed quiet on the free agent pitching market this offseason, letting other teams overpay for guys like C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish who almost everybody thought New York would be in on big time. For once, money seemed to be an issue for the Yanks, as did cautiousness when it came to handing out big commitments in terms of years for guys who weren't sure things. Instead of getting involved in the bidding wars for those names and others, the Yankees brought back Freddy Garcia on another low-cost one-year deal as back-of-the-rotation insurance and focused on putting the finishing touches on a trade that nobody saw coming. They also shipped Phil Hughes back out to California to get in shape for the season, something he didn't do before his disastrous 2011. It was a wake-up call to Hughes and a signal that the Yankees were counting on him to be a major contributor for them in 2012.

On January 13th, the Yankees finally broke their offseason silence by trading Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners for big right hander Michael Pineda. It was a move that nobody saw coming and represented a shift in philosophy as the Yankees used their biggest trade asset to address a position of need and addressed that need in the form of a young, cost-controlled player rather than an older free agent who would have cost more money for more years. This move was supplemented by the immediate signing of Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million deal and just like that the Yankees had rebuilt their rotation. They had gotten younger, better, and deeper, and accomplished all three of those things without giving up a lot of money or sacrificing their ability to be competitive in 2012.

The only problem was that they now had seven starting pitchers competing for five spots. The additions of Pineda and Kuroda all but tolled the bell on the Yankee career of a certain broken orbital-boned Pittsburgh Pirate, and he was traded to Pittsburgh for some non-prospects and contract relief, cutting the competition back down to six for five. While Joe has publicly stated that only CC and Kuroda are guaranteed spots in the rotation, it seemed obvious that Nova and Pineda would also be included and that the real "competition" would once again be for the 5th spot between Hughes and Garcia. Say what you will about the legitimacy of that competition, but there's no denying that the Yankees were well stocked at the starting pitcher spot this spring, and that was before HE came back.

If the Montero-Pineda trade was shocking, then this past Friday's news that Andy Pettitte was returning to the Yankees for the 2012 season was downright flabbergasting. After retiring prior to 2011, Andy reportedly got the itch to pitch again after showing up as a guest instructor a few weeks ago at camp. We now know that the Yankees actually approached him last December about a return before they made the moves to acquire Pineda and Kuroda, and Pettitte has spent the last few months throwing to get ready for a return. He still has about two months of Spring Training activities to go through to get his body in game shape, and it's unknown how much a year away from the grind of a baseball season will affect his performance as a 39-year-old turning 40 in June, but he is back and figures to factor into the rotation discussion at some point in May-June when he's ready. With Andy in the fold, the Yankees once again find themselves with seven guys for five spots.

Let's also not forget the stockpile of Major League-ready or near-ready starting arms in Triple-A. David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell have been very impressive this spring and will likely be the first in line for a call-up if their services are needed during the year. Adam Warren almost made a start for New York last season and is still in the fold, and top prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances turned some heads with some of their outings this spring. The big talk will be the seven Major League guys for five spots, but the reality is that the Yankees have an even dozen pitchers who are capable of stepping in and starting for them this year and capable of pitching well. If you look around the rest of the league, you're going to be hard pressed to find too many other teams that can say that.

Now there might be some problems that arise during the season thanks to this bevy of quality arms. The pressure is going to be on the younger pitchers to perform, the bullpen is always looming as a destination for the Hughes' and Garcias of the world if they are ineffective, as is Triple-A for guys like Nova and Pineda who have options remaining. And Andy will be lingering in the background behind all of them, as calls for his insertion into the rotation will surely start as soon as he's deemed ready to pitch and will only get louder with each subpar performance by another member. There is also the chance for those young guys in the Minors to have their growth stunted by the inability to break into the big leagues. All of these are much better problems to have, however, than the alternative one of not having enough pitching and having to pick the Shawn Chacons, Aaron Smalls, and Chase Wrights off the scrap heap to make spot starts. With this kind of depth, the Yankees can be confident that whoever is on the bump is someone capable of giving them a good outing.

Past postseason struggles and age-related decline aside, it's always expected that the Yankees are going to have plenty of offense and this season is no exception. What hasn't always been a given is the quality and quantity of their starting rotation, but great efforts have been made this offseason to address that issue and right now it's hard to say that those efforts have been unsuccessful. The Yankees have the all-time leader in postseason starts, IP, and wins as their SEVENTH starter right now. That's a good sign for them as they gear up for another postseason run and look to right the wrongs of the last two playoff experiences. If pitching truly does win championships, then the Yankees have to be one of the favorites to take home the title in 2012.

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