Thursday, June 21, 2012

Musing On The Future Of The 2012 Rotation

2012 has been a season of surprises for the Yankee starting pitching staff.  The mid-January trade for Michael Pineda was a surprise, as was the follow-up signing of Hiroki Kuroda, who did not appear to be on the Yankees' radar anymore at the time.  Andy Pettitte announcing his return was a surprise, and a welcome one after the surprising season-ending labrum tear suffered by Pineda.  Once the season started, the poor collective performance out of the gate was a bit surprising, with guys like Kuroda and Ivan Nova, who were expected to be at least above-average, contributing more poor starts than good ones.  The recent turnaround and red hot streak of the rotation (Phil Hughes' stinker yesterday not included) has been surprising.  And I don't think any of us envisioned Andy's comeback being this successful or a stretch where every start was pitching like a #1 or #2 guy.

This continuing string of surprises from what is almost always the most talked-about part of the Yankee roster should make the next 94 games incredibly exciting for Yankee fans.  Where will they go from here?  Who will continue to pitch well?  Will anybody get hurt?  Will the team trade for another pitcher (hopefully not)?  And not to jump the gun or anything, but assuming they make it, what is the postseason rotation going to look like?  But as I sit here on another off day, with Phil's bad outing very easy to analyze and nothing else really jumping out at me, my thoughts about the current rotation start to drift further into the future. I start to wonder about just where this group is going to be in 2013 and if there's a possibility of all of them being back in pinstripes.

CC Sabathia has his big new deal that I believe signifies him committing to ending his career as a Yankee and eventually going into the Hall of Fame with a Yankee hat on his head.  He's not going anywhere.  Ivan Nova is still young, still technically before his prime, and under team control until 2017.  Even as a #3-#4-type who can eat innings and generate a good rate of groundballs, he's incredibly valuable and won't cost the team a lot; he's back.  Pineda is in the same boat as Nova as far as team control goes, is even younger than Nova, and with what they gave up to get him there's no chance in hell that they cut bait because of one injury; back.  Phil Hughes is a little more expensive than those 2, but he still has one more arb-eligible year next year and would still be a good bargain.  Even with all his issues, if he finishes this season healthy I expect the Yankees to bring him back.

That's 80% of a potential 2013 rotation covered right there with the ace and the young bucks.  But what about the old guys?  Hiroki Kuroda was only signed to a 1-year deal, and the expectation was that he would be a one-and-done to make room for somebody new in 2013.  But if he continues to pitch well, would the Yankees consider bringing him back?  As up-and-down as his first month was, Kuroda's overall body of work this season has been solid.  He's allowed 3 ER or less in 10 of his 14 starts, has gone 6 or more innings in 9 of 14, and seems to be settling in to pitching in the AL.  Another season line similar to what he did from 2008-2011 in LA could theoretically earn him a bigger contract, but keep in mind that that track record didn't do him any favors this past offseason, and he'll go into this next one another year older.

The even crustier old codger, Andy Pettitte, is an even more intriguing case.  What Andy has done in his 7 starts since re-joining the rotation in May has been nothing short of amazing.  His tripleslash numbers (2.77/3.51/3.03) are the best they've been since 2005 when he was in Houston, and his strikeout numbers (8.51 K/9) are the best they've been since '04.  There was a sense, at least from my perspective, that Andy just really wanted to see if he could still do this and I think it's safe to say that those questions have been answered.  Clearly he has nothing left to prove, and could very easily walk away on his own terms with no regrets after the conclusion of the 2012 season.

But I've always felt that another big factor in driving his comeback was his desire to pitch one more time with his friend and teammate Mariano Rivera in his final season.  With Rivera's injury putting an end to that possibility this year, it begs the question of whether or not Andy would want to come back and try it again in 2013, knowing how he was still able to perform at a top level this year.  If Mo makes his comeback, and Andy knows he can still pitch, would there be enough of an itch there for one more go-round?  If there is, the Yankees have to bring him back, right?

As crazy as it might sound to be talking about re-signing 38 and 40-year-old guys to contracts worth millions of dollars, consider the alternatives, or lack thereof.  The external pitching well continues to dry up with teams re-signing their top young pitchers before they can hit the open market, and the Yankees are unlikely to part with a package of top prospects it would take to trade for an elite young pitcher or plunk down the money it's going to take to sign a Cole Hamels.  Internally, the continued devolution of Dellin Betances and injury woes of Manny Banuelos make their chances of breaking into the 2013 rotation out of camp almost nil, and there aren't many other options.  Yes, David Phelps and Adam Warren are there, but you would have to think that if the Yankees were sold on them as legit back-of-the-rotation arms they would have gone that route this season instead of pursuing Kuroda and Pettitte.

Maybe this is just me letting my imagination get carried away with me on an off day.  Maybe I'm just basking too much in the glow of the rotation's stellar month (12-3, 2.51 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 7.52 H/9, 8.95 K/9, including Kuroda and Hughes' back-to-back rough outings).  Maybe I just haven't had enough coffee yet for my brain to start fully functioning.  I knew the rotation wasn't going to be as bad as they were in April all year, and I know they aren't going to be as great as they've been this month for the rest of the year.  But if they can find a happy medium between those 2 extremes as they move forward, that's still going to be a damn effective rotation, and I'd be willing to entertain the idea of keep the gang together for another year.  It'd be 6 guys for 5 spots again, but that seemed to work out alright this season, didn't it?

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