Wednesday, March 26, 2014

AB4AR 2014 Season Preview: The Rotation

(Don't call it a comeback... Courtesy of the AP)

When Joe announced that Michael Pineda would be the 5th starter to open the season, he answered the final question about how the starting rotation would look in 2014.  CC, Hirok, Nova, and Tanaka had already been lined up to start the first 4 games of the regular season.  Now we know who comes after that.

What we don't know is how this rotation is going to perform, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic and even excited about the possibilities.  The potential is there for the Yanks to have 5 legitimate top tier starters in their rotation, 5 pitchers who can come out on any given day and completely shut the opposing team down.  It's been a long time since we've been able to say that about a Yankee rotation and even though a lot needs to go right for that possibility to be realized, that still puts the team in a much more advantageous position than it's been in years.  After the jump, the player-by-player breakdown of this year's starting 5.

Familiar faces line the top of the rotation with CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda returning to their 1-2 posts.  Both have started to show some natural age-related cracks in their foundations, CC with his velocity issues and Hirok with his late-season declines.  It happens to every pitcher who reaches his mid-30s.  The key for this season is determining if what we saw last year was a sign of things to come or if it can be turned around.  Sabathia is already off to a good start in rebounding from his disastrous 2013 campaign, albeit without a turnaround in velocity.  He's been working primarily high 80s-very low 90s in ST, but he's paired that with a new cutter, his still sharp slider, and a re-commitment to his changeup.  He's thrown 12 scoreless innings with 12 K and 1 BB in his last 2 starts, so the big guy clearly has plenty of gas left in the tank.  It appears as though he's finally figuring out how to work with it when it's regular instead of super premium unleaded and that's an encouraging sign.

There's really not much to say about Hirok.  All indications are he's the same pitcher he's been the last 2 seasons and he declared himself "ready to go" after working 6 2-run innings and striking out 7 in a MiL start this past Saturday.  When he's commanding his offspeed stuff and throwing strikes with his fastball, he can be one of the most overwhelming pitchers in the game.  When he starts to drift up in the zone with the heater and misses spots with his splitter and slider, it's going to be a tough day.  Based on the last 2 years, Kuroda is easily the most reliable and consistent starter in the group heading into this season.  The key for him, and for Joe and his coaching staff, will be monitoring and controlling his early workload to keep him fresh for the stretch run.  There's no need to have him out there for 8 innings and 110+ pitches in April and May.

The next man up is Ivan Nova and I've already gone on the record multiple times this spring saying that I think he could be the key to the rotation this year.  How he finished the 2013 season and the way he's been carrying himself in camp this year are indicative of a young pitcher who's figured it out.  If this new, more mature Nova is the Nova we're going to get moving forward, he's got a chance to break out in a big way in 2014.  Nova may have the best 2-pitch combo in the rotation with his fastball/curveball pairing.  The hook has already been on full display in a few of his outings this spring.  Like Kuroda, if he can keep the fastball down in the zone and throw it for strikes, he can shut down any lineup in baseball.  30-something starts of 2013 2nd half Nova is going to earn him a spot in the All Star Game and maybe even a few Cy Young votes.

While he's starting the season as the #4 guy behind Nova, it wouldn't be unfair to say that newcomer Masahiro Tanaka is potentially the best #2 or even #1 starting option of the 5.  The prized Japanese free agent has stoked the fire of excitement that started burning the minute he signed with an impressive Spring Training.  His fastball has been fast, his offspeed stuff has been as advertised, and his splitter has gotten rave reviews from pretty much everybody who's seen it or tried to hit it.  He hasn't had much difficulty, if any at all, adapting to the MLB style of play and this bodes well for how he'll hold up on a regular 5-day rotation cycle once the season starts.  He is only 25 and technically a rookie, so there will be a few speed bumps here and there along the way.  The Yankees are doing their best to limit the severity of those, like in the way they're setting him up to start the season on extra rest, and factoring all of this together I think it's a better than good bet that we'll see Tanaka take home the AL Rookie of the Year award.

Competing for ROY is something Michael Pineda is familiar with, and at long last he'll get his chance to follow up his stellar 2011 debut by pitching for the first time as a Yankee.  Everything he's done so far in spring camp has been positive.  His fastball has been low 90s and trended up to 93-94 in his last start.  His slider is as nasty as it ever was and he's attacked good Major League hitters with it with ease.  His delivery looks smoother and cleaner than it was a few years ago, which should ease concerns about a shoulder injury setback.  And he may just have found himself a useful 3rd pitch in an improved changeup.  Innings limit or no innings limit, the performance ceiling stays high for Pineda despite the 2 years of lost time.  Barring any further injury problems, he's the easy answer for best 5th starter in baseball and a runaway favorite for Comeback Player of the Year.

I feel like I wrote more about each of these players than I did for anybody in the infield preview or outfield preview posts from the last 2 days and I think that speaks to the excitement surrounding this group.  As high as their ceiling may or may not be, it's the higher floor that provides even more comfort and confidence.  CC and Kuroda know how to go out and get through 6 innings regardless of what kind of stuff and command they have.  Nova is learning how to do that.  Tanaka has a reputation as a competitor and someone who comes up big in the biggest game.  And Pineda would be an intimidating presence on the hill if he was pitching underhand.  The risk of a 2 or 3-inning stinkpot of an outing is significantly lower with this group than last year's.  The need to rely heavily on the bullpen to cover for a particular pitcher is also lower and that should go a long way in keeping the Yankees in postseason contention this year.

If everything clicks and the high ceiling for this rotation is reached, I could see the Yankees riding it all the way to the World Series.  Pitching wins championships, we've seen that old baseball rule play out time and time again.  This year, the Yankees have a rotation that can live up to that rule.

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