It’s fair to say that the only given, for lack of a better word, in the Yankees’ rotation is CC Sabathia. Though they have many options, every candidate other than Sabathia comes with his own series of questions. There are potential doubts about velocity, transition from a different league or division, mental strength, amongst others. To be sure, there are clearly positives to be made about each one of the pitchers, but looking at the full picture is necessary to accurately evaluate and project their respective abilities and expectations.
The sexy new toy in the rotation is Michael Pineda. After being acquired for the highly-rated and fan-favorite Jesus Montero, Pineda faces the immediate challenge of impressing Yankee fans right out of the gate. While many supporters will understand that Pineda doesn’t have to dominate in his first couple of starts in order to justify the trade, there will be those who will start questioning the big right-hander’s ability to pitch in New York if he gets off to a slow start. The criticism may be justified in the long-term, but to label the trade as a bust and Pineda as a player who isn’t “mentally tough” after a couple of outings would be irresponsible. That being said, it will happen. It always has and it always will. Pineda will have to learn how to deal with media and fan criticism in order to succeed in this city.
Fan and media pressure aren’t the only challenges Pineda faces. In his short time with the Mariners, Pineda benefited from taking the mound in an extremely pitcher-friendly home park. Since 2008, Safeco Field ranks as the 3rd best pitcher’s-park in the major leagues, and is classified as an “extreme pitcher’s park” by www.parkfactors.com. Pineda’s road numbers weren’t horrible (4.40 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, .381 SLG.) However, his home production suggests that pitching at Safeco certainly helped (2.92 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .291 SLG) his overall statistics. Also, being an extreme fly-ball pitcher in Safeco Field was another big plus for Pineda. At home, his opponents had a .220 BABIP while on the road it was .280. A significant difference, especially since his home/road GB% and FB% splits were nearly identical.
Another concern is Pineda’s lack of velocity in Spring Training so far. His fastball is ranging between 90-92 MPH, which is a significant drop-off from the 94.7 MPH (according to www.fangraphs.com) that it averaged last season.
Having said all of that, it’s important to remember that Pineda is still a tremendous talent. Recording a 3.15 K/BB ratio is not easy to accomplish, especially for a rookie. Pineda being only a two-pitch pitcher (fastball and slider) makes his K/BB ratio even more impressive. It’s also fair to note that last season’s 171 innings pitched by Pineda are not enough to evaluate his pitching style and ability. Entering his age-23 season in 2012, Pineda will have many expectations to live up to, but it’s essential that the organization and its fans are patient with his development as he has the tools to become a special pitcher.
Joining Pineda as a new member of the Yankees will be 37-year-old Hiroki Kuroda. The obvious question mark with Kuroda is whether or not he can be as successful in the American League as he was in the National League. Though he wasn’t exactly a ground-ball pitcher last season (43.2% GB,) Kuroda has been a ground-ball pitcher throughout his major league career, which would serve him well in Yankee Stadium. And unlike Pineda, Kuroda hasn’t been relying on pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium to boost his overall numbers, as his career ERA, WHIP, SLG, BABIP, GB% and FB% have been practically the same at home and on the road. Lastly, Kuroda is always featured amongst the MLB leaders in K/BB ratio, a skill that is extremely beneficial in a hitter’s-park like Yankee Stadium.
A more familiar face to Yankee fans, who seems to have a guaranteed rotation spot going into 2012 unless something drastic occurs, is Ivan Nova. Though Nova doesn’t need to familiarize himself with Yankee Stadium like Pineda and Kuroda, he does need to improve in some areas. His 1.72 K/BB ratio (1.68 for his career) shows that he lacks the ability to strike batters out and relies on his defense to make many outs for him. Coupled with a mediocre at best BB/9 ratio (3.10, 3.21 for his career) it’s fair to assume that Nova’s success last season isn’t repeatable and he may be due for a regression. It’s also important to remember that he struggled with his K/BB ratio in his minor league career as well. The good sign is that Nova is a ground-ball pitcher, which somewhat helps to make up for his unimpressive K/BB ratio.
One of the two pitchers who entered Spring Training in a battle for the number five spot in the rotation is Phil Hughes. After getting off to a good start in the spring (1.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 5 K, 1 BB in 8.1 IP,) it seems like Hughes will enter the season as the Yankees’ fifth starter. The organization isn’t as high on Hughes as it once was – and rightfully so – but the 25-year-old is relatively young and may still have a bright future. However, the Yankees are always in a ‘win-now’ mode, which means that they can’t afford to keep Hughes in the rotation for too long if he struggles, especially with the pitching depth that’s at their disposal. If Hughes can regain confidence in his fastball while continuing to develop his changeup, and mix them in with his slow curve, he should make it difficult for the Yankees to give up on him.
With Hughes seemingly locked into the last rotation spot, Freddy Garcia looks like the odd man out (Spring stats: 4.50 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7 K, 2 BB in 8 IP.) This can mean one of two things. The Yankees may choose to keep him in the bullpen as a long-man and an emergency starter, or they can look to trade the 35-year-old and his reported $4m salary. Either way, the Yankees should be able to get something useful out of Garcia, as he proved last season that he can still be a productive major league pitcher.
A surprising addition to the rotation picture is Andy Pettitte. After coming out of retirement and signing a 1-year deal with the Yankees, the 39-year-old left-hander is going to start in the minor leagues until he builds himself back up. It has been reported that Pettitte is going to earn a rotation spot as soon as he is ready to pitch in the majors, which means that everyone not named CC Sabathia needs to pitch well to keep their place. While it’s hard to predict Pettitte’s potential production since he sat out the entire 2011 season, his 2010 numbers were great (3.28 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.46 K/BB, 132 ERA+, 2.4 fWAR, 2.8 bWAR in 129 IP,) suggesting that he should still offer the Yankees league-average production, at worst.
Though it seems like the Yankees have many question marks in their rotation, they also have many options. Other pitchers who aren’t currently in consideration for a rotation spot but are candidates for starts this season include Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, David Phelps, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell. Starting pitching depth is a rare thing for many teams, which means that the Yankees have yet another advantage over most clubs.