It is time to begin the post Andy Pettitte era in the Bronx (again.) With the signing of Tanaka, four of the five starting pitchers are pretty much set barring some 2013-like bad luck.
CC Sabathia will most likely open the season per the norm, even though he is coming off his worst season as a starter. His 175 strikeouts in 2013 were the fewest since 2006 and the 28 homers off him was the highest of his career. He isn’t going anywhere though. The Yankees are counting on his unbelievable durability and hoping he gets the velocity back he seemed to lose last season. No pitcher has thrown more innings since 2007 than the big lefty.
Hiroki Kuroda and/or Masahiro Tanaka could go behind CC. Kuroda was the best pitcher the Yanks had last season with a 3.31 ERA despite a terrible finish to the season. He is only under contract for 2014 and will most likely either retire or return to Japan to pitch after the season. The Yankees are just hoping his 0-6, 6.56 ERA to close out 2013 isn’t a sign of things to come in 2014.
Having never pitched an inning in America it is hard to tell what Tanaka will do, but if his tremendous Japan League numbers translate to the MLB he will thrive in the Bronx. He is all but assured a spot in the rotation after signing his mega deal.
Ivan Nova stepped up in a big way in 2013 and has earned himself the fourth spot in the rotation. He went 9-6 last season with a 3.10 ERA in the short time he was in the rotation. He led the team in strikeouts and ground balls and was very consistent while CC and Kuroda struggled. In the month of August he was untouchable going 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA, earning himself AL Pitcher of the Month. If the Yankees can get that Nova to pitch all season, it would be a huge boost to the back end of the rotation and help separate the Yanks from the middle of the pack. At 27 years old he is entering his prime, good news for the pinstripes if he can stay healthy.
Now the fifth spot is up for grabs. With Brian Cashman saying the checkbook is pretty much closed, the spot will be filled internally. The likely candidates are Michael Pineda and David Phelps. Pineda was the man they wanted when they traded for him and sent Jesus Montero to Seattle in 2011, but injuries plagued him and he hasn’t pitched an inning for the Yanks. An upside is he will only be 25 when the season starts. The team would love to see him return to the form he had when he struck out 173 batters in his only full season in 2011.
The other option has actually pitched in the Pinstripes and like Pineda has something that is rare in the Bronx, youth. Phelps will be 27 all season and was in the rotation last year before an injury and a setback kept him out for months. He was back in the pen in September and made four appearances in that role. Since being drafted in 2008 he has been the Where’s Waldo of New York, going from Triple A to the bull pen to a starter back to the bull pen. Against the Mets in May 2013 he lasted only 1/3 an inning after giving up 5 runs, the shortest a Yankee has ever lasted in the new stadium. Phelps has the drive and determination to make the fifth spot. He arrived in Tampa Sunday and has been working hard to make it back. ”I would obviously love to be a starter. I think I’m capable. I just have to go out and show what I’m capable of. If it’s not that, I don’t have a problem pitching out of our bullpen, but at the same time, I do want to start. It’s where I’ve been my whole career up until the last couple.” He was 6-5 with a 4.98 ERA through 22 games (12 starts) last season. He feels healthy and is ready to put 2013 behind him.
Hot on Pineda’s and Phelps’ heels for the spot are Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno who each started last season for a few games each with varying outcomes. While the favorites are clearly Phelps and Pineda, Nuno and Warren will still be in the mix. Even if Phelps doesn’t get the starting job, I see him being used out of the bull pen for sure, same with Warren. And if there are injuries, which lets be honest we all expect after last season, any three of these guys could step up and fill the hole.
Whoever wins the fifth spot only has one job, be better than Phil Hughes. If he can do that then the Yankees are already in better shape then last year.