The New York Yankees have allocated over $60 million on free agents for the 2009 season.
Two of these high-priced players were starting pitchers with top-of-the-rotation stuff in CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett.
Sabathia throws a mid-90s fastball and a knockout slider, Burnett touches 97-98mph with his fastball and may currently feature the nastiest curveball in the majors.
Returning from a freak baserunning injury, the Yankees can call upon the groundball machine, Chien-Ming Wang, who, assuming a fully healthy right foot, should offer about 200 innings of sub-4.00 ERA ball. Wang’s turbo sinker also provides a nice change-of-pace when inserted between the power pitching of Sabathia and Burnett.
In terms of the top of the rotation, this impressive trio can compete with any other staff in AL East, and major leagues for that matter.
Behind the three veterans, the Yankees will again look at Joba Chamberlain as a blossoming #1 starter, with only an innings limit and last year’s shoulder tendinitis standing in his way. Make no mistake about it, allowing Chamberlain every chance to become an ace is absolutely the right play, and the Yankees brass will stay the course unless the Nebraskan fireballer proves conclusively that he is incapable of sustaining a 200 inning workload.
Which leads us to the mysterious fifth slot in the rotation.
There is the former top prospect with a load of ability, but lack of consistent big league success, in Phil Hughes, as well as a rag-tag crew of potential inning-eaters like Alfredo Aceves, Ian Kennedy, George Kontos and possibly Phil Coke.
While Hughes has the stuff to become a very good starter in the American League East, it is unclear whether he yet has the durability [or a defined third pitch] required for him to do it this April. The thought here is to put Hughes in Scranton to start the season and let him further develop his changeup and newly added cut-fastball while continuing to build on the success and returning arm strength he found in the Arizona Fall League.
With some trepidation, the pinstriped homefront turns its anxious eyes to another beleaguered Yankees starter coming off of a 2008 season he’d like to put behind him.
The name brings with it a divided fanbase.
Some feel that Pettitte is “the missing piece” of what could be the best Yankees team [on paper] since the 2003 American League pennant winners. With Chamberlain working with an innings limit at or around 140, and Burnett ‘s durability about as reliable as Plaxico Burress in a gun range, these fans believe Pettitte can provide stability by offering above average production over 200+ innings-pitched.
Others believe Pettitte’s refusal to accept the Yankees’ $10.5 million offer comes across as greedy and ungrateful after the organization accepted him back to their team with open arms, even after the lefty was named in the infamous “Mitchell Report.” A segment of these fans do not want Pettitte back, regardless of how big a paycut he accepts, as they feel the Louisiana native is finished after posting a 4.54 ERA and crumbling down the stretch.
However, a closer look at the numbers and an ability to get past Pettitte’s ERA allows one to debate whether he pitched better in 2008 than in 2007.
If you were to look at the last five years Pettitte has pitched, omitting 2004 when he logged the least innings of his career  , his Fielding Independent Pitching [FIP] statistics, strikeout-to-walk ratio, groundball percentage and strikeouts-per nine innings have remained impressive.
2008: 3.71 FIP — 2.87 k/bb — 6.97 k/9 — 51.5% GB
2007: 3.87 FIP — 2.04 k/bb — 5.89 k/9 — 47.7% GB
2006: 4.13 FIP — 2.54 k/bb — 7.47 k/9 — 49.8% GB
2005: 3.07 FIP — 4.17 k/bb — 6.92 k/9 — 50.2% GB
2003: 3.35 FIP — 3.60 k/bb — 7.78 k/9 — 52.8% GB
The fact that last year his strikeout rate and groundball percentage went up while his walk rate and WHIP went down supports this argument.
And, furthermore, his low FIP combined with a steady line drive percentage and increased BABIP numbers from 2007 to 2008 all suggest a poor Yankees defense compounded by bad luck. Such factors could deceptively balloon Pettitte’s ERA, particularly because his FIP was actually lower last year [3.71] than it was two years ago [3.87].
Pettitte’s .339 BABIP was the second highest of his career – with a .341 in 2001 – and jumped from .323 in 2007. Yet his line drive percentage merely jumped from 19.4% in 2007 to 19.9% in 2008, indicating the influence of either bad luck or bad defense. And, by comparison, Pettitte had LD% figures of 24.2%, 21.7%, 21.6%, 22.9%, and 21.7% between 2002-2006.
This is not to suggest that Pettitte is trending upward, but altogether it does seem to disprove the belief that he is due for a swift decline, and may suggest he has one or two more seasons of similar production left in the tank.
The entire argument prefaced by the assumption that Pettitte’s shoulder soreness during the second half of 2008 was more of an anomaly than a red flag, and that the southpaw relying solely on his ability, not a hypodermic full of growth hormone.
And, because he would only require a one year pact, the Yankees would be foolish not to bring him back for his 12th year in the Bronx. If they have to get creative to let Pettitte save face, why not offer a deal worth $10million guaranteed but bolstered by incentives which, according to starts-made and innings-pitched in 2009, could raise the value of the contract to say $11, $12 or even $13 million.
This is not about overpaying to bring back a relic of the dynasty years; as shown above Pettitte is still a very capable pitcher. And it’s not about trying to find room for a starter in the seemingly bottomless pit which the Yankees budget operates under. “It’s strictly business,” Michael Corleone might tell Brian Cashman. And without another starter on the free agent market who is more talented than Pettitte and willing to accept a one year offer, this is not the time to take it personally.
The offseason could then truly be complete and the Yankees rotation would boast three solid bets to bank a total of 600+ innings while thereby allowing Chamberlain, Burnett and the minor league contingent to soak up the remaining 300+ innings required for a playoff-caliber starting staff.
Pitchers and catchers are just a few weeks from reporting to Tampa and with each passing day, Pettitte and the Yankees must compromise their egos and recognize what is best for themselves – #46 pitching in the new Yankee Stadium.