Yesterday I ran a post suggesting that there was no reason for the Yankees not to give Bartolo Colon another one year deal with the team. One point that came up in the post’s comments section is that the Yankees will enter spring training with a full rotation and that Colon would potentially block a younger, internal alternative for the sixth or seventh starter’s role. That got me thinking that it was high time for me to examine in more detail the current state of the 2012 Yankee rotation. Last year it was assumed that the Yankee starters would be a source of weakness for the club. Instead, the Yankees put one of the best starting rotations in the AL on the field. Without further ado, here’s a closer look at the players who may wind up starting for the Yankees.
1. CC Sabathia
Regardless of who else takes the mound for the Bombers, at least once every five days the team will be able to go toe to toe with anyone. I don’t have to rehash CC’s resume once more for the benefit of Yankee fans, but I’m going to do it anyway.
CC has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since 2006. He’s continued that trend with the Yankees. In three years in pinstripes CC has given the Yankees no fewer than 230 innings, an ERA+ of no worse than 136, and a FIP of no worse than 3.54. Last season was without question his best on the Yankees. Fangraphs argues that he was the best pitcher in the AL last year. The big guy figures to give the Yankees quality for the remaining seasons on his contract, and is about as sure a thing as you can get in sports to be one of the best pitchers in baseball once again in 2012.
2. Ivan Nova
Nova has become the poster child of the Yankees’ refusal to trust their own internal prospects to the extent that they should. Nova has given the Bombers a respectable arm at every level of the team’s organization, and still found himself fighting for his job last season. Fortunately for Ivan and the rest of us, the Yankee front office finally recognized his talents and anointed him the number two starter by season’s end.
Nova gave the Yankees 165.1 innings of 4.01 FIP baseball in 2011, after giving the team 42.0 innings of 4.36 FIP baseball the season before. But that doesn’t tell the full story. Nova was perhaps the best starter on the team once he returned from a stint in Scranton (right around when CC was losing steam after putting together one of the most dominant stretches of his or any career). Nova posted FIPs of 3.36, 3.00 and 3.74 in July, August and September. He introduced a slider to compliment his fastball, changeup and curveball, giving him a legitimate out pitch down the stretch.
Can Nova do it again? On the one hand, Nova has done a respectable job of rising to the occasion every time the Yankees have asked him to do so. On the other hand, Nova has always been something of an after thought in pinstripes. This season expectations will be waiting for him. The changed environment may impact him.
For my part I expect Nova to give the Yankees a full season’s worth of what he provided in 2011, something along the lines of 200 innings of 4.00 FIP baseball. He has been pitching for his job for each of the past two years and has finally earned his spot on the rotation. That boost in confidence should outweigh the downside of any increase in scrutiny. Nova would be a number three or four starter on a team with a deeper pitching staff, but under the circumstances I’m looking forward to watching him work.
There is a reason that the Yankees are seen as having a weak starting rotation. When Sweaty Freddy is legitimately your number three starter then you have a problem. Garcia surprised everyone except perhaps his mother last year when he gave the Yankees 146.2 innings of 4.12 FIP baseball. That was good enough to earn another season with the team and to the extent perception is reality (numerically Colon was better) it allowed him to emerge as the team’s third best pitcher down the stretch in 2011.
Garcia is projected to regress a bit from his 2011 form, but he still figures to give the Yankees about 130 innings of 4.50 FIP baseball or better. That is far from what you want in your third best pitcher, but I’ll take that happily if those are my options.
4. A.J. Burnett
I’ve always liked who I’ve perceived A.J. to be as a person, so it pains to write this, but I’m sick of his act. If we know exactly what the team will get from CC at this point then we also know precisely what the team will get from A.J.: 185 or more innings of roughly 5.00 FIP baseball. At least he’ll give us a decent number of innings? I got nothing. Fact of the matter is that A.J. has been so bad these past two seasons that he makes the Yankee opponents as good offensively as the Yankees themselves, which is quite the feat.
Fortunately for us all, the Yankees appear to be as sick of Burnett’s antics as the rest of us. They are finally looking to shop Burnett, even if no one will conceivably take him. Hopefully this indicates an equal willingness to sit him if he struggles and give other options in the farm system a chance to show what they can do. We can only doubt A.J. until he shows us otherwise.
5. Phil Hughes
I predict that Phil Franchise will find himself permanently in the Yankee bullpen no later than 2013. Phil was meant to be such a good starting prospect because of an arsenal of secondary offerings that have not developed into plus pitches. Instead, he relies too heavily on his fastball and has only been a good starter for about half a season (although I also predict that Michael Kay and Joe Girardi will remind us 1,000 times next season that Girardi selected Hughes for the All Star team in 2010).
It is, however, that same fastball that makes him so good out of the bullpen. What Hughes did in 2009 is well documented, but he was also solid coming out of the ‘pen in the 2011 playoffs. Relieving allows him to do what he does best: rear back and launch his fastball up in the zone. I’d love to see Hughes finally figure it out this season, but I just don’t see it happening. Instead, I predict he loses his job not much later than June and finds himself permanently demoted to relieving. (For the record, my prediction accuracy is something like .017, so take that for what it’s worth.)
6. Hector Noesi
In my mind Noesi is permanently linked with Ivan Nova. He’s the other starter from Scranton that the Yankees had always been hesitant to give a shot, one spot behind Nova on the organizational depth chart. Last season Noesi finally got his chance. The results weren’t that bad. Noesi gave the Yankees 56.1 innings of 4.47 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 4.02 xFIP baseball. That’s about what Nova gave the Bombers in a similar role in 2010.
The Yankees noticed, and have been working to stretch Noesi out in Winter Ball this season. Noesi has prospered there and is now seen within the organization as a legitimate starting option in 2012. With the back end of the rotation as shaky as it is, Noesi will have another chance to demonstrate that he is a big league starter. Someone not named Carsten Charles will lose his spot in the rotation at some point next year and Noesi will be waiting. No one knows how he will do, but it is exciting to think that Noesi may emerge as another genuine Yankee starting prospect.
I’ve ordered the list of possible number seven starters this way intentionally. Warren and Phelps are said to be big league ready in some capacity while Banuelos and Betances are arms of the future requiring one more season of preparation. Any one of these arms will be given a chance to shine at some point in 2012. Banuelos is the team’s best pitching prospect, but his youth and relative lack of size mean that it may be another season until we see him on a regular basis. Betances has the stuff to succeed, but is wild while Warren and Phelps are seen as legitimate back of the rotation options moving forward.
No one knows what these guys will give the Bombers, but after years of being incapable of developing a starting pitcher internally, the Yankees suddenly find themselves with two young arms who will start in 2012 (three if you count Hughes) and four more waiting in the minors.
In this light two things become clear. The Yankees have only one starter the team can rely on 100%. After that they have a high upside starter on the verge of breaking out in Nova, a wily veteran pitching for one more season in the sun in Garcia and two of baseball’s bigger disappointments. Combining that analysis with the Yankees’ win at all times mentality and it becomes clear why there was so much speculation about C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish this offseason.
However, the second thing that is clear is that the potential Yankee rotation is as deep as it has ever been. As soon as 2014 the Yankee rotation very well may be Sabathia, Nova, Noesi, Banuelos and Betances, which is to say CC the leader and four internal options. That’s not wishful thinking. That outcome has about 25% probability. In light of that, if I were Brian Cashman I would have asked myself two questions before committing serious money this offseason:
1. Can my team compete for a World Series as is? The answer to that is a resounding yes. The Yankees were the best team in the AL last season and figure to be roughly as good as they were in 2011 once again.
2. If I spend $75-$100 million on Darvish or Wilson, are the Yankees suddenly the favorite to win the World Series? The answer to this is definitely not. These arms are good, but they are unlikely to be that much better than what the Yankees already have in Ivan Nova. That alone isn’t enough to make this team a sure thing title favorite. In light of that, I’d keep the $100 million.
The Yankees’ big league ready rotation is no stronger than it was last season, although it does come into spring training with fewer question marks. However, lurking beneath the surface is a bevy of potential starters who may be anchoring the rotation for a decade. Signing an arm like Wilson’s just doesn’t make a lot of sense for a team that can legitimately improve internally for less money. The Yankees are in as much of a rebuilding phase as they’ve ever been in. I too would choose to be competitive but not dominant this season in exchange for giving my young arms more openings to break through to the big leagues. The money they Yankees save, combined with the talent they’re developing means that they will have the opportunity to dominate again.
Also, I’d still sign Colon to a one-year deal.