It’s March 30th and the Major League regular season has technically already started. Teams are making their final cuts and most roster competitions are winding down. Yet in the Bronx (Tampa, rather) much is still up in the air. The bullpen is not settled and neither is the bench. Cesar Cabral and Clay Rapada are fighting for roster spots. Of far more importance than the team’s second lefty, though, Joe Girardi has yet to name his starting five-man rotation. What once seemed like a cut and dry decision now, apparently, is not.
We’ve known for a month that CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, the two veterans in the mix, were guaranteed spots in the starting rotation and would likely pitch the first and second games of the season. We’ve also known that four pitchers – Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia – were ostensibly competing for three spots at the back of the Yankees’ bullpen.
That all remains true, at least according to the Yankees’ skipper. But much else we thought we knew about this competition may no longer be applicable. It was clear heading into the Spring that Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova were overwhelming favorites to capture the third and fourth spots in the rotation. Phil Hughes had been leapfrogged and would have to show something special to regain his position. But Freddy Garcia was solid depth and Hughes was the future. Some suggested the competition was rigged. Hughes would be the fifth starter, Nova and Pineda were locks, and Garcia would be the long man.
Then they started pitching.
The most important development of the past month has arguably been the re-emergence of Phil Hughes. Anyone who has been watching him pitch since February can’t help but be impressed. The former top prospect is hitting the mid-90s with frequency, and has allowed just three earned runs in four games. He looks like the Phil Hughes of early 2010. With this performance has come a consensus that yes, Hughes will make the rotation. In fact he seems to be the first man in, with Brian Hoch among others suggesting he is practically guaranteed one of the final three spots in the rotation with serious discussions soon to begin.
While Hughes has caught the attention of Yankees fans, though, another narrative has had a near monopoly on rotation talks in past weeks: Michael Pineda. The 23-year-old, who some see as a future ace, came into camp overweight and while his change-up has been coming along nicely, his fastball has hovered, at times, in the high-80s. The velocity is coming back, but not soon enough for many involved. Despite Pineda pitching reasonably well this spring (he has a 3.31 ERA and leads the time in strikeouts), he is not guaranteed a rotation spot. In fact, he might just be pitching for it today.
The other two candidates have generated less buzz, but their performances could have just as large an impact on the decisions made in the next few days. Ivan Nova has an ERA over six this spring. He put together a strong performance last night, and has looked sharp, but in such a close competition, one could argue Nova is the easiest guy to send down. Heck, even The Wall Street Journal is calling his rookie season a “fluke.” The Yankees have looked to move Freddy Garcia but with no trade materializing, the owner of a 2.92 spring ERA is still in the running.
Spring Training is a dangerous time. Given the small sample size nature of the exhibition contests, emotional responses and narratives dominate the airwaves, the papers, and perhaps even the decision making processes of managers and general managers. At the very least, teams are forced to make decisions based on how players look rather than on how they perform. Still, a desire for quasi-performance analysis is pervasive. Those in the baseball world have an unhealthy tendency to ignore the fact that “noise” is real life phenomena, rather than an aspect inherent in statistics. Good starts are added up on one side, bad on the other. The more recent the more important. Decisions are often made on the basis of one or two strong or weak performances.
Each spring, managers have a difficult task. They must balance the desire for competition with the irrationality of relying on a couple of weeks to define a players ability to perform over the coming season. Here the stakes are incredibly high. When it comes down to it, then, a bad decision is a bad decisions and Joe Girardi cannot afford to make one.
Pineda’s velocity drop is concerning. It’s probably nothing. There’s no doubt he can pitch effectively at 92 as opposed to 94. But what if it is something? Still, unless the Yankees have some reason to believe the righty needs to take things easy, he’s the second best starter on this team. Sending him to AAA would be ludicrous. And what about Nova? His ERA isn’t pretty but Girardi has seen the games. He can’t possibly feel the performance is indicative of any future failure. Nova has 14 strikeouts to just 1 walk this spring. If he can pitch anything like this in the regular season I like his chances.
Maybe, as Hoch and Andrew Marchand and a number of beat writers are suggesting, the Yankees really saw this Spring as an open competition between six pitchers with equal talent and equal importance going forward and as such view this past month’s events as the basis for constructing a rotation. I suppose Pineda or Nova could be the odd man out, one starting the season in AAA and ending up leapfrogged by Andy Pettitte or Manny Banuelos before it’s all said in done. But I doubt it. You don’t pass up the opportunity for such a young, talented starting rotation because of a couple bad starts and a compelling narrative or two.