X-factor in 2013 – young Yankee starters

Phelps first run in the Bigs was satisfying. Can he grow from here?

Since 2007, when Joba Chamberlain was called up to the majors and became an overnight sensation, the Yankees have consistently been able to reach into their farm system to find young pitching talent capable of filling in an immediate need adequately, if not always brilliantly. After Joba it was Phil Hughes in 2009 and 2010. In 2011 it was Ivan Nova. In 2012 the Yankees turned to David Phelps. If we add Michael Pineda to that list, who should be able to return in the second half of 2013, then the Yankees have a lot of depth, and a lot of question marks, in the bottom of their rotation.

What makes 2013 interesting, and promising, is that it has the potential to be the first season since 2008 that the Yankees could choose to put three young arms in their starting rotation. This isn’t as crazy as it might seem at first. Phil Hughes was a reliable back of the order starter in 2012. He gave the Yankees 191.1 innings and a pitcher’s slash line of 4.23/4.56/4.35. That’s respectable from a fourth or fifth starter. Phil’s biggest weakness is the long ball. His HR/9 rate is an unsightly 1.65. While that is appalling, the good news is that it can be addressed. If Hughes can get that down to about one homer per nine he becomes that much more valuable as a starter moving forward. And, while it may seem like Phil has been around for a decade, he’s still just 26 years old and won’t turn 27 until mid-way through 2013.

After Hughes, Ivan Nova is the next most experienced arm on the list. At one point Nova was dog-eared to be an emerging front line starter. That story line didn’t play out in 2012. But Nova’s season wasn’t as big a disappointment as you might think. He increased his innings total to 170.1 from 165.1. He improved his strike out rate 8.08 from 5.33 while decreasing his walk rate to 2.96 from 3.10. He improved his xFIP to 3.92 from 4.16. Those are big improvements for a young, developing starter.

Nova’s problem in 2012 was his sudden propensity to give up the long ball (like Hughes, actually). After posting a HR/9 rate of just 0.71 in 2011, Nova suddenly gave up 1.48 HR/9 in 2012. That’s all she wrote. A guy who allows as many base runners as Nova (career WHIP of 1.41) can’t afford to have his homer rate double. But, as with Hughes, there are silver linings here. First, Nova will be just 26 in 2013. Second, the homers can be addressed. He can work on secondary offerings to serve as out pitches that are less likely to leave the ball park than a fastball. Finally, Nova’s BABIP jumped up to .331 in 2012, versus .305 career and .283 in 2011. Taken as a whole, provided he’s a healthy (a necessary caveat for any pitcher), Nova remains a viable option in the rotation in 2013.

Finally, the Yankees also have David Phelps, who auditioned for a starter’s role throughout the entirety of 2012. Phelps put up solid numbers: 3.34/4.32/4.01 with a WHIP of 1.19, and a K/9 rate of 8.67. I’m naturally mistrusting of stats that long relievers compile (any relievers for that matter). Inherited base runners who come around to score aren’t counted against their stats, while avoiding the pressure of pitching in close games has to ease pressure to some degree. That said, Phelps gave the Yankees 99.2 quality innings and has been a starter his entire career up until 2012. He’s just 26 years old, and has to be regarded as a reliable member of the pitching staff and a potential starter heading into 2013 spring training.

The 800 lbs gorilla in the group is Michael Pineda. This isn’t a medical blog so I’ll take the optimistic path and assume that Pineda can recover fully from his injury. That means that he could rejoin the team in the middle of next season. On that time table it is difficult to imagine Pineda starting much in 2013, if at all, but that doesn’t mean he should be forgotten. Pineda will be just 24 in 2013, and could potentially add to the Yankees for years to come.

For almost a decade the Yankees have been trying to develop a young, affordable pitching core. Entering 2013 they may be closer to than than they have been in years. Unlike in 2008, the last time the Yankees put all the chips on the table with this strategy, in 2013 the team will have three viable young starters with genuine big league experience, and potentially a fourth one on the way. Whether they see the rotation in pinstripes or are traded to another team, those are assets that figure to help strengthen the Yankees next season.