It has been a bumpy right for Yankee fans to start spring training. Already injured, Alex Rodriguez was implemented in another steroid scandal. Curtis Granderson was injured. Shortly after that Mark Teixeira was injured. All of this has drawn attention to an aging, potentially weak Yankee lineup. The potential lack of power in the offense may be true, but it is distracting everyone from the strength of the Yankee pitching staff. This season the Yankees return as potent a 1-2-3 punch as they've had in years in CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda. Sure, the latter two are old, but that's a starting rotation you can count on. Still, it takes more than three starters to get it done in baseball. That's why, for all the emphasis on the offense, the real secret to the 2013 season may be the performance of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.
Hughes' solid 2012 gets overlooked. While he wasn't as strong as his breakout 2010 season (which was really just a solid first half of the season), Phil did give the Yankees 191.1 innings of 4.35 xFIP baseball and 1.9 fWAR. That's solid production from a back of the rotation starter. If you take a step back and look at Hughe's performance over the last three years, he's managed two solid seasons. Sure, his 2011 was dreadful, but in two of the last three seasons he's shown progress as a young arm.
Nova's development thus far has mirrored Hughes', only a season behind. His breakout year was 2011, when he gave the Yankees 165.1 innings of 4.16 xFIP pitching, good for 2.6 fWAR. The consensus view is that he stumbled in 2012, but the numbers don't back that up. His K/9 went up from 5.33 to 8.08. His BB/9 went down to 2.96 from 3.10. He increased his innings total to 170.1. That's progress.
He did struggle to keep the ball in the park. He gave up an unsightly 1.48 HR/9, more than double his 2011 rate, and saw his BABIP jump up .331, but before I write him off as the new A.J. Burnett I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that his 5.02 ERA was due to bad luck and development. His 2012 xFIP was 3.92. His true performance is somewhere in between, but if he develops at all in 2013 he is positioned for an improved season.
If Hughes and Nova can show themselves to be average starters, let alone better than average, then the Yankees will have one of the strongest rotations in baseball. It will be led by seasoned veterans, with two young arms rounding out the back of the rotation. A rotation that ranges from strong to average, one through five, is more than enough to keep any struggling offense afloat. The main reason not to be overly concerned about the Yankee season is the pitching. The success of that pitching may very well rest on the continued development of two young pitchers who have been stronger these past few seasons than many Yankee fans realize.