The big names in the projected starting rotation aren't scheduled to make their 2015 spring debuts yet, but we got our first look at one of the members when Nathan Eovaldi made his first ST start yesterday. He's one of multiple best case/worst case unknowns in the rotation, and where he and the rest of his rotation mates fall on that case scale could determine whether the Yankees end up having one of the best or worst rotations in baseball this season.
I've been pondering how those best case/worst case scenarios might play out for a while now. It feels like this season more than the last few is one in which the potential for the rotation leans mostly towards the extremes with not much room for a middle ground performance. Without getting too detailed or statistically-supported in this exercise, I'd like to ramble for a bit on what I've been pondering and try to paint a picture of what the best case scenario for the rotation would look like this season. It is a possibility, so it can't hurt to hope for and talk about that possibility.
First and foremost, any best case scenario for this year involves both Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda staying healthy for the full season. I don't want to get greedy and say they each have to make 34 starts and pitch 7+ innings in every start, but if each of them is able to take the ball every 5th game with maybe a little more rest here and there when Joe can make it work and they each make 30-ish starts, that'd be huge.
As far as actual performance goes, I think a simple repeat or close replication of what they did last year over a full season of starts would be tremendous. That's 400 or so innings of high strikeouts, low walks, and ERA and FIP values in the high 2's-low 3's, which should equate out to at least 4-5 WAR apiece. Two pitchers at the top of any rotation pitching at that level is a huge advantage to have in a division as close as the AL East, and Tanaka and Pineda have both shown the ability to be those kinds of pitchers.
In the middle of the rotation is where the expectations and definitions of "best case" start to differ for some. CC Sabathia is going to be penciled in as the #3 starter in the rotation, but realistically the team is probably looking at him as a #4. 25-30 starts of league-average production would be awesome from him considering how little he provided last season, but with the extra weight back on to help his command and the sparkling peripherals in his small 2014 sample, perhaps he can still be an above-average pitcher. As long as his knee is healthy enough to pitch, the skill set should still be there. A full, healthy season with K and BB rates similar to last year and more normal BABIP and HR rates could put CC in line for Comeback Player of the Year.
While CC is the aging #4 masquerading as a #3, Eovaldi is the young buck #4 who the team is hoping will make the leap to #3 or even #2 this year. His velocity is well known, but he hasn't been able to maximize the value of it yet, and he's still learning to harness his split-changeup to make it an effective offspeed offering against left-handed hitters. If that all comes together under the guidance of Larry Rothschild and assistance of Brian McCann, it's not a stretch to say that Eovaldi could become one of the 5 best pitchers in the division. A season of 30+ starts and 200+ innings of production close to the levels of Tanaka and Pineda would definitely make him the best #4 starter around.
For the final rotation spot, a little creativity and teamwork may be needed to create the best case. I don't think Chris Capuano is the answer for the full season, and I also don't think Ivan Nova can or will step back into the rotation when he's ready and immediately perform like Good Ivan. The realistic best case out of the 5th starter spot would be Capuano repeating what he did late last season as a reliable bridge to Nova, Nova coming back healthy and pitching to a league-average level, and maybe someone like Bryan Mitchell or Adam Warren filling in for a few spot starts here and there as needed.
Is all of this likely to happen? Absolutely not. But that doesn't mean it's impossible and it doesn't mean we can't hope for it. All the reports on players' physical conditions have been positive so far and that's the most important part in making this best case scenario a reality. If that can happen and the Yankees can get 30 and 200 from those first 4 guys, there's more than enough pitching talent in that group to lead to 4 above-average starting performances. Considering the worst case alternative, I'd say that's a pretty sweet best case.