There is perhaps no higher commodity in baseball than a young starting pitcher. As the Yankees have discovered this winter, finding a reliable starter on the trade market is difficult and costly, and the free agent market is no sure thing. The bad news for the Yankees is that the back of their big league rotation is still unsettled. The good news is that there are a lot of legitimate pitching prospects nearly ready for the show.
In the big leagues
The Yankees have their ace in CC Sabathia. They have their young gun in Phil Hughes. They have their erratic talent in A.J. Burnett. Beyond that, the Yankees have high-hopes for Ivan Nova and a whole lot of praying for rain. For now, Sergio Mitre seems to be the top in-house option to round out the rotation, but that will almost certainly change — in one way or another — between now and spring training. There is still hope that Andy Pettitte will come back, and if he doesn’t, the free agent market still offers a handful of risk-reward pitchers coming back from injury, plus a few veterans looking for some sort of resurgence. The Yankees top pitching target went elsewhere, and now they’ll have to build a rotation with the pieces that are left.
On the verge
At this point, Nova seems nearly locked into a big league rotation spot, but the Triple-A rotation could still have five legitimate prospects, headlined by Hector Noesi and Andrew Brackman, each of whom is on the 40-man, possibly leaving them in line for early promotions should the Yankees need an additional starter. D.J. Mitchell and David Phelps are also in line to open in Triple-A after finishing last season at that level. Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos — considered, along with Brackman, to be the top pitching prospects in the system, affectionately known as the Killer Bs — will likely return to Double-A, but they could move quickly.
Adam Warren, Gordon Stoneburner and Shaeffer Hall are also legitimate rotation prospects who would be far more prominent in most systems but fall somewhat into the shadows because of the Yankees upper-level depth. Warren in the most advanced of those three, having made 10 Double-A starts, but Stoneburner might be generating the most buzz after a 2.41 ERA between Low-A and High-A last season. Hall is a lefty out of Florida State, and the Yankees are willing to push him aggressively.
Deep in the system
The bulk of the Yankees rotation prospects are actually in the upper levels of the system, having already cleared several minor league hurdles. That’s one of the most impressive things about the system as a whole. In the lowest levels, there are three names that stand out: Brett Marshall, Jose Ramirez and Bryan Mitchell. Back from Tommy John surgery, Marshall had a 2.50 ERA and a .199 opponents batting average in Charleston last season. Ramirez put himself firmly on the map in 2009 with a terrific first season in the States. He followed that with a 3.60 ERA and 105 strikeouts last season in Charleston. Mitchell is the youngest of this trio, and he pitched well in the short-season leagues in his first taste of pro ball. He was a 16th-round pick in 2009, falling only because of signability issues. He’s considered a front-line talent.
As a rule, I’m hesitant to get too caught up in players at the Class A level — pitchers especially — because they have so far to go, but those three standout as names to know and follow right now. Other names to keep tucked away: Jairo Heredia (talent slowed by health and conditioning issues), Gabe Encinas (the top starter taken in last year’s draft) and Sean Black (seventh-round pick in ’09 had a 3.88 ERA in Charleston and made two Tampa starts last season).
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and a free agent
Scranton/WB: Hector Noesi, Andrew Brackman, David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell and Lance Pendleton
Trenton: Adam Warren, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Graham Stoneburner, Shaeffer Hall
Tampa: Jose Ramirez, Brett Marshall, Sean Black, Jairo Heredia, Josh Romanski
Charleston: Bryan Mitchell, Shane Greene, Michael O’Brien, Nik Turley, Zachary Varce
Even this late into the offseason, the big league rotation remains a work in progress. As for who gets the first call beyond those top five, that’s also up in the air. There should be enough talent in Scranton to build a legitimate competition for any spot-starter needs that pop up during the season.
For now, I’ve projected a Scranton rotation that includes Pendleton, a Rule 5 pick currently hoping to win a spot in the Astros rotation. Minor league signee Andy Sisco could also work as a Triple-A starter, as could Kei Igawa if necessary. When he’s ready to come back from surgery, Jeremy Bleich could rejoin the Trenton rotation. He made eight starts there last season. Craig Heyer, who was sent to the Arizona Fall League and has worked as both a starter and reliever, could fit into the Trenton rotation at some point, especially if Pendleton sticks with Houston. As for the lower levels, those rotations are more difficult for me to predict, and some of those assignments might be based on what these pitches show in spring training.
Associated Press photo of Hughes, headshots of Sabathia, Brackman and Marshall