The Yankees opened the offseason dreaming of Sabathia to Lee to Hughes to Pettitte to Burnett — or whatever order you prefer — and with that group no longer possible, every other combination seems second rate.
Which is, to some extent, completely unfair.
Right now, the Yankees have the potential for a strong top three. CC Sabathia remains one of the dominant pitchers in the game, Phil Hughes is coming off an impressive first full season in the rotation, and A.J. Burnett will surely be better in 2011 than he was in 2010. If those three reasonably approach their potential, the top of the rotation will be sound.
If just one of Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon or Sergio Mitre — just one of the four — proves durable and fairly productive, the Yankees will have a solid fourth starter.
If the fifth spot becomes a manageable patchwork of effective arms — plan all you want, but rotations never end with the guy who’s supposed to be No. 5 — then the Yankees will have a solid group of five starters.
Don’t even think of of best-case scenarios, just think of reasonable hopes for these five: Sabathia could certainly contend for a Cy Young, Hughes could certainly be back in the all-star discussion, Burnett could absolutely rediscover his 2009 form, Nova’s Triple-A numbers suggest he could be (at least) a reliable big league starter, and Garcia could repeat last season, making him a more-than-capable No. 5.
That’s not pie in the sky. Man for man, that’s perfectly within the realm of possibility. And given the strength of the lineup and the depth of the bullpen, that gives the Yankees a perfectly viable rotation.
It does not, however, give the Yankees a comfortable rotation.
If any of the top three is hurt or falls into an unexpected hole — like Burnett did last year, or like Hughes did in his first attempt in an Opening Day rotation — can they really count on Nova or one of the hot shot prospects to pick up that kind of slack?
If Nova doesn’t take that next step, and Garcia can’t stay healthy, and Mitre can’t thrive out of the bullpen, and Colon can’t cut it in spring training — not exactly out-of-the-question scenarios — will the Yankees really be able patch together two-fifths of their rotation?
This morning, Greg wrote that the Yankees have been in this situation before. That they got to the 2001 World Series with a rotation that wasn’t perfect, but a rotation that did the job.
Thing is, the Yankees were also in a similar situation in three years ago.
Back in 2008, they had Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang at the top of the rotation, they had Mike Mussina coming off a rocky 2007, and they had two unpredictable spots filled by Hughes and Ian Kennedy.
Mussina bounced back in a big way and Pettitte was as good as expected, but the Yankees couldn’t make up for an injury to Wang, a rough rookie season by Kennedy and a rocky, injury-marred season from Hughes. That team missed the playoffs entirely.
Given a bad situation this offseason, the Yankees have put together a group of starters who are legitimately capable of becoming a solid — maybe even a good — starting rotation. They have seen a rotation like this work out just fine. And they’ve seen a rotation like this fall apart.
The Yankees have a perfectly capable rotation, but it’s not a comfortable rotation, and the Yankees won’t be comfortable until one of their unknowns begins to prove himself, or until one of those unknowns is replaced by someone who removes some of the guess work.
Associated Press photos