Brian Cashman made his offseason priority crystal clear from the very beginning: Get the rotation under control. Cashman was aiming for short-term contracts, and so a couple of familiar faces fit nicely. Andy Pettitte re-signed, so did Hiroki Kuroda, and just like that the Yankees had a temporary rotation pieced together. But with Pettitte, Kuroda and Phil Hughes each approaching free agency, it’s anyone’s guess what the rotation might look like in 2014 and beyond. The answer might very well depend on the surgery recovery of two highly rated young pitchers.
CC Sabathia (signed through 2016)
Ivan Nova, David Phelps (arbitration eligible in 2014, 2016)
Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte (signed through 2013)
There’s a lot to like about this rotation. A lot to worry about too. What’s to like is, I think, fairly obvious. Sabathia is still in his early 30s, finished top five in Cy Young voting three of the past four years, and seems to have come through offseason surgery with no problem. Kuroda and Pettitte are each coming off strong seasons, Hughes is coming off a strong second half, and both Nova and Phelps — the fifth starter candidates — have shown spurts of being good big league starters. Of course, what’s to worry about is also fairly obvious. The long-term concerns are for another day — and, really, for other sections of this post — but the immediate concerns are about whether this group is reliable enough for a full season. Sabathia has built his reputation on durability and dependability, but he was on the disabled list twice last season, and despite another sub-3.40 ERA and another 200 innings, there were times when he was decidedly beatable last year. Kuroda is about to turn 38 and just pitched the most innings of his career, while Pettitte is about to turn 41 and hasn’t reached 130 innings since 2009. Hughes is still searching for consistency, and neither Nova nor Phelps is a sure thing.
On the verge
The rotation wild card is Michael Pineda. How’s the shoulder? How soon can he be back? And how fast is his fastball? There’s a reason the Yankees gave up Jesus Montero for this guy. Pineda had a strong rookie season in Seattle, and the Yankees believed there was room to grow. They were swapping prospect for prospect, and they got the prospect who got hurt. If Pineda can overcome a serious shoulder injury — not all pitchers can do that — there will be plenty of time to salvage value and add long-term rotation depth. In other words, a healthy Pineda would be huge in the Yankees attempt to cut payroll in 2014. For now, the depth comes largely from the duo of Nova and Phelps. One is likely to be the fifth starter and the other likely to be either a long man or a de facto sixth starter. The Triple-A rotation will feature Adam Warren (coming off a strong second half) and Brett Marshall (terrific sinker, strong Double-A season), either of whom could step into a big league role at any time. Vidal Nuno and Shaffer Hall might be in Triple-A too, but the additional wild card is Dellin Betances. Can he keep his mechanics and his location under control, or is he another Andrew Brackman?
Deeper in the system
Pineda, and Manny Banuelos were hurt, Betances was terrible, and just like that, the Yankees touted pitching depth vanished last season. But there is still high-end talent in the system, it’s just — you guessed it — in the lower levels and a long way from being big league ready. Here are five names to know: Jose Campos never had surgery on his elbow and remains a significant prospect despite a lost year; Rafael DePaula is finally ready to pitch in the U.S. and has huge potential; Jose Ramirez’s big fastball finally produced big results in last year’s second half; first-round pick Ty Hensley has a high ceiling but only a high school track record; and Bryan Mitchell still wows scouts despite so-so Low-A numbers. Those five offer significant potential, but not much polish, and while it’s hard to believe all five will achieve a best-case scenario, they do give the Yankees some risk-reward depth. Recent 40-man addition Nik Turley might be a safer bet. The big lefty had a 2.89 ERA in in Tampa last year — and a 2.51 in Charleston the year before — and seems ticketed for Double-A. It’s also worth mentioning guys like Matt Tracy, Zach Nuding, Evan Rutckyj and Jordan Cote (and Gabe Encinas, and Corey Black, and Jairo Heredia, and… ) but it’s hard to dig too deep into everyone. There’s enough potential to wonder whether the Yankees minor league pitch depth might look significantly better at this time next year.
On the move
Several years ago, the Yankees moved lefty Mike Dunn out of the outfield and onto the mound where he developed into a big league reliever. But it’s extremely rare for a position player to suddenly become a starting pitcher. It’s also rare for a minor league reliever to suddenly convert to being a starter. The potential for a player to suddenly shift into a starting role is slim. The most significant change in the Yankees organizational rotation depth will likely come from Banuelos who is going to miss all of this season while he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. If he recovers quickly and fully, Banuelos could instantly resume his position as the Yankees pitching prospect best poised to make a quick impact at the big league level. Opening Day 2014 might be ambitious, but mid-season 2014 isn’t necessarily out of the question.
What to watch
Who gets the fifth starter spot should get the most immediate attention, along with a quick check of Sabathia’s elbow. The aging process of Kuroda and Pettitte will also get a lot of short-term attention. For both short-term and long-term impact, Hughes is fascinating. His performance this year might determine whether the Yankees want to bring him back, and how much they’ll have to pay to do so. In the bigger picture, the Yankees system is full of young starters who could develop toward one extreme or another. There’s a lot of high-end potential, but all of it comes with high risk and a long road of development. There’s plenty to watch.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Sabathia, Hughes, Pineda, Marshall, Campos, Ramirez and Banuelos