At this time last year, the Yankees seemed to have more starting pitching than they needed. And that was before Andy Pettitte came out of retirement. But A.J. Burnett was traded. And Michael Pineda was hurt. And Freddy Garcia had that horrible month of April. And Dellin Betances had horrible command. And Manny Banuelos had a bad elbow. And Pettitte came back only to be hit by a comebacker. And Ivan Nova slipped in the second half. Is there more dependability in this year’s group of starters?
Back to their old selves
CC Sabathia turns 33 in July, and he’s finished top five in Cy Young voting three of the past four years. Another elite season isn’t out of the question. If Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda can repeat last year’s results — a year older, but still plenty effective, and without the fluke injury this time — the Yankees will have a strong top three that could compete with any rotation out there. Add Phil Hughes pitching like he did during last year’s second half, and Nova pitching like he did in the first half, and that’s a strong 1 through 5.
But this year’s best-case scenario really centers on Pineda. He’s the one who could give the Yankees a short-term boost and a long-term fixture. He’s still in the early stages of a throwing program, just now throwing off a half mound, so it’s hard to know how well his shoulder is responding. But if he can become a legitimate big league option by the All-Star break and keep building strength through the season, the Yankees just might have the pitcher they expected when they traded Jesus Montero. Could Sabathia, Pineda, Hughes, Nova and David Phelps be a good enough rotation for 2014? What if Manny Banuelos joins that group mid-season?
With some improved control from Betances, the Yankees could regain the upper-level pitching prospect that they’ve seemed to lack this winter (wouldn’t hurt to have Adam Warren and Brett Marshall thrive in Triple-A, or to have Nik Turley do the same in Double-A). But the real minor league pitching prize comes from the risk-reward guys like Bryan Mitchell, Jose Ramirez, Jose Campos, Rafael DePaula and Ty Hensley. If their results begin to matchup with their raw stuff, the Yankees could have some extremely high-end pitching prospects to look forward to.
Help is not on the way
Could go over the top and write about the possibility that Sabathia’s body will finally break down, but a more logical concern centers on soon-to-be-41-year-old Pettitte and turns-38-on-Sunday Kuroda. Health is one concern for an aging starter. Performance is another. It’s fair to wonder just how much longer those two can be viable No. 2 and 3 starters. And if they’re not up to the task this year, what if Hughes can’t find consistency, and Nova can’t rebound and Phelps can’t repeat last year’s success? Do the Yankees have the pieces to plug the potential holes?
Pineda could be a mid-season boost, or he could be a lost cause. Shoulder injuries can ruin careers, and that’s certainly Pineda’s worst-case scenario. If he can’t get his fastball back, can he even be a back-of-the-rotation option? Certainly Betances will be out of the picture if he can’t find the strike zone with some consistency. Warren and Marshall are steady options, but they’ll have to really open some eyes to be considered more than back-of-the-rotation starters. Could that happen? Sure. But it’s far from a lock.
Most of the Yankees other pitching prospects come with significant risk. Banuelos is coming back from Tommy John surgery, so we won’t see him this year, but there’s also reason to be concerned about Campos’ elbow. Is he also heading for Tommy John? Can DePaula have success in the States? Will Ramirez and Turley see upper-level success? Will Hensley and Mitchell show lower-level results that match their high-end raw talent? There are very few sure things in the Yankees minor league pitching, and that means an absolute worst-case scenario would leave the system incredibly bare when it comes to dependable arms.
Associated Press photos