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Spring decision: Fifth starter

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If you consider Clay Rapada to be a strong favorite to reprise his role as the Yankees second lefty, then you might say the Yankees have only one pitching staff decision to make: Pick a fifth starter, but the loser of that competition in the bullpen as a long man. It’s not entirely that simple — health will play a role, someone could pitch his way into the mix — but heading into camp the Yankees seem to have four starters and five relievers (six if you count Rapada) more or less slotted into position.

The situation
The Yankees plan to have CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes as their top four starters, and those spots have been more or less guaranteed ever since Pettitte and Kuroda re-signed early this offseason. What’s left is one spot in the rotation, and the Yankees did not sign a free agent or make a trade to fill it. They have Ivan Nova (who might have the spot locked up if not for a rough second half last year), and they have David Phelps (who was given an opportunity last season and took advantage to put himself into consideration).

The options
Around early December, I really expected the Yankees to sign a veteran starter to either a low-base contract or a minor league deal to compete for that open spot in the rotation, but such a signing never happened, which left the Yankees with only two standout options. 1. Give Nova a second chance. His second half of 2011 made him a borderline Rookie of the Year candidate, and he had a 3.92 ERA in the first half of 2012, but his 7.05 in the second half of last year left him with something to prove this spring. It’s easy to consider this Nova’s job to lose. [3] 2. Give Phelps a bigger role. Enough dominoes fell for Phelps to make the Opening Day roster last year, and he pitched well enough to emerge as a reliable long reliever and occasional spot starter. Now he is the most reliable alternative if Nova doesn’t impress this spring. There are other fringe options — Adam Warren and Brett Marshall in particular — but it seems safe to think of this as a two-man competition.

The fallout
The bulk of the bullpen seems to be in place, but none of those standout options is a true long reliever, and the Yankees will almost certainly want one of those. The pitchers best equipped to handle such a role are probably the two guys competing for the fifth spot in the rotation. One will be a starter, and the other could easily slide into the bullpen. The move would seem to be easier for Phelps because of last year’s bullpen experience. It also stands to reason that, if Nova isn’t the one picked, it could be because he hasn’t pitched very well in camp, which might lead the Yankees to instead option him to Triple-A and give a long relief job to Warren, Marshall or Chase Whitley.

Associated Press photo