The Yankees are full of options for the back of the rotation. They have guys who are ready to compete for a job right now, and a fairly long list of guys who could be ready to fill-in at some point during the season. What they don’t have are reliable arms that they can absolutely count on going forward. They have a few guys who might be that kind of pitcher, but they need a few key pitchers to meet expectations and deliver.
CC Sabathia (signed through 2017)
Ivan Nova (first year of arbitration)
David Phelps (not yet arbitration eligible)
Six Yankees made at least four starts last season, and half of them became free agents today. Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes are gone, and Kuroda seems to be the only one with even a remote chance of coming back. What’s left are three very different pieces of a very uncertain rotation. Sabathia is the ace, but after last season, he’s the ace in name only. At 33 years old, Sabathia’s coming off the worst season of his career, which is either a new and disastrous reality, or the kind of thing that forces a mid-30s transition. No doubt, the Yankees need Sabathia to be better, and if he is, that’s a big problem solved. If not, it’s simply a big problem. Nova is in kind of the opposite situation, looking to repeat a terrific 2013 season when he finished with a 3.10 ERA, despite getting off to such a bad start that he was option to the minors at one point. Nova’s shown massive highs and awful lows, but this was the best he’d ever been. A sign that he’s putting things together at age 26, or just another tease in his young career of inconsistency? Then there’s Phelps, who has yet to define himself as either a starter or a reliever. He can do both, and circumstances have dictated that he bounce back and forth between the two roles.
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Michael Pineda (not yet arbitration eligible)
Adam Warren (not yet arbitration eligible)
Vidal Nuno (not yet arbitration eligible)
If David Huff isn’t released this offseason (he seems like a non-tender candidate) he could also fit into this category. Huff made three starts for the Yankees this season. So did Nuno. Warren made two and served as the team’s long reliever throughout the season. Pineda … well, he’s Pineda, and it might finally be time for him to — you know — actually pitch in a big league game for the first time since the Yankees traded their top hitting prospect to acquire him two years ago. Huff, Warren and Nuno are the kind of pitchers you expect to be in the mix for a fifth starter spot at this time of year: One reclamation project and two young, relatively inexperienced pitchers looking for an opportunity. The wild card here is obviously Pineda, who came back from shoulder surgery to pitch pretty well in limited Triple-A action (23.1 IP, 18 H, 6 BB, 26 K, 3.86 ERA), and he’ll likely be given a real chance to break camp with the Yankees next spring. Expectations were sky-high after the trade, and hopes are still high since he’s come back with solid arm strength after the surgery. But it’s been two years since the trade, Pineda turns 25 in January, and the Yankees need to get some actually production out of him.
A few ways to prioritize the minor league starters who are most prepared to step into a Major League role next season. Brett Marshall had a down year, but he did lead Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in innings and got his feet wet in the big leagues (he’s the most experienced of the bunch). Long reliever Chase Whitley has pitched well in Triple-A for two years, and now the Yankees are experimenting with him as a starter (he’s certainly on the verge as a bullpen option, but the rotation is less certain). Jose Ramirez was outstanding in big league camp, terrific in Double-A and got a few Triple-A innings before being shut down with an injury (stands out as a very good upper-level arm). Then there’s the Double-A rotation of Shane Greene, Nik Turley, Matt Tracy, Zach Nuding and Mikey O’Brien (all solid-to-good prospects, none of whom has emerged as a real superstar standout). In other words, there several upper-level possibilities who could be Major League ready at some point next year, but there’s good and bad with each one. Greene had a great year, Ramirez has shown tremendous flashes, and the Whitley experiment is intriguing, but there’s no just-a-matter-of-time replacement here. Which brings us to, perhaps, the most intriguing of potentially ready rotation replacements: Manny Banuelos. Before 2012, he was legitimately one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, and he did carry some of that just-a-matter-of-time expectation. After a season lost to Tommy John surgery, though, Banuelos has to establish himself again. The Yankees say he’s healthy, and he was throwing at the end of the season. He might have fallen into the background for a year, but he still belongs on the radar. His upside is still significant, and a 2014 arrival isn’t out of the question.
It’s impossible to follow the Yankees and not recognize this fact: A top pitching prospect is certainly not a sure thing, even when he’s dominated in the lower levels of the minor leagues. The Yankees had the Hughes, Kennedy Chamberlain trio several years ago, and now all three are out of the organization. More recently, it was Banuelos, Betances and Brackman, and now only one of the three is still considered a starting pitcher (the other two are considered a reliever and a fringe basketball player). The latest Yankees minor leaguer to takeover as the team’s top pitching prospect is 22-year-old Rafael De Paula. This was his first season in the United States, and he opened with a 2.94 ERA and 96 strikeouts through 64.1 innings with Low-A Charleston. Bumped to Tampa, he came back down to earth with a 6.06 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 49 innings. This guy has been talked about for years, and for a while seemed to be more myth than reality, but that strong debut is a pretty good indication of what all the hype is about (and the second half is further proof that hype still needs time to develop). Let there be no doubt, De Paula is legitimately talented, but he’s also inexperienced. He and Jose Campos — the other piece of the Pineda trade — are an interesting one-two punch of potential without polish.
STATE OF THE ORGANIZATION
Lately, the Yankees have had far more success with their non-hyped pitchers — Nova, Phelps, Warren; even Robertson and Claiborne — than with their big-name pitching prospects. And if that continues, the Yankees could be in for a treat of legitimate rotation depth. Guys like Greene, Turley and Ramirez have been sort of second- and third-tier prospects, and they’re now emerging in the upper levels with solid results. They might not be future top-of-the-rotation standouts, but the Yankees do have some upper-level, Phelps-like pitching depth. In the lower levels, they have guys like De Paula, Campos, Ty Hensley, Bryan Mitchell and Ian Clarkin with high-end potential. What’s going to determine whether all of this works in the short term is whether Sabathia gets back on track, Nova finds consistency, Pineda can legitimately contribute, and Banuelos can return from injury to provide that upper-level, high-end pitching prospect that the Yankees currently lack. Back-end depth is great, and the Yankees have a decent amount of that — some of whom could exceed expectations, like Nova did this year — but elite pitching is what’s in demand, and the Yankees can’t be certain they have any of that. The potential is there, but so are questions about production going forward.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Nova, Phelps, Warren, Pineda, Ramirez, Banuelos, De Paula and Sabathia