In trying to break down the state of the Yankees organization, it’s hard to look at pitchers the same way we look at position players. The development is different. The roles are different. The number of jobs available is different. It’s just … different. In trying to look at the state of the Yankees rotation, it seems best to start by looking directly at the current 40-man roster (before free agency) where no less than 12 rotation possibilities are already in place. Given the Yankees injury concerns, they’re going to need some rotation depth heading into next season. They just might be able to find that depth while staying in house.
THE OBVIOUS INJURY CONCERNS
Masahiro Tanaka – His elbow might be a ticking time bomb, but he’s also an ace-caliber pitcher. The Yankees know Tanaka might need Tommy John surgery at any moment, but they’ve done what they can to postpone that procedure, and a couple of healthy starts at the end of the year were enough to build some cautious optimism. Tanaka should be the Yankees No. 1 starter. But that depends largely on a tiny ligament in his elbow.
Michael Pineda – The Yankees finally got to see the guy they acquired years ago, and they liked what they saw. Sure, the pine tar situation was embarrassing, and there was yet another shoulder setback, but when Pineda was on the mound, he was terrific. He’s far removed from surgery, but that doesn’t mean health concerns don’t linger. Would be a strong No. 2, but again, that’s only if he stays healthy.
CC Sabathia – This could be the year his run of Opening Day starts come to an end. That said, if he gets to spring training healthy and reasonably effective, he might still get the nod in the opener if only because he’s still very clearly the leader of the staff (and this is a clubhouse that could be searching to leadership next season). Whether Sabathia will be anything more than a symbolic choice, though, remains to be seen. If he can at least be a reliable back-of-the-rotation arm, that would be helpful. There’s clearly a new ace in town.
Ivan Nova – Almost certainly will not be ready to break camp with the Yankees, but initial word about Nova’s recovery from Tommy John surgery has been nothing but positive. Still a long way to go, but Nova made it through the initial rehab steps with no problem. Tommy John has become a relatively routine procedure these days, but some pitchers say it takes close to two years to truly feel 100 percent. Timing suggests Nova could be back in the New York around early May. But how effective will he be?
THE REPLACEMENT STARTERS
David Phelps – When the Yankees rotation went through a series of injuries last season, Vidal Nuno was technically the first replacement starter, but Phelps wasn’t far behind. He was solid, then he got knocked around one game, then he looked really good for about a month and a half before his upper elbow became a problem. Phelps should be arbitration eligible this season, and he might once again come to camp as a rotation candidate who could easily slip into a bullpen role.
Shane Greene – Phelps’ chances of winning a spot in the rotation surely took a hit when Greene showed up. Having made a strong impression in spring training, and having struggled in his brief big league debut, Greene wound up pitching like a rotation mainstay through the second half of the season. He had a 3.24 ERA before a six-run mess in his final start. Given the Nova injury, Greene could legitimately come to camp as a rotation favorite.
Chase Whitley – A career minor league reliever until the very end of 2013, Whitley moved to the Triple-A rotation, improved his breaking ball and got his first big league call-up as a replacement starter. He was a bit streaky — very good at first, pretty good at the end, plenty of rough outings in the middle — but Whitley joins the mix as a swing man who could start or work in long relief. Could also go to Triple-A as rotation insurance.
THE MINOR LEAGUERS
Manny Banuelos – Once considered to be among the top left-handed pitching prospects in baseball, Banuelos needed Tommy John surgery, which slowed his ascent considerably. He missed all of 2013 and put up inconsistent results this year in Double-A and Triple-A. Banuelos has an awfully good arm, though, and being further removed from surgery surely helps his cause heading into his age-24 season.
Bryan Mitchell – For the longest time, Mitchell’s reputation was far better than his results. The Yankees regularly touted his potential, and that was enough to put him on the 40-man roster last winter despite a 5.12 ERA in High-A the year before. More so-so results followed in Double-A this season, but the Yankees challenged Mitchell with a Triple-A promotion and things seemed to take off. He got 11 innings in the big leagues and looked solid. Probably no more than rotation depth to open the season, but he’s among the most advanced young starters in the system.
Matt Tracy/Nik Turley – These guys aren’t on the current 40-man roster, but they stand out as Rule 5 eligible lefties had at least 60 Triple-A innings with mid-4.00 ERAs this season. Neither one was great next season, and there’s a chance both will be left exposed to the Rule 5 this winter — guys like Zach Nuding, Jairo Heredia and Caleb Cotham are in vaguely similar situations — but they’re potential rotation depth options who could be on the 40-man eventually (or could be added next year if necessary). Turley’s been on the 40-man before, and he in particular was putting up better numbers at the end of the year.
THE SOON-TO-BE FREE AGENTS
Hiroki Kuroda – Of all the Yankees soon-to-be free agents, none has a future quite as uncertain as Kuroda. He turns 40 in February, and despite yet again providing some much-needed stability for the Yankees rotation, there seems to be a solid chance Kuroda will retire this winter. He could also come back, pitch elsewhere, or decide to pitch one last season in Japan. Kuroda left all options open at the end of the year.
Brandon McCarthy — Aside from Dave Robertson, there might not be an outgoing free agent who’s more interesting for the Yankees. McCarthy throws strikes and gets ground balls, he thrived during his three-month stint with the Yankees, and he seems like a strong fit in this unusual market. At the right price, McCarthy could be a strong choice for additional rotation depth (though he comes with injury concerns of his own).
Chris Capuano – Would be easy to dismiss Capuano as a non-factor going forward, and maybe that’s exactly what he’ll be. Two things to consider, though: 1. Capuano really was a pretty good No. 5 starter during his time with the Yankees, and he has experience as a bullpen lefty, which the Yankees don’t really have at the moment. Probably least like to return of anyone on this list, but he did his job during his time with the team.
Associated Press photos
Yankees at the break: The rotation • 07.12.11
This was supposed to be the Yankees weakness. It’s become a strength. Because of better-than-expected performances from Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, the Yankees rotation has been dependable, and it’s grown deep enough that Ivan Nova is tucked away in Triple-A.
This winter, there was one free agent starter who could make the Yankees feel confident about their rotation. He picked Philadelphia, and the Yankees were left scrambling for spare parts. Those spare parts have been outstanding, A.J. Burnett has bounced back from last season’s misery, Nova has been inconsistent but generally pretty good as a rookie, and CC Sabathia is once again an early Cy Young candidate. When Phil Hughes landed on the DL after just three starts, the Yankees rotation was tested, but it rose to the challenge.
The Yankees have obvious rotation depth heading into the second half of the season. Nova was crowded out of the rotation despite success, so he’s ready to step in if the Yankees need someone. Based on results, there’s little reason to doubt Colon and Garcia, but their age and recent injuries raise some obvious red flags. The biggest question, though, is probably Hughes. He’s made just one start since coming off the disabled list, and although his velocity was much better than it was in April, he didn’t exactly plow through the Indians lineup. The Yankees are hoping that the Hughes saw in last year’s first half shows up for this year’s second half.
D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Lance Pendleton each have ERAs of 3.38 or lower in Triple-A. Now they’re joined by Nova to give the Yankees a good, young Triple-A rotation. Their success helps cover the fact that Andrew Brackman has been surprisingly bad, losing his rotation spot and struggling to find consistency as a reliever.
The bigger names are in Double-A, where Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances have each pitched well – Betances especially – but their control issues are proof that they’re still young and have some work to do. Both have 40 walks in fewer than 80 innings this season. In the lower levels, Mikey O’Brien, Josh Romanski and Nik Turley have pitched their way into call-ups. A few other standouts whose names might not be familiar: Craig Heyer (Fall League selection with a 3.19 ERA in Double-A), Jairo Heredia (improving prospect with a 3.29 ERA in High-A) and Brett Marshall (outstanding since the end of April in High-A).
What happens if Nova dominates in Triple-A?
In his return to Triple-A, Nova struck out 10 and walked none through 7.2 innings that proved he was a Major League pitcher in a minor league game. If that pace continues and one of the Yankees starters slips – doesn’t get hurt, doesn’t fall apart completely, just starts allowing four runs every time out – how quickly would the Yankees make a change and decide they need to move Nova back into the big league rotation?
It will be interesting to see whether the Yankees push either Betances or Banuelos in the second half. It’s entirely possible that they’ll be big league ready at some point next year, but it might not be at the start of the season unless they get at least a half season at Triple-A. It’ll also be interesting to see if Phelps, Mitchell or Warren gets some big league time kind of like Nova did last year. The bigger question, though, centers on Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract at the end of this season. Even if Sabathia opts out, the Yankees would remain a favorite to bring him back, but it’s an issue that could have a significant impact on the next five or six years (maybe more).
Associated Press photos of Sabathia and Colon, headshots of Mitchell, Banuelos and Nova