If you're willing to believe that re-signing Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were givens, the New York Yankees' primary task this offseason was shoring up their starting rotation. Though the Yankees made it all the way back to the League Championship Series last year, they did so largely despite the performance of their starting pitchers, whose collective ERA ranked 22nd in the major leagues. With Andy Pettitte expected to announce his retirement tomorrow, it can officially be said that the Yankees failed at their offseason task.
Pettitte's departure comes roughly three months too late for the Yankees to find an adequate replacement for the 38-year-old lefty who was having perhaps his finest season as a Yankee last year before a July groin strain put him on the shelf for most of the second half. Had Pettitte decided to retire immediately after the postseason, the Yankees could have made a move to sign one of the admittedly thin-class of second-tier free agent starters, a group that included Hiroki Kuroda, Jorge De La Rosa, Jon Garland and Jake Westbrook, all of whom signed elsewhere by the end of November. Instead, the Yankees put all of their eggs in the basket of top free agent starter Cliff Lee, with the additional hope that that signing Lee would inspire Pettitte to return, resulting in a rotation that would have looked like this:
LHP -- CC SabathiaLHP -- Cliff LeeLHP -- Andy PettitteRHP -- Phil HughesRHP -- A.J. Burnett
However, Lee took less money than the Yankees offered to return to the Phillies in mid-December, and after another month and a half of indecision, Pettitte has decided to retire to spend more time with his family. That leaves the Yankees with a 2011 rotation will find Sabathia followed by Hughes, Burnett and two very large question marks.
That puts a ton of pressure on the 34-year-old Burnett to rebound from the worst full season of his career (10-15, 5.26 ERA), and particularly on the 24-year-old Hughes, entering just his second full season as a starter, to pitch like the No. 2 the organization believes he can be. Hughes went 18-8 for the Yankees in '10, but he benefited from a whopping 6.75 runs per game of support from his offense and posted a 5.05 ERA over his final 23 starts of the regular season, while his 1.38 ERA in his first six starts owed some to an unsustainably low .223 opponents average on balls in play. Given Hughes' youth and ability, he should show improvement in the coming season, but it seems like a lot to ask for him to be the second-best starter for a team that expects to make the playoff out of the stacked American League East.
As for Burnett, who was never much more than a third starter to begin with, he's similarly likely to improve, in part because he's simply a better pitcher than he showed last year, and in part because he did pitch with some bad luck, with opponents hitting .323 on balls in play despite a three-year low in his line-drive rate. Still, the sharp drop in Burnett's strikeout rate last year stands out as a red flag.
Of further concern for both Hughes and Burnett, both have had their share of injury problems in the past. It would be unreasonable to expect an ERA below 4.00 from either pitcher and a coin flip as to whether or not either will reach 200 innings.
Behind those two, the Yankees effectively have an open casting call. Ivan Nova, a 24-year-old right-hander who made seven starts down the stretch for New York last season, has an inside track to one of those spots as one of the team's top upper-level pitching prospects and a pitcher general manager Brian Cashman has repeatedly said could find himself in the rotation this year. Nova isn't a potential front-end starter like Hughes, but he has a nice mix of pitches and got his share of groundballs in a strong season at Triple-A last season. What's troubling about Nova, beyond his inexperience, is the inability to get through an opposing lineup three times he displayed in his brief major league look. Major League opponents have hit .222/.270/.368 against Nova in their first two plate appearances of a game, while he has posted a 3.14 K/BB those first two times through, but thereafter they hit .383/.491/.447 while he has struck out just four men against 10 walks.
After Nova, the top candidates for the back-end of the Yankees' rotation are former All-Stars Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, both of whom will come to Spring Training as non-roster players on minor league contracts. Garcia threw 100 major league innings last year for the first time since '06, after which his career was derailed by labrum surgery in his pitching shoulder. He held his own at the back of the White Sox's rotation for 28 starts last year (12-6, 4.64 ERA), but at this stage of his career, the 35-year-old Garcia is a junkballer with a high-80s fastball who relies heavily on a changeup that is only about six or seven miles per hour slower. He's also a right-handed fly ball pitcher, which is pretty much the exact wrong type of pitcher to start at the new Yankee Stadium with its lefty- and homer-friendly dimensions. Javier Vazquez, who went from a Cy Young runner-up in '09 to a 5.32 ERA and 32 home runs allowed in 157 1/3 innings for the Yankees last year fit a very similar description.
Still, Garcia has a considerable edge over Colon, who is also a right-handed fly-ball pitcher, didn't pitch at all in '10, and hasn't thrown 100 innings in a season since his ill-gotten Cy Young award campaign of '05 due to a litany of injuries, poor conditioning and bad behavior. The Yankees signed Colon, who will turn 37 in May, because he was throwing in the mid-90s in winter ball, but that and a dollar will buy you a scratch-off ticket that's a better bet to deliver.
In the wake of the Pettitte news, the Yankees may well take additional gambles on pitchers such as Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Bonderman, who are among the last two men left on the market, but neither would be a significant upgrade over Garcia, nor would in-house candidate Sergio Mitre, who has gone 3-5 with a 6.86 ERA in a dozen starts as a Yankee over the past two years.
A more compelling option is an aggressive promotion for one of the organization's myriad pitching prospects, a group led in ability by Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman, all of whom topped out at Double-A last year, and in advancement by David Phelps, Hector Noesi and D.J. Mitchell, none of whom projects as better than Nova. However, the Yankees' careful handling of Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, the latter of whom is clearly the team's best choice to fill one of those last two spots but one they have ruled out for reasons that remain cloudy at best, suggests that aggressive promotions are not likely to come, at least not to the organization's better prospects.
Most likely, the Yankees will scuffle along with their various patchwork solutions, then make a big splash trade for a starter mid-season. If so, the question becomes which, if any, of their top prospects -- specifically the three killer Bs mentioned above and slugging catcher Jesus Montero -- they'd be willing to part with in such a trade. The Yankees had agreed to trade Montero, considered one of the top hitting prospects in baseball, for Cliff Lee last year before Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik backed out and sent Lee to the Rangers for a package built around first-base prospect Justin Smoak instead. Lee might well have pitched the Yankees to another title, but if not, and if he had turned around and signed with the Phillies in the offseason, as he did, that trade could have proven disastrous. It will be interesting to see if that made Cashman and company any more reluctant to deal their top prospects for a short-term fix, which they have been thus far this offseason.
Of course, things are different now. The Yankees are set do to battle in the toughest division in baseball, one in which even the worst teams have shown encouraging signs for '11 and beyond, with a collection of starting pitchers that currently projects to be worse than last year's crop. It's an unfortunate final note for Pettitte to sound, leaving his team up a creek without a starter, but early indications from SI's Jon Heyman are that Pettitte, who had been working out, was seriously considering a return only to call it off when he realized he just couldn't get up for the grind of another season.
Ultimately, it's not his fault that the Yankees didn't hedge their bets back in November, and no one is going to shed a tear for the Yankees with their lineup of eight former All-Stars and devastating late-inning relief, to say nothing of perennial Cy Young candidate Sabathia, but for all of those strengths, the Yankees are vulnerable in the most crucial area heading into the '11 season, which could make the difference in baseball's best division.