Before the 2011 season started, mass hysteria swept among Yankee fans and those fans that root against them for perceived rotation woes. They whiffed on Cliff Lee. Andy Pettitte rode off into the sunset. They didn't get any other options signed or traded and instead cobbled a rotation around two over-the-hill, high mileage pitchers, Bartolo Colon and Freddie Garcia. Those two pitchers out pitched all other competitors in spring training. Dillin Betances and Manny Banuelos got all the ink, but the old farts got the job. And somehow, it all worked. Garcia was solid all season and Colon was great for the first two-thirds of the season before regression hit (or he ran out of gas). It would be hard to imagine the Yankee brain trust to want to go into 2012 with such an unstable situation again. But what are their options?
The way this writer sees it, only two rotation spots are secure. C.C. Sabathia is one of the best in the game and the Yankees took care of his opt out business quickly and efficiently. And Ivan Nova has shown that he is a big league pitcher and can give the Yankees solid innings. His leg injury in the playoffs is a bit of a concern and will be until we see what the spring brings. So the question really concerns what comes after these two.
A.J. Burnett is signed long term and finished the 2011 season on a bit of an uptick, but two terrible years overall has to leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth. For a guy who is supposed to have great stuff, his fastball was rated to be the worst pitch in all of baseball last year. With $33 million still owed the pitcher for the next two years, it's hard to believe the Yankees will just cast him off, but if they could trade him for any kind of value, they darn well should.
Phil Hughes is another puzzle. Many experts viewed his 2010 season with a bit of skepticism. He won eighteen games, but had a high homer rate (the new Yankee Stadium was particularly unkind to him) and he faded at the end of the season. Then last year, he had lost velocity and much movement on his fastball and after a few disastrous starts to start the season, he was sent to build up his arm. His second half was more promising and his September was actually encouraging. But here's the problem. After building him up via pitch counts and inning limitations, he's back to the beginning again and will have to be monitored. And the Yankees have never seemed committed to him starting and waffle slightly with his usefulness out of the bullpen. A lot will be told when we see how the Yankees approach Hughes when Spring Training starts.
And then what? Sign C.J. Wilson? Baseball writers are really torn about Wilson. He's had two really good years in a small ballpark and his team has gone to the World Series twice. But for the kind of money he is asking, there is huge risk in being stuck with another Burnett contract. If the Yankees could land Wilson for two years with a third year option, that would be ideal. But the odds of that happening are as good as Penn State getting good publicity in the next month or so. Mark Buehrle's game would fit well into Yankee Stadium, but the odds heavily favor him returning to Chicago. Chris Capuano built up some value with his solid season for the Mets last season. But his injury history is scary and his penchant for giving up homers is even scarier.
What of internal choices? Banuelos and Betances showed last year that they are not ready. Both had impressive strikeout numbers but equally unimpressive walk numbers. They both need to show that they can consistently throw strikes before they can be trusted on a big league mound. Adam Warren and David Phelps seem the two likeliest options at this point. Both have been stretched out to the 150+ inning level in Triple A and both have decent arms. Phelps has better control from the numbers and throws slightly more strikeouts. Both should receive a Spring Training invite to see what they can do.
A sleeper pick for this writer would be Shaeffer Hall. He's 23, has been stretched out to 150+ innings and he's a lefty. If the Yankees fail to acquire a left-handed starter, this would be a good person to look at for a spring invite. Hall pitched most of the season in Double A, but did pitch a game in Triple A at the end of the season. He's not a big strikeout guy, but he has excellent control and seems to keep the ball in the park. D.J. Mitchell is another sleeper pick with a solid season in Triple A last season.
There might be slightly less pressure this off season for the Yankees to make a free agent splash. The Rays are amazing but consistently have to play the low-salary game. The Red Sox seem to be in a bit of a flux this off season with question marks of their own. Brian Cashman has built up his farm system and has collected quite a few prized arms. The question is whether their ever quest for a title can allow them to go with young talent.
Personally, after watching this team a lot last season and into the post season, this team really missed Andy Pettitte more than anyone else. A left handed starter behind Sabathia seems so important when the team plays half its games in Yankee Stadium. If the Yankees can't land one, then Schaeffer Hall should be given a shot. Even without the lefty aspect, the Yankees have a system stacked with arms and could go with a youth movement. Warren and Phelps could be given shots as well as Hall or Mitchell. It just seems so unlikely that the Yankees would have the guts to go such a route. To be sure, they will be interesting to watch this off season.