Pitching still a priority (and need) for Yankees


The imposing figure of CC Sabathia returns for the New York Yankees in 2012. (AP/Jae Hong)

Much like last offseason, pitching is a number-one priority for the Yankees. The staff over-performed this past season thanks to some adept bargain shopping by GM Brian Cashman. When the Yankees went into the season with the likes of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia rounding out the staff, very few expected them to win the American League East, but they did.

As the Bombers head into 2012, they are sure to make more tweaks to the rotation. It’s a weak free-agent class, so Cashman may have to get creative again. Let’s take a look at the parts that are in place for the moment.

1. CC Sabathia (2011: 19-8, 3.00 ERA)

The big lefty is a true ace and perennially in contention for the Cy Young Award. He gives the Yankees everything they need in a rotation front-man. CC goes deep into games by not driving up his pitch count. Plus, he is more than just a strikeout guy and pitches to contact in the right situations.

The Yankees quickly locked up Sabathia right before his opt out, so we can expect to see the big fella in a Yankee uniform for the next five years.

2. Ivan Nova (2011: 16-4, 3.70 ERA)

I’m putting the rookie righty as the number-two starter over A.J. Burnett not just because Burnett doesn’t deserve the spot, but Nova earned it. Nova began the year looking just okay and struggling to make it to the sixth inning during many of his starts. Then, after a demotion to the minors in July, he came back and had a second half that helped get the Yankees to the playoffs. Nova refined his slider, and after his call up, had a 3.18 ERA with 47 strikeouts and 20 walks in 73.2 innings over 11 games.

It will be interesting to see if Nova can continue his second-half success in 2012. If he does, he may be able to imbed himself in that number-two position (barring any big name trades or signings).

3. A.J. Burnett (11-11, 5.15 ERA)

Ah, A.J. The man most likely to induce a Yankee fan to hurl a TV set out the window. His slider can be downright filthy, but unfortunately those times have not been consistently enough. There have been way too many games when Burnett issued walk after frustrating walk getting himself into a heap of trouble he couldn’t extract himself from. Granted, Burnett has had some big-time playoff starts, winning a much-needed game two against the Phillies in the 2009 World Series and securing one of the Yankees’ only two wins against the Tigers in this year’s Division Series.

The Yankees (and many fans) would love if they could move him. Cashman was recently quoted about A.J., “If he’s with us, without a doubt he’s in the rotation.” Burnett has two more years and $33 million left on his contract, so the prospect of trading him seems unlikely unless the Yankees eat a good portion of the money. Stay tuned …

4. Phil Hughes (5-5, 5.79 ERA)

Hughes is an anomaly. As a reliever in 2009, he truly was a big piece in getting the Yankees to their 27th world championship. In 2010, he was solid with 18 wins and 4.19 ERA. But this past season, he was injury plagued and his fastball velocity went down. He was able to crank the heater back up when he came back to the rotation late in the season (it was all about the Hughes fastball tracker when he returned), but he was limited to the bullpen during the playoffs because of a herniated disc.

If he can stay healthy and pitch to his potential, he can be another homegrown piece to the rotation puzzle for years to come. I still believe in Hughes, but to quote Yankee great Yogi Berra, when it comes to the righty’s potential, it’s getting late early.

As for the fifth spot, if the season were to begin tomorrow, then rookie Hector Noesi (2-2, 4.47 ERA), who was used out of the bullpen, would be slotted into the back of the rotation. Bartolo Colon (8-10, 4.00 ERA) and Freddy Garcia (12-8, 3.62 ERA) are both free agents and performed well above and beyond expectations when Cashman picked them off the scrap heap. Garcia was consistent and healthy almost all year (minus suffering a cut on the finger of his throwing hand late in the season). The Yankees may want to bring him back, but Garcia will command more money after a solid 2011.

The Yankees got much further than expected in 2011 with a starting pitching staff that appeared less than stellar on paper. This offseason, Cashman will be looking to get an arm or two, and I wouldn’t rule out him once again getting creative with a signing or trade to bolster the rotation for 2012.

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