At the start of the season, it looked like the Yankees had one of the highest-potential rotations in baseball with the long-awaited arrivals of Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda to the team to complement up-and-coming starter Ivan Nova and veterans CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda. Nova in particular was pegged by some writers to be a breakout candidate in 2014 after pitching to a superb 2.70 ERA in 17 games following his return to the majors on June 23rd, a stretch that saw him toss three complete games and nab AL Pitcher of the Month honors in August.
Unfortunately for Nova, it wasn't meant to be in 2014. He got off to an awful start with an eyesore of an ERA and FIP in four starts (8.27 ERA, 6.85 FIP), only pitching well in one of them. An elbow shake at the end of his last start on Saturday in Tampa led to his removal from the game and an MRI that eventually revealed a partial tear of his UCL, a likely precursor to Tommy John surgery. If Nova does indeed need this operation, then he will be done for the year already, and the Yankees' rotation will take a hit as a result. The step down in capability from Nova to the likes of Vidal Nuno and David Phelps is not small. The Yankees have not officially decided who will step into Nova's place in the rotation, but here it is as of now, according to the invaluable MLB Depth Charts (keep in mind that "Role" does not strictly go by who has the most talent):
In the early goings, the first quartet of pitchers have been more than fine. Tanaka and Pineda have been dynamite, Kuroda has been serviceable, and Sabathia has rebounded nicely in three starts against three good offenses after an Opening Day disaster in Houston. Although Tanaka and Pineda still have plenty to prove, the rotation seems like it should be steady, even if it has to rely on an unknown in Nuno or Phelps. If they can get him stretched out, Phelps would probably be the preferable option since Nuno only has nine career starts above Double-A to his name, and Phelps has posted a decent 4.39 ERA in 23 career MLB starts in addition to a nice record of success from mid-2010 through 2011 in 30 Triple-A starts. Adam Warren seems more likely to be kept in his mid-relief role due to his more noticeable success there, but he's a candidate as well. Either way, there are options for the last spot in the rotation that are better than the likes of Freddy Garcia and Sergio Mitre, which the Yankees have occasionally had to rely on in years past.
The Red Sox received an unexpected stellar season from Lackey in 2013 after he was left for dead and though he was injured for much of the second half, they also were the benefactors of a sterling 1.74 ERA from Buchholz in 16 starts. Add in 213 presentable innings from their ace Lester, 10 league-average starts from trade deadline acquisition Peavy, and some promising work from young lefty Doubront, and it should be no surprise that Boston took a talented rotation into the playoffs last year. This year though, they are tasked with proving that their success was for real.
Lester is reliable, but 2013 was Lackey's first good season in four years. Buchholz hasn't looked the same since suffering from shoulder bursitis last year, and both he and Doubront are off to shaky starts in 2014. Although Peavy has been solid with a 3.33 ERA, it should not be forgotten that he has topped 25 starts just once since has ace days as a Padre in 2008. Like Phelps, Workman is a decent sixth starter who has already proved himself in Triple-A. At the moment, it would be difficult to say that the Red Sox rotation is definitively better than the Yankees' group. Much of it is dependent on Peavy and Buchholz staying healthy and Lackey proving that 2013 wasn't a dead cat bounce year. I would take the Yankees' group, but I would understand arguments in Boston's slight favor. They match up very well with them, though it's probably a pure toss-up as to which is better at this point given Nova's injury and Doubront and Buchholz's shakiness.
The Rays saw their starting rotation grow quite depleted by injuries over the past month or so to Cobb, Hellickson, and Matt Moore, who was lost to Tommy John surgery for the year. The difference between a Price/Archer/Moore/Cobb/Hellickson rotation and this group is significant. While Moore is gone for the year, they should probably get Hellickson back toward the end of May and perhaps Cobb in June. In the meantime, it's Erik Bedard (who hasn't been good in years) and Cesar Ramos (who is 30 and only has five MLB starts to his name) bearing unfortunate spots in the starting five. Woof. For now, the Yankees have a better rotation.
When Cobb and Hellickson return and substitute in for those two retreads though, it will get more interesting. There are parallels with Hellickson and Sabathia despite the age difference, as both seek to rebound from absolutely awful years in 2013. Like Tanaka and Pineda, Archer and Cobb are serious young talents, and they have the advantage of having an actual MLB track record as recently as last year. Odorizzi has been shaky early on, but he certainly has more potential than Phelps or Nuno. If Cobb and Hellickson come back healthy, the group led by a recent Cy Young Award winner in Price is likely better than the Yankees. Tampa will just have to hope that they can weather the storm until they do, and that no one else succumbs to the injury bug.
The early story of the 2014 Orioles' rotation has been the Chris Tillman Show, as the 26-year-old has dominanted in four starts with a 1.71 ERA and 3.34 FIP a season after emerging as their ace in 2013 thanks to 206 1/3 innings of 112 ERA+ ball. He is probably a more sure thing than anyone the Yankees have right now, though I would still take Tanaka's talents over him. Everyone else however has ranged from "meh" to "where have you gone, Jeremy Guthrie?" Ubaldo has looked more like the guy who struggled from 2011 through the first half of 2013 with the Rockies and Indians than Cleveland's ace down the stretch during their run to a Wild Card spot last year.
Chen and Norris are league-average pitchers but have yet to prove they are anything more than that, and Gonzalez is maddeningly inconsistent. Without Nova, I would still take the Yankees' rotation over Baltimore's at this point unless Ubaldo has a serious turnaround and one of their other non-Tillman starters (maybe even Gausman in Triple-A) can step up.
These days, Dickey's knuckleball seems to fluctuate from start to start even more so than normal, and while Buehrle's an amazingly consistent lock for 30 starts and 200 innings, it's hard to buy his 0.64 ERA beginning to 2014 as anything more than small sample size weirdness at age 35. At his best, he'll probably have a 121 ERA+ year like he did for the White Sox in 2011, and to his credit, at his worst, he'll still be league average. Between him and Kuroda, Buehrle probably has the slight edge. Until Dickey proves over a long series of starts that he's anywhere close to as good as he was for the Mets in his Cy Young year of 2012, it's probably best to just regard him as league-average as well. Hutchison is a 23-year-old looking to prove himself, and Morrow is a 29-year-old desperately seeking to stay healthy and recapture his 2012 form. Unlike Sabathia though, he didn't have a long track record of success before 2012. McGowan, Happ, and Redmond all represent the same level of underwhelming mediocrity, though one could possibly argue that matching up with the Yankees, it's now a wash between that spot and Phelps/Nuno. Still, the advantage has to go with the Yankees for more likely consistency throughout the rotation.
The Yankees are fortunate that their rotation depth is good enough to withstand the Nova injury and still have a decent argument to be among the division's best. If Tanaka and Pineda are for real, then they can definitely survive using a lesser starter in Nova's spot every five days while still being a legitimate threat.