Over the past two seasons, Hiroki Kuroda has been the Yankees' most dependable starter. He has made 66 starts and thrown 427 innings, good for most on the team since the beginning of 2012. He also has a 3.31 ERA and 3.72 FIP during that span, so he has provided the team with both quantity and quality during his time with New York. At the same time, however, Kuroda has had to endure rough stretches to finish off each of the last two seasons (though he did bounce back very nicely in the 2012 postseason), enough so that the Yankees should monitor their right-hander's workload moving forward.
Sure enough, Joe Girardi did acknowledge that the team will limit Kuroda in some capacity this season, telling Chad Jennings that "we'll watch him closely like we have every other year. Maybe you start thinking, you get up around the 100-pitch mark, that might be it for him. You've got to see how taxing the innings are, if he's got an extra days' rest coming, all those sorts of things. We're going to have to watch him." This approach, as Jennings notes, is similar to that of how they treated Andy Pettitte last season.
All told, Kuroda threw 91 pitches in his six-inning, two-run effort against the Astros on Wednesday. What's significant, is that he finished off his start strong, allowing just two baserunners (Dexter Fowler and Robbie Grossman triples in the third and sixth, respectively) through the final 19 batters he faced. Instead of being sent out for the seventh inning, Kuroda was pulled in favor of David Phelps. He could have been pulled after just 91 pitches due to the fact that it was his first start of the season and teams generally like to play it safe in the early going, or it could have been a sign of things to come for the right-hander in hopes to keep him as fresh as possible throughout the season.
In Kuroda's previously-noted rough stretches to end each of the last two seasons, he pitched to a 4.77 ERA and .863 OPS against in seven starts to end the 2012 regular season, while posting a 6.56 ERA and .916 OPS against in eight starts to conclude 2013. Kuroda did admit that he was "exhausted" at the end of 2013, which really isn't all that surprising; he's now 39 years old and has close to 3,000 innings on his arm dating back to his days with Japan.
Girardi did note that they'll give Kuroda that extra day of rest if there's an off-day in the schedule. The Yankees are in the middle of 13 straight games to open the season, however, so they'll have to wait until the series against the Rays in the middle of the month to do so. I also wonder if they'll skip a start of his entirely, perhaps during the dog days of summer, to keep him fresh that way if he's showing signs of fatigue. As it stands right now, the Yankees have three pitchers in their bullpen (David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno) who can start when needed and it's inevitable that the team will need a sixth starter sometime this year; perhaps they could go to one of them in place of Kuroda if the situation or matchup calls for it.
Although he didn't get the start on Opening Day, it's pretty obvious that Kuroda is the team's ace, given his results and durability over the last two seasons. Because he has crashed pretty hard the last two seasons, added to the fact that he's 39 and has a ton of mileage on his arm, the Yankees are smart to watch Kuroda's workload in what could be the right-hander's final season in the big leagues. A strong and fresh Kuroda could go a long way to getting the Yankees back to the postseason and beyond.