With reports coming out that Masahiro Tanaka may not be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, the Yankees could be left with a gaping hole in their rotation. Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia, and Ivan Nova (in perhaps that order) are clearly the top three starters, while Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Videl Nuno were intended to compete for the fifth spot in Spring Training. This leaves the Yankees one starter short, and they'll have to make a decision on who is to fill the void that will be left if Tanaka is not made available.
The Yankees recently said that they are not interested in Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez, and previously stated they have no interest in Ervin Santana, either. Well, that about takes care of all the big pitching names on the market this offseason. Instead of signing someone, the Yankees supposedly plan on filling these two rotation spots from within, and there has also been some speculation about them bringing in old veterans (Johan Santana, anyone?) at spring training to see if they can make the roster, a la Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia a couple seasons ago.
But after a season spent writing big checks and signing big names (even though they passed on writing the biggest check of all), the Yankees seem committed to winning now. After all, it's not like their lineup will be any younger in a year or two. So are they making the wisest choice by trusting unproven young arms at the back of their rotation, especially as they try to make up for one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory?
There's a lot of doubt surrounding the Yankee rotation this year: Can Sabathia regain his old form? Was the end of last season just an exhausted fluke or the signal that Kuroda has nothing left in the tank? Which Nova will we see - the one from the first month of 2013 (6.48 ERA), or the one who became the Yankees most reliable pitcher down the stretch last year (2.78 ERA after the All-Star Break)?
Those are only a few of the issues looming over the Yankee staff this season without getting into whether Pineda will become what Cashman and the Yankee brass thought he would. To provide at least a little more certainty to the rotation, the Yankees could choose to change their minds and pursue one of the (sure to be overpriced) free agent pitchers.
Except none of them are that enticing.
Free Agent Options
Matt Garza is probably seen as the best pitcher on the market, but he's still not all that great. Garza's stats have been inflated by pitching in the NL Central instead of the AL East for the past couple years, and when he returned to the American League in a mid-season trade to Texas last year, he posted a 4.38 ERA in 13 starts. He's seen his HR/9 rise as high as 1.30/9 in 2012, with only a slightly lower mark than that last season. Ervin Santana presents the same problem - he gives up a lot of home runs (1.22/9 over his career, which would have been tied for 13th worst in the majors last season) and doesn't do enough well to offset that. While he had a 3.24 ERA last year (his best ever), the year before he posted a 5.16 ERA and 5.63 FIP, and has had three seasons since 2007 with ERAs over 5.00. Surely the Yankees don't want to shell out the cash for an inconsistent pitcher on the wrong side of the thirty.
Ubaldo Jimenez has also been quite inconsistent throughout his career, and while he strikes out a lot of hitters (9.56 K/9 last year, top-10 in the league, and 8.27 K/9 over his career), he also walks a lot (4.04 BB/9 in his career). Outside of three good years in Colorado, and a sparkling finish (albeit against bad teams like the Astros) to last season, Jimenez has been tough to rely upon, and he's done little to make him stand out from Garza or Santana. Certainly, none of them are as exciting as Tanaka, and all of them would probably get more money than they're worth (especially now that Tanaka isn't coming). But is overpaying for one of these still the best option left to a Yankees team looking to contend next season?
Trading for a starer isn't really an option for New York - the Yankees just don't have a lot to offer, besides a year-long rental of Brett Gardner. And so, rather than overspending for a good, but not great, pitcher, they've decided to the let the youngsters have their shot, a decision that might be better in the long run, but could cost the Yankees dearly in the short term.
Pineda's one season in the majors in Seattle showed a lot of promise (9.11 K/9, 0.95 HR/9, 3.74 ERA and 3.42 FIP, albeit in Safeco Field) and if he can regain this form, he can certainly be a solid member of the rotation. Still, this is a big if, as he's been hurt since he arrived from the Mariners, and only pitched 40 innings in the minors in 2013. Phelps posted a 3.34 ERA and a 4.32 FIP over 33 games, 11 starts, and 99.2 innings in 2012, and he improved on that important FIP number this year, posting 3.81 FIP in 86.2 innings over 22 games (12 starts). However, his WHIP did rise from 1.19 in 2012 to 1.42 in 2013, and batters hit .262 against him last season.
Warren only just got significant time in the majors last year, posting a 4.32 FIP in what was mostly middle relief appearances. While he was serviceable, he wasn't too impressive, and he never was lights out in two years of Triple-A ball (6-8 with 4.05 FIP in 2011, and 7-8 with a 3.72 FIP in 2012) and doesn't appear to have the sky-high upside of Michael Pineda, and doesn't have the experience or demonstrable decency of David Phelps. What Vidal Nuno may bring to the rotation is almost completely unknown, although he was quite good in Double-A back in 2012 and, in a very small sample size, posted a 2.25 ERA (albeit with a 4.50 FIP) in 20 innings in the majors last year.
What It All Means
While it could be rough in the early going (or rough all season, if Phelps and Pineda disappoint), letting them get experience could make the Yankees better in the long run, both by getting them experience and by letting the Yankees see if these two can be a meaningful part of their future rotation. Still, putting both in the rotation now will be a big leap of faith and constitutes a major risk to the Yankees' chances this year. Having one of Phelps/Pineda at no. 5 will be fine - having both as regular starters, and relying on Warren and Nuno as backup plans in case of injury or ineffectiveness, will be extremely dicey. The Yankees offense will be better this year, but it won't be that much better. For this team to have any chance of making the playoffs, pitching must remain a strength.
And if Tanaka does not become available, the best way to ensure that that happens is by signing Jimenez.
Jimenez presents the lowest risk option – he’s a proven pitcher who should be at least a serviceable and solid starter for a few more years. Jimenez will give the Yankees the ability to have some setbacks, some injuries, and some people not perform up to expectations. Jimenez more than likely won't be great - but he won't be bad, either. Instead, he would be the consistently solid arm the Yankees need as their No. 4 starter. He also will probably be the cheapest of the three main free agent pitchers, and his contract will still enable the Yankees to spend next offseason - signing him to a three year deal (MLB Rumors has his estimated contract at 3 years, $39 million) wouldn't make it impossible for the Yankees to chase top-flight free agents after the 2014 season, as Ichiro, Kuroda, and Jeter's contracts will come off the books after this year. He probably won’t have an fWAR of over 5 or 6 like he did in Colorado, but if Jimenez posts the 3.2 he posted last year, he’d be worth the investment to stabilize the rotation and not make the Yankees so dependent on a decent but unremarkable Phelps, an enigmatic Pineda, and two untested young arms.
If the Yankees were a team on the rise, but still a few years away from really contending, letting two of the young starters into the rotation wouldn't be a bad idea. But after the offseason spending spree, the Yankees are committed to contending now. At the end of next season, this lineup will just be one year older. Nothing will be any easier. If the Yankees want to get back to the playoffs, relying on two unproven pitchers with limited experience in the majors is not the best way to get there.
How do you think the Yankees should fill out the back end of their rotation?