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Rotation Consternation: The In-House Options

Ivan Nova just might be a key part of the Yankees' 2011 rotation after all. (AP)

Back in late October, in the wake of the Yankees' ALCS loss to the Texas Rangers, general manager Brian Cashman listed improving his team's starting rotation among his priorities for this offseason. Well, today is January 5, and with most of the top names off the market, the Yankees have yet to add a single starting pitcher to their 40-man roster since claiming minor league lefty Steve Garrision off waivers from the Padres in September.

Cashman's top target, Cliff Lee, spurned the Yankees' larger contract offer to return to the Phillies. Andy Pettitte has yet to give the Yankees an official decision regarding his 2011 outlook, but at this point all signs point to his retirement. While Cashman waited on Lee and Pettitte to make their decisions, the top free agents came off the market, with Hiroki Kuroda, Jake Westbrook, and Jorge De La Rosa re-signing with their previous teams, and Jon Garland joining Kuroda and Ted Lilly, who re-upped with the Dodgers just before the World Series, in Los Angeles. The top name on the trade market, 2009 AL Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke, was indeed traded, but to Milwaukee, as was Shaun Marcum, the second best starter to be dealt thus far this offseason. Talks with the White Sox, who with 2010 top pick Chris Sale due to move into the rotation could have one starter too many upon Jake Peavy's return, went nowhere, and the team most likely to trade a quality starter at this point is the division rival Rays, who surely won't want Matt Garza or the like staying in the AL East.

As a result, the Yankees current starting rotation depth chart looks a lot like it did in October, with Javier Vazquez having signed with the Marlins, Pettitte still contemplating retirement, and Alfredo Aceves, a swing-man option, since non-tendered following a badly broken collarbone that will keep him out past Opening Day. This is not good, but this is how things look right now:

CC Sabathia: At least there's Sabathia. A stone-cold ace, Sabathia went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA in 237 2/3 innings in 2010 despite pitching with a torn meniscus in his landing knee down the stretch. He's among the most reliable pitchers in baseball, a horse, one of the six true aces remaining in the American League along with Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, and David Price, and could be even better in 2011 after having his knee repaired and loosing a significant amount of weight.

Phil Hughes: One of the top pitching prospects in baseball at one point, Hughes had his proper arrival as a full-fledged member of the Yankees' rotation delayed by injuries and a detour into the bullpen in 2009, but he finally got there in 2010, going 18-8 with a roughly league-average 4.19 ERA and solid peripherals (1.25 WHIP, 2.52 K/BB). Hughes lost effectiveness as the season progressed, but he was never terrible, and there are plenty of reasons to expect the 24-year-old to build on his 2010 performance. Still, it might be a bit early to count on him as the number-two man in the rotation, at least for a perennial contender like the Yankees.

A.J. Burnett: Burnett has been inconsistent and often injured throughout his career, but before 2010 he was never really awful, which gives Yankee fans some hope that his performance last season was a fluke rather than a collapse. A career-high batting average on balls in play (.323) despite a better-than-average line-drive percentage lends some credence to that view. A downward trend in his groundball and strikeout rates counters that argument, however. Burnett's strikeout rate last year was down 2.4 Ks per nine innings from 2008, and while his groundball rate was actually lower in 2009, the solid groundball tendencies he showed from 2003 to 2007 seem to be a thing of the past. Fortunately, his fragility seems to be as well. The best hope is probably for Burnett to be a league-average innings eater, though that suggests a sort of consistency Burnett will likely never posses.

Ivan Nova: Yes, I'm already down to Ivan Nova. It's not that Nova is undesirable, but entering the season with Ivan Nova as your fourth starter, at this stage of his career, is. Nova made a strong showing in his Triple-A debut at age 23 last year, upping his strikeout rate, dropping his walks, posting full-season bests in K/BB (2.40), K/9 (7.1), WHIP (1.26), and ERA (2.86) and a solid groundball rate of 1.66 groundouts for every fly out. He then acquitted himself well in a late-season look in the majors, at least the first two times through the opposing order. Nova's major league opponents hit just .222/.270/.368 against him in their first two plate appearances of a game while he posted a 3.14 K/BB, but thereafter they hit .383/.491/.447 while he struck out just four men against ten walks. There's hope and projection in that performance and his solid mix of a low-90s fastball on which he can reach back for more (albeit at the cost of his command), strong curve, and solid changeup, though that likely maxes out as a mid-rotation or worse innings eater. It would be hypocritical of those analysts who advised the Yankees to pass on making a massive commitment to the thirtysomething Lee and make use of their pitching-rich farm system to criticize Nova's inclusion in the rotation, and rolling the dice on Nova is preferable to rolling the dice on an older retread such as Freddy Garcia, but the fact of the matter is that the Yankees need to have four better starters than Nova in their rotation to absorb his potential failures, and right now they only have three.

Sergio Mitre: Having already listed Sabathia, Hughes, Burnett, and Nova, there are just two other men in the Yankee organization who have made a major league start other than Sergio Mitre. They are Joba Chamberlain, whom I discussed on Friday, and Kei Igawa. So, yeah, Sergio Mitre. Mitre has made 12 major league starts since joining the Yankees in the wake of his Tommy John surgery. In those 12 starts he has gone 3-5 with a 6.86 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, and 5.5 K/9. Hmmm, maybe Kei Igawa?

Kei Igawa: In 13 career major league starts, the last of which came in 2008, Igawa went 1-4 with a 7.41 ERA, 1.82 WHIP, and 1.42 K/BB. After that he established himself as an unexceptional Triple-A starter before slipping into a swing role last year. Okay, not Kei Igawa,

Incidentally, Igawa, who is not on the 40-man roster, cost the Yankees more than $46 million ($26 million to the Hanshin Tigers for his rights, $20 million over five years for his contract). Carl Pavano only cost them $39.95 million and went away after four years. The Yankees will finally be rid of Igawa after the 2011 season.

Romulo Sanchez: Sanchez is the only remaining member of the organization who has pitched in the majors and started above Double-A. He is on the 40-man roster, but he is out of options, which means he's unlikely to remain in the organization past Opening Day unless he wins a major league job out of camp or passes through waivers. A hard-thrower, he has considerable control problems (5.1 BB/9 last year), will be 27 in April, was also shuttled between starting and relieving for Scranton last year, has never started a game in the majors, and has never made more than 14 starts in a minor league season. Honestly, I'd give Sanchez only a slightly better chance of making the rotation than Igawa.

Of the pitchers who have yet to reach the majors, there are two basic groups, a quartet of middling arms that have reached Triple-A and the three Killer Bs, the team's top pitching prospects, none of whom has spent a full season at Double-A. The former group consists of David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, Hector Noesi, and Steve Garrison, all of whom will be 24 this season. Noesi and Garrison are on the 40-man roster. Phelps and Mitchell are not. Garrison is the lone lefty. Noesi is the only fly-ball pitcher among the bunch. Phelps is the most ready having posted a 3.17 ERA in 11 Triple-A starts last year with an outstanding 4.73 K/BB. Per a recent conversation with Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein, Garrison is the weakest of the bunch, and none of them have stuff as good as Nova's.

The other three arms, of course, are Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, and Andrew Brackman. I don't expect the Yankees to jump any of the three of them to the majors given that they have combined to make just 20 Double-A starts, but if the Yankees get desperate enough during the season, and one of the above is simply dominating in Trenton, they may have no other choice, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, which we very well might given the fact that the Yankees would have difficulty fleshing out a four-man playoff rotation right now, never mind a five-man unit that will allow them to keep up with the Red Sox over a 162-game season.