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Rotation Roundup: Walking with a Zombie

Last spring on a faraway coast, the Dodgers began the season with two of the most retreaded retreads ever to tread onto a shorthanded pitching staff. Collectively, they were known as the Zombie Ortiz brothers, though their only relation was by bloody awfulness, not by blood.

Beware the pull of spring training stats. Eventually, the zombies will do the walking.

Thirty-seven-year-old Ramon Ortiz had last pitched in the majors in 2007. Once a moderately useful inning-eater for the Angels, he had evolved into a typical palooka, racking up a 5.47 ERA in 466 innings for four teams from 2005 to 2007 before rightfully disappearing from the major league stage. After two years of wandering through foreign lands like Japan and Fresno, he put up a 0.96 ERA in 18 innings of spring work while averaging more than a strikeout per inning for the Dodgers. He broke camp with the big club and made 14 appearances with a 5.16 ERA, which was apparently good enough for the team to decide he was a worthy rotation fill-in. Bombed for eight runs in 7.1 innings over two turns, he drew his walking papers, and spent the balance of the season wandering through the Mets and Rays organizations in search of fresh brains on which to sup.

Thirty-six-year-old Russ Ortiz had pitched in the majors as recently as 2009, but his wanderings had been no less aimless. After averaging 16 wins a year from 1999-2004 for the Giants and Braves, he signed a four-year, $33 million contract with the Diamondbacks, but things quickly went south. He was torched for a 7.00 ERA in 28 starts before drawing his release less than halfway through the deal, and from 2005-2009, he was similarly lit for a 6.56 ERA across over 300 innings. The Dodgers overlooked that sordid history based upon 18 spring innings of 2.50 ERA ball, but they were forced to admit their mistake less than two weeks into the season, by which point Ortiz the Worser had yielded eight runs in seven innings of relief.

The point is that spring training statistics reveal very little, so it's tough to get excited about them. The intensity of the regular season isn't there, players are just getting their work in, and the level of competition is so variable that comparing any two players is virtually impossible. So it means almost nothing that the four pitchers ostensibly in competition for the Yankees' last two rotation spots — Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre — have combined for a 14/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just one run in 20 innings, with that run allowed by Colon in the opener due in part to a misplay in the field. At the lengths they've gone thus far, the candidates have rarely had to face the same batter twice, though unlike the Zombie Ortizes, who made just two spring starts between them, they've at least pitched early in the games and faced a higher percentage of regulars. The most you can say for them is that nobody's pitched themselves out of a race which manager Joe Girardi said is ongoing: "We won't make decisions till the end... Right now with the four guys there is no separation yet."

Here's what we can glean from the four pitchers' appearances thus far:

Colon: the race's most corpulent candidate — not to mention its most zombielike, given his flagging career — tossed two innings against the Phillies on February 26, and three against the Red Sox on March 4. He's reached 92 or 93 MPH with his fastball, sitting around 89 MPH and getting good movement. "He located the fastball and was down in the zone," said Girardi of his latter outing. Colon's sinker has been less impressive; one that didn't sink got whacked for what became an RBI triple off the bat of Ben Francisco in his first start, prompting Francisco Cervelli to suggest it needed work, but it was more impressive his second time around, as was his changeup, via which he got a couple of strikeouts. Quoth Girardi on the latter: "His changeup, from now to when I used to face him, has gotten a lot better."

Garcia: the most recently successful candidate at the major league level, he's pitched with the confidence of a man bent upon retaining his frontrunner status. He tossed two innings against the Rays on March 3, with only two of seven hitters even reaching the outfield in the air. He came back with a perfect three innings against the Braves on March 8. He's consistently been in the high 80s with his fastball thus far, which by his own account is better than last year: "I could live with 89 consistently... Last year, I was throwing 85 mph-86 mph." Perhaps more revealing than his modest velocity has been his pace, a sign that he doesn't need time between pitches to let the discomfort in his tattered shoulder subside before the next pitch.

Nova: with seven starts for the Yanks last year, Nova's the closes thing to a holdover in this competition, and he has the best stuff. On February 27, facing a tougher Phillies lineup than Colon did (the Phils were at home), he threw two perfect innings and reached 96 MPH, sitting at 94, and showing off a sharp curve, whiffing Ryan Howard with the latter, and getting four of his six outs on the ground, which particularly impressed Girardi. He followed that with three hits allowed over three innings against the Rays on March 3, and while they came in relief of Garcia, they were against a more or less A-list lineup which included B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez and more.

Mitre: with 12 starts over the last two years, Mitre actually has a longer resume as a Yankee starter than Nova. Nonetheless, it rates as somewhat significant that he's made two relief appearances to go with his one start, as a reminder that he could reprise his role as the long man if he doesn't win a rotation spot. He whiffed Ryan Howard and surrendered a walk in his inning against the Phillies on February 27, surrendered only an infield single against the Astros on March 3 and tossed three scoreless innings with three K's (Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis) in a split-squad start against the Orioles on March 7, though he did need the help of a strong throw from outfielder Greg Golson to nail a runner at the plate. He's generated the least buzz; while Girardi complimented his last start, nobody is raving about the specifics of his stuff. Recall that Mitre put up the best numbers in last spring's fifth-starter "competition" but lost out to Phil Hughes nonetheless.

Plenty can still happen in three weeks, but the early line here is that Garcia's in barring injury, that Mitre's already out barring multiple injuries but will still find a place in the bullpen, and that the real decision will come down to Nova and Colon. Since the latter is less likely to accept a minor league assignment barring his own injury and the former has options remaining, the bet is that the zombie Colon will be given his brief audition while Nova remains stretched out at Triple-A in the eventuality that he falters.