With two weeks to go until opening day, the Yankees' back-rotation picture hasn't quite come into focus yet, but the four candidates' latest cycle would appear to have produced some separation. On Wednesday night, Ivan Nova put his best foot forward by tossing six no-hit innings against the Orioles. The day before that, Bartolo Colon continued to generate positive buzz through six sharp innings in a simulated game. On the other hand, Sergio Mitre was scratched from his March 14 start due to an oblique strain, which could rule him out of the race — though it did provide an opportunity to watch Manny Banuelos battle an A-list Red Sox lineup — and Freddy Garcia laid an egg in his most recent turn. Nonetheless, Joe Girardi remains unwilling to settle the matter of which two of these four will open the season in the rotation, and meanwhile the Yankees continue to scout outside options.
On Wednesday, the Yankees watched free agent Kevin Millwood attempt to make his case via a showcase for interested teams. The 36-year-old is still seeking a major league deal, but the Yankees already passed on that option a month ago, and it's not tough to see why, given both the modestly promising performances from the aforementioned quartet and the less-than-promising track record of the pitcher in question.
Millwood is coming off a 4-16, 5.10 ERA season with the Orioles, and if that's not bad enough, he's posted ERAs above 5.00 in three of the last four seasons, altogether combining for a 4.72 mark in 730.2 innings. His peripherals during that time aren't wretched (1.1 HR/9, 3.1 BB/9, 6.1 K/9), but are nothing to write home about; more tellingly, he's been seared for a .322 BABIP, the third-highest mark among the 86 pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2007. At that sample size, such a showing has less to do with luck and more to do with pedestrian stuff with which hitters can make solid contact consistently. With a fastball clocked at 85 MPH on Wednesday, Millwood didn't wow anyone enough to change minds.
Last week, news surfaced that is that the Yankees have reportedly been following Carlos Silva this spring. The 31-year-old lefty — a pitch-to-contact groundballer with a career K rate of just 4.0 per nine — stunk on ice for two years as a Mariner (5-18, 6.81 ERA). Upon being traded to Chicago for Milton Bradley, he enjoyed two shocking months of usefulness last year, jumping out to an 8-0, 2.93 ERA in 11 start through June 7. It was too good to last; he was rocked for a 6.15 ERA the rest of the way while being limited to just one start after August 1 due to a cardiac procedure to correct an an abnormally high heartbeat, and then battling elbow tendonitis.
All told, Silva's four-year numbers (5.16 ERA, 1.0 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9, 4.5 K/9, .318 BABIP in 498.2 IP) tell a similar story to that of Millwood, but at least he's sort of on the uptick. His overall 2010 numbers consisted of a 4.22 ERA and healthy peripherals (0.9 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9, 6.4 K/9), which would seem worthy of a back-rotation spot in Chicago. His parking spot is paid for, since Chicago is on the hook for $8 million (including his 2012 buyout) and Seattle is paying the other $5.5 million.
The Cubs have some rotation depth, however, and are trying to open a spot for young Andrew Cashner; in the heat of battle, Silva's become overheated. His first start of the spring ended in a dugout scuffle after he yielded six runs in one inning, three of them unearned via three errors. In his second, he was rocked for eight runs and 10 hits in 2.1 innings. His third, which was apparently sharper, still saw him touched for four runs in five innings. All told, the bill for the damage — a 16.20 ERA through three starts and 8.1 innings —is bad enough. Worse, Silva has conceded that disappointment with not being guaranteed a rotation spot has affected his performance, which means that his emotional maturity isn't a selling point. Don't expect him i pinstripes anytime soon.
Thus, the Yankees will continue to let their in-house options battle it out. On Tuesday in Boston, where I joined Steve in a pair of bookstore events to promote Baseball Prospectus 2011, I opined that the more I thought about it, the more it seems as though this year's rotation battle is nearly as predetermined as last year's fifth-starter sham. With little to separate them, the Yankees are likely to begin the season keeping as many of the four candidates under control, which means that we should expect Garcia and Colon to open in the rotation, with Nova, who still has minor league options, either in the big club's bullpen or the Triple-A rotation depending upon Mitre's status. If the latter starts the year on the DL, Colon might have only that stretch of time to make his case.
It could be late May or June by the time the Yankees cycle through those four adequately, a point where teams may be more willing to deal, and where the Yankees' Triple-A options such as Andrew Brackman, David Phelps and others (not Banuelos or Dellin Betances) may have asserted their readiness for a big league look. Perhaps it will unfold differently, but I've seen enough and read enough both this spring and in years past to stick to that story for the time being.