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Breaking down the competition for the final rotation spot

Who will emerge as the fifth starter?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With spring training fast approaching, fans can all finally look forward to baseball actually being played again. One of the biggest questions that should soon be answered is who the Yankees fifth starter will be in 2014. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and the newly acquired Masahiro Tanaka will be the top four starters, but that leaves one spot open at the back end of the rotation.

As of now, it looks like the main competitors are: David Phelps, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, and Michael Pineda. How have they performed recently, and how might they be able to contribute this year?

David Phelps

Phelps was drafted in 2008 out of the University of Notre Dame, and, after working his way through the Yankees system, Phelps has gained some big league experience over the past two seasons, throwing almost 100 innings in 2012 and 86 2/3 in 2013. He made 23 combined starts during those two years, going 10-9. After putting up an encouraging 3.34 ERA (4.32 FIP) and limiting opposing hitters to a .219 batting average in 2012, he regressed a bit in 2013. Last season, he posted a 4.98 ERA (3.81 FIP, though, which shows he got a bit unlucky) while opposing hitters batted .262 against him. Phelps may limit home runs (0.83 HR/9 in 2013), but he still has a tendency to walk too many batters, as he averaged 3.63 walks per nine innings last year. Nonetheless, Phelps has shown he can be successful at the major league level, and while he doesn't project to be much more than a back of the rotation guy, or perhaps a long reliever out of the bullpen, the Yankees could do much worse than him at the No. 5 spot.

Adam Warren

After working his way up through the system since being drafted in 2009, Warren finally contributed a bit in the majors in 2013. Last season saw him throw 77 innings (including two starts) to the tune of a 3.39 ERA and a FIP of 4.32, which isn't anything to scoff at. However, it's a small sample size, and, like Phelps, he walks a few too many hitters (3.51 BB/9 last season). In the minors, he was always pretty solid (3.60 ERA/4.05 FIP in 2011 for Scranton, and a 3.71 ERA/3.72 FIP in 2012 there), but never lights out. So far, he's been about the definition of "okay," and doesn't seem like he'll be much more than decent in the majors. Being a regular starter in 2013 seems like a long shot for Warren. Regardless, he appears to be a good option for the still-thin Yankee pen.

Vidal Nuno

Another member of the 2009 draft class, Nuno spent time in the Indians' system before playing for the Yankees' minor league affiliates. In the Yankees' system (which he joined in 2011), he's been pretty terrific, posting ERAs under 2.00 in Low-A in 2011, and under 3.00 in High-A and Double-A in 2012. Last year, he was invited to spring training and won the James P. Dawson Award, which is given each year to the top Yankee rookie during spring training. Nuno began the season pitching in Trenton, but with injuries to Ivan Nova and Andy Pettitte, he found himself pitching in the majors in late April and May of 2013. However, his season was cut short in June due to a groin injury. Before that point, though, Nuno was quite impressive. In 25 innings in Triple-A in 2013, Nuno posted a dominant 1.44 ERA and a 2.08 FIP, striking out 10.80 batters per nine innings while walking less than one. In his 20 innings for the Yankees (three starts), Nuno posted a 2.25 ERA (although his FIP was an ugly 4.50) and limited opposing hitters to just a .213 average against him. While last year was an admittedly small sample size, Nuno's performance has to give fans hope that he can be an asset to this team. If Michael Pineda doesn't pan out, Nuno certainly has some potential, and he should get a shot in the rotation.

Michael Pineda

Finally, a torn labrum and a couple lost seasons later, Pineda appears to be finally healthy and ready to go. After posting a killer rookie year in 2011 with the Mariners (3.74 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 3.2 fWAR, 9.11 K/9), Pineda missed all of 2012 recovering and rehabbing, and only started pitching again last season. In 2013, he managed 40 2/3 innings between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. He pitched the most in Triple-A (23.1 innings), recording a 3.86 ERA and an encouraging 3.11 FIP and a 10.03 K/9. Pineda showed that he has what it takes to be very successful in the majors during his 2011 campaign, and he clearly has the most upside of this bunch. While his injury has given reason to doubt his ability to regain the form that made the Yankees give up one of their best prospects for him, the fact remains that if Pineda can come close to replicating his 2011 season, then the Yankees might end up with one of the best rotations in the majors. With Tanaka and Nova already in the fold, Pineda's emergence could give the Yankees three young arms to build around for some time, too.

Who Wins?

So who will end up winning the fifth spot? Yankee brass likely wants to see once and for all if Pineda can be part of this team's future, and it really seems like it's now or never for him, so it seems like it's his job to lose. Phelps will probably be the runner-up and find himself in the pen. It's hard to be too sad about that - he is a decent pitcher, but nothing more, and nothing less. Pineda deserves a shot to see if he can live up to the potential he showed a few years back.

After those two, Nuno could emerge as an appealing option. He has arguably more upside than Warren, and maybe even more than Phelps. If that doesn't work, he could become a major contributor out of the bullpen and might even be depended on for some spot starts here and there to spell an aging Kuroda.

Nonetheless, it seems like it's finally Pineda's year, and it should be exciting to see what he can do.

Who do you think will end up joining the rotation at the end of Spring Training?