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Yankees' starting pitching conundrum

Yankees' starters kept the team alive in the first half of 2013. However, recent struggles have not only helped kill the team's playoff hopes this season, but are likely to have negative ramifications in 2014 and beyond.

The one guy who's gotten the job done of late.
The one guy who's gotten the job done of late.
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

For the vast majority of the season, the Yankees' starting pitching was the club's strength. Hiroki Kuroda was unstoppable, Andy Pettitte was ol' reliable, and CC Sabathia was solid (albeit not great). Through the All-Star break, the team's starters had the league's seventh-best ERA, ninth-lowest FIP, and fourth-most fWAR. Ever since, things have gone downhill, particularly this month. In September, Yankees starters have an MLB-worst 6.18 ERA and a fourth-worst 4.56 FIP. Yet, much in thanks to a healthier offense, the team is still gasping for life as the season's final week is upon us. Had the starting pitching remained steady through September, there's a decent chance the Yankees would be positioned in one of the two wild card spots.

Although the main focus should be on the Yankees' slim playoff hopes, there's a lot to be concerned about in 2014 and beyond. Not only has this year's staff collapsed down the stretch, but the farm system looks barren. Simply put, Murphy's Law has victimized the organization's starters this season.

CC Sabathia's 2013 has been a disaster. Whether velocity, weight-loss, his change-up, or release point are to blame, one thing is for sure: he can't be counted on going forward. CC's first four years in pinstripes were spectacular, but it's looking like the back-end of his contract are destined for trouble. To be fair, his breakdown shouldn't be overly surprising given his massive lifelong workload. With his bloated 4.90 ERA, decreased strikeouts, increased walks and homers, it's hard to even be optimistic that he can pitch closer to this season's 4.13 FIP in the future. Although we've grown used to him as an ace, it's time to curb our disappointment and lower the bar for the next few years. Perhaps he can pitch like a third starter, but a conservative projection would be a fourth or fifth starter.

Through July, every Yankees fan would have signed up for Hiroki Kuroda returning in 2014. Now, after posting a 5+ ERA since August, there are legitimate questions about his durability and age. Remember, last year Kuroda tailed off late in the second half before re-surging in the postseason. Kuroda will be 39 next year, and to be realistic, it would be very risky to bring him back on a similar deal to the one he inked this season (one-year, $15M). He may return at a cheaper rate, but a return to Japan or retirement are also distinct possibilities.

Andy Pettitte has been up and down this season, but nonetheless has a sub-4 ERA and 3 fWAR. After looking toast just a couple months ago, Pettitte has been the Yankees' most consistent starter down the stretch. Like Kuroda, though, age and durability would be concerns going forward. However, it appears he will choose to retire.

Ivan Nova appears to be the guy with the brightest future in the rotation, but even he doesn't spark much confidence. He can be madly inconsistent, but has undoubtedly flashed greatness in 2013. Aside from some crummy starts against Boston this September, Nova's been very good over the past three months. We've been teased by Nova before, but there's no denying he has the stuff to at least be a third starter. Given the state of the rotation, Nova may be the de facto ace in 2014, even though he won't be the opening day starter.

Sabathia and Nova are the only two rotation spots locked in for 2014 and behind, leaving the rest of the staff up to speculation and concern. Phil Hughes is all but gone, and Kuroda and Pettitte probably won't be back. That leaves guys like David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, Brett Marshall, David Huff, Adam Warren, Michael Pineda and Manny Banuelos as solutions from within.

Phelps, Nuno, Marshall, Huff, and Warren all look very fringy, while Pineda and Banuelos have the highest upside. To be fair, of that group, only Pineda and Banuelos are likely in the club's long-term plans. But even so, Pineda and Banuelos are coming off serious injuries. Pineda is a complete mystery and by no means should be counted on going forward. Shoulders are extremely tricky, as we've seen with him the past two seasons. Banuelos had Tommy John surgery, supposedly 90% effective. Yet, he has limited experience above Triple-A and may not be ready until the middle of 2014.

It's evident that the Yankees' farm system isn't ready to fill the void left from 2013's departures and ineffectiveness. That, combined with the self-inflicted $189M budget may be a lethal combination, killing any hopes of bolstering the rotation in 2014. Obviously, if the Yankees are under the luxury tax threshold next year, they can return above the mark in 2015 at a lower rate, so the financial issue may just be a one-year dilemma. However, the player-development issue has long-term ramifications.

One X-factor could be Masahiro Tanaka, who is expected to be posted from the NPB this winter. His posting fee won't count against the luxury tax, which would allow the Yankees' to potentially improve the rotation while keeping in like with its fiscal policy. Even if the Yankees win the bidding and sign Tanaka, there are still two empty spots (plus depth needed) and questions surrounding Sabathia, Nova, Pineda, Banuelos, and the rest. Tanaka might be the next great Japanese import, but he's no quick fix.

Ultimately, even if Tanaka is in the fold, the farm system is going to be a huge issue over the next few seasons. Hopefully, Brian Cashman has a few moves up his sleeves, because as of now, he doesn't have much to work with in terms of money or prospects. Worst of all, the starting pitching is just one area of concern for an organization that has a plethora of health and talent concerns going forward.

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