During the offseason, the Yankees main goal was to upgrade a porous offense that was ultimately their undoing in 2013.
Yes, Robinson Cano left for Seattle, and Alex Rodriguez was suspended for the entire year, but New York acquired catcher Brian McCann, outfielders Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury, and were going to enjoy having Alfonso Soriano for an entire season. Add in a healthy Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter and you have all the makings for the return of the “Bronx Bombers.”
The signing of Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract certainly qualified as a big splash, but other than that, it was easy to overlook the state of the pitching staff with all of the attention that was given to the offense.
As the start of the season approached, the common consensus was that the Yankees would have to out-slug their opponents in order to overcome a pitching staff full of question marks, but a funny thing happened after the first 15 games – the Yankees’ starting rotation carried the offense.
Sure, it’s a small sample size, but Tanaka, Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda are looking like they have the potential to be the best starting five in the American League.
Let’s take a look at what each of these players has brought to the table so far:
Sabathia had his worst season as a Yankee in 2013 by posting an ERA of 4.78 – which is no doubt due to his decrease in velocity. Heading into 2014, many wondered if Stella, I mean Sabathia, would get his groove back. But after an entire spring training and three regular-season starts, it seems that this is the new normal for the big southpaw.
Sabathia acknowledged that he would need to alter his approach by pitching more like former teammate Andy Pettitte. The only problem is that Pettitte was never a power pitcher and always pitched “like Andy Pettitte.” Whereas Sabathia has always been a power pitcher, who will need to make a complete overhaul to his game if he wants to continue to be successful in the big leagues.
When reading various previews of the 2014 version of the Yankees, many did not give New York a legitimate chance of getting back to the postseason unless Sabathia returned to ace status. I could not disagree with this more.
There’s nothing that says a certain pitcher has to be the man in order for a team to be successful. Besides, being a team’s No. 1 pitcher means little over the course of a season. In years’ past, a team may have started its ace on short rest in order to go head-to-head with the opponent’s go-to, but those days are gone. It’s rare that managers elect to have starters go on short rest during the regular-season unless the team is facing a do-or-die situation in the waning days of September.
In short, if Sabathia can be a steady contributor who gives the Yankees a solid six innings each start, New York would take that every day.
Tanaka was 24-0 in Japan last year, but despite his awesome statistics, many, including his own general manager, were labeling him as a “solid No. 3 starter.”
Meanwhile, others were practically deeming him a savior, thus there was no way to know what to expect from Tanaka. So far, the $155 million spent getting him to the Bronx has looked like a sound investment, as evidenced by his eight-inning, ten strikeout gem on Wednesday against the Chicago Cubs.
Many said that Tanaka would not be fazed at all by the bright lights of Yankee Stadium, and so far, those analysts have been proven right. The only concern for Tanaka in the long-term is whether or not he can handle pitching every fifth day, as opposed to one time per week in Japan.
However, at age 25, and with a sensible manager in Joe Girardi, I don’t see that as being as too big of an issue as others might.
Is there a bigger enigma on the New York roster than Ivan Nova?
So far, his 2014 has been a microcosm of his career: get pounded by Baltimore, then in your next start, pitch brilliantly against the defending champion Boston Red Sox. Since he’s already 27-years-of-age, this may end up being Nova’s M.O. But if there ever was a pitcher that owned the personification of the saying “when’s he’s on, he’s on,” it’s Nova.
Nova may feel the impact of the loss of Cano and Rodriguez more than anyone though. As a sinker baller who pitches to contact and gets a ton of ground balls, much of Nova’s success is dependent upon having a strong infield behind him. When healthy, Teixeira is one of the best in the business at first base, but beyond that, the regulars are a soon-to-be 40 year-old shortstop Derek Jeter, a second baseman who’s rarely healthy in Brian Roberts, and a third baseman who has only appeared in 16 games at the position heading into this season in Kelly Johnson.
Nova has a ton of potential to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, but remains a wild card due to the fact that much of his success is reliant on other facets that are really out of his control – since he doesn’t garner many swings and misses.
At age 39, Hiroki Kuroda has taken the mantle of elder statesman from Andy Pettitte.
For about two-thirds of 2013, Kuroda was a Cy Young candidate, but the last third of the season was rough going for Kuroda. Thus far, Kuroda has been solid in his first three starts, and, as a whole, is a very dependable piece of the rotation.
However, since he’s not getting any younger, it would be prudent to wait until after the All-Star break to pass judgment on how Kuroda’s 2014 campaign will turn out.
Simply put, Pineda has been the Yankees’ best starting pitcher thus far.
In 18-innings of work,Pineda has 15 strikeouts and just three walks. After the pine tar incident against the Boston Red Sox, Pineda dominated the Cubs in his next start, proving what even several members of the Red Sox confirmed that tar or no tar, Pineda looks like the real deal.
In January of 2012, general manager Brian Cashman traded catcher Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Pineda – who was coming off a strong 2011. Though he only appeared in 19 games in ’11, Montero looked like he had potential to be an offensive force behind the plate for the Yankees. And Cashman felt that it was worth the gamble to give Montero up in exchange for a good, young, cheap pitcher.
Unfortunately, Pineda was hit with the injury bug, and did not make a single appearance for New York in either 2012 or 2013. Pineda showed up for spring training in 2014 determined to win a rotation spot, and has dominated thus far. This must be taken with a grain of salt though, considering he has only had one good half of a season in the majors up until this point, and has been seriously injured. But at age 25, the sky’s the limit for Pineda.
During spring training, Pineda’s biggest competition for a slot in the starting rotation was David Phelps. Obviously, Pineda won the job, relegating Phelps to the bullpen, but Phelps has shown himself to be a capable starting pitcher, thus is good insurance should an injury happen – God forbid – or someone needs an extra day of rest.
Since the calendar still shows April, the Yankees are nowhere close to being out of the woods in terms of answering all of the questions surrounding their starting pitching.
All things considered though, I don’t see many other teams in the American League with a better situation in their starting rotations. So if early returns mean anything, I see no reason why New York cannot compete for the division title this year.
And it just might mean that someone like Tanaka or Pineda wind up leading the charge – instead of Sabathia.