Well, that didn’t take very long.
After an offseason filled with praise for Cashman and Co. and the job they did to bring the much-maligned starting rotation up to the level of the offense, the wheels have come off big time over the first few weeks. The news came out this afternoon that Michael Pineda will miss the remainder of the year with a right shoulder anterior labral tear, and will go under the knife on May 1st. Two recent examples of pitchers that had serious shoulder surgery are Johan Santana and Chien-Ming Wang. Both needed over a year to come back, although Santana has looked better recently. The Yankees have hope that he might return to form next year, and with his youth he still has time to develop into the pitcher they thought they were getting when they traded Jesus Montero to the Mariners. But while there is still hope for the future, this is just the latest development in a rough start to the season for the starting rotation.
When the year began, people were talking about the Yankees having too much starting pitching. They had retained Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes from last year’s staff and on the same day that they traded for Pineda, they announced the signing of Hiroki Kuroda. Later in the spring, they signed fan favorite and former retirement home occupant Andy Pettite, who would presumably join the rotation after beginning the year shaking off the rust in the minors. And of course, they still had C.C. Sabathia, who has enough talent and girth to fill two rotation spots. That gives you a grand total of 7 pitchers for 5 slots, and that doesn’t even include any of the top youngsters that might warrant a call-up from the minors. Unfortunately for the Yankees, they have needed every bit of that depth so far. Pineda never made it out of Spring Training, and several other pitchers have struggled mightily to start the year.
Last year, Freddy Garcia and Big Fat Bartolo Colon (copyright the TMR) combined to shore up the back of the rotation last year, staving off the pull of Father Time. Garcia went 12-8, with a 3.62 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. This year, however, the righty has struggled out of the gate, to the tune of a 9.75 ERA in his first three starts. It could be that this is just a slow start, but Garcia has always been a better first half pitcher, so he doesn’t get the Mark Teixeira vote of confidence. This could be the first sign of slippage, as the Yanks probably got a lot more out of him in the first half then they had any right to hope for, but he still has a chance to bounce back.
Phil Hughes has also struggled this year, but he is not building off of a strong 2011 like Garcia. After a magical run in 2010, where Hughes went 18-8 despite only mediocre stats (4.19 ERA, 1.248 WHIP and a 103 ERA+), the prodigy came crashing back to earth. After a terrible first 3 starts to the season, Hughes was shut down for several weeks with arm fatigue, but came back with a decent second half, finishing the year at 5-5, with a 5.79
ERA and a 1.487 WHIP. This year, he has not looked any better, posting a 6.75 ERA and 1.875 WHIP over 3 starts. He has yet to pitch more than 5 1/3 innings in a start. Although his K/9 has been great (10.1), he has been throwing a huge number of pitches to each hitter, which causes him to lose his effectiveness fairly early in the game. On the bright side, Hughes has been the victim of an incredibly high BABIP (.366) and HR/FB ratio (15.4%, more than double his career average). So while he hasn’t been pitching great, his luck will have to get better at some point. Hopefully that is sooner rather than later.
Hiroki Kuroda has also been a disappointment since coming over from the Dodgers. He has posted a 4.38 ERA and 1.459 WHIP over his first 4 starts, alternating between terrible and good. He pitched poorly in the opening series against the Rays (4 ER and 8 H over 5.2 innings), pitched a gem against the Angels (0 ER, 5 H, 2 BB in 8.0 innings), sucked against the Twins (6 ER, 10 H over 4.1 innings), and pitched fairly well in his last start against the Rangers (6.2 IP, 2 ER, 5 K’s). Kuroda has been a solid pitcher throughout his career in the majors, but he is 37 and is coming over from the National League. Add that to the fact that the Yanks basically had to throw money at him to convince him not to go back to Japan, and Yankee fans might have to just deal with him alternating between Yu Darvish and Kei Igawa for the rest of the season.
There is hope for the Bombers though. C.C. Sabathia is starting to get into a groove after his usual slow start to the season. Ivan Nova has continued to pitch fairly well (3.79 ERA, 118 ERA+ over his first 3 starts), and has improved his K/9 to a wonderful 9.5. But Nova also continues to give up a lot of hits (11.8 per 9 innings) and his W-L more accurately reflects the unusual amount of run support his teammates give him, rather than his quality as a pitcher. Also, the Yankees do have the aforementioned Andy Pettitte, who had a great first start in the minors (4 hits, no walks, 1 run and 5 strikeouts in 7.0 innings) and might only be 2 weeks away.
Down in the minors the Yankees also have the Killer B’s, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, who are two future rotation arms. They were rated as the 29th and 63rd best prospects in the minors by Baseball America, and the front office has continuously refused to part with them in trades, seeing them as too valuable. But both have struggled to start the year in AAA, with Betances going 0-2 with an 8.83 ERA and a WHIP over 2 (very very bad, for non-sabermetricians) and Banuelos getting lit up in his first start to the tune of 6 ER, 7 BB’s and 14 hits in 5.1 innings. After the game, Banuelos was put on the DL with a latissimus muscle issue (read “back problem”) and will have to miss a start. So it doesn’t seem like either of them will be a substantial upgrade anytime soon.
Fortunately for the Yankee faithful, their offense has been good enough to cover up their early rotation struggles, and the Yankees had all that rotation depth for a reason. Chances are that at least one of the Hughes/Garcia duo will start pitching better, and even if Kuroda continues to go hot and cold for the rest of the season, the can be a decent #3 starter. Barring a Sabathia injury (which will likely cause riots in NY), the Yankee rotation should be good enough to still make the team a serious contender in the postseason, with the potential to be the prohibitive favorite if more of the starters pitch to their capability. It isn’t quite time to sound the alarm…… yet.