9:01 am Jan. 18, 20121
If it seems like just last week that the New York Yankees faced a 2012 season with an enormous starting pitching deficit, that's because it was. Yet nothing was happening.
The team had done little to address a starting staff with just one pitcher returning who'd pitched more than 170 innings with an ERA below 5.00, both benchmarks at the outer reaches of acceptable for a starting pitcher.
But in the span of a few hours on Friday evening, New York took a weakness of the roster and turned it into a strength. The Yankees completed a four-player trade with the Seattle Mariners, acquiring epic talent Michael Pineda, then signed Hiroki Kuroda, most recently of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to a one-year, $10 million contract.
The additions will reverberate down the Yankee staff, with a roster now boasting many more rotation options than spots. Moreover, it is hard to see any other team in the American League matching up with New York's top three—a key component to winning those short series that lead to World Series titles.
First things first: how did New York land Pineda?
The Yankees didn't get him for nothing. New York traded Jesus Montero, arguably the best hitting prospect in the game, and one whose ability to catch only amplified his potential value to a team. Make no mistake, hitters who can post an OPS+ of 159 in their age-21 seasons (sample size warning—only 69 at-bats) are immensely helpful to a team's offense at any position. But if Montero can stick at catcher, he has a chance to be the best at his position as soon as 2012.
New York also gave up Hector Noesi, a control pitcher who stands a good chance of slotting into Seattle's starting rotation in 2012. The Yankees had other prospects with more upside, however, and had questions about how his stuff would translate at the big league level.
But to acquire Pineda alone, such a price would have been reasonable. In his age-22 rookie season, Pineda struck out 173 batters in 171 innings, walking just 55. To put that in perspective, Ivan Nova, a perfectly effective pitcher for New York last year walked almost an identical number of batters in roughly the same number of innings—but struck out roughly half as many as Pineda.
His fastball and slider already grade out as among the best pitches of any starter, and few in the game throw harder than Pineda does. If he adds a third pitch, he'll probably win multiple Cy Young awards. But even if he doesn't, no matter—he's an elite pitcher now.
It is worth pointing out that the Yankees received another player in the deal, too—minor league pitcher Jose Campos. It's not a name you'll need to know in 2012, but file it away. Campos, at age 18 last year, struck out 85 in 81 1/3 innings last season in A-ball while walking just 13. That combination would make him one to watch regardless, but in concert with top-shelf stuff, he could rise through the system quickly.
He just won't have to, not with Sabathia, Pineda and Kuroda, the forgotten addition, holding down the top three spots. Kuroda posted a 3.07 ERA last year in 202 innings pitched last season. Incredibly, the Yankees got him without needing to commit long-term, or even for two years, negating the one drawback to a Kuroda acquisition—he'll be 37.
The remainder of the rotation has plenty of candidates. Ivan Nova's spot as fourth starter is safe—while he's a good bet to regress some from last season's performance, he should be perfectly adequate in the fourth starter role.
Now consider who the Yankees can use in the fifth spot. Phil Hughes, just a year removed from making the All Star team as a starting pitcher (and still just 25) stands a good chance of making it.
Freddy Garcia, re-signed to a $4 million contract, can provide innings as starter or long reliever.
Even A.J. Burnett, while indisputably overpaid at $16 million per season, has provided perfectly reasonable production for a fifth starter in his past two disappointing seasons. And Joba Chamberlain is expected to come to spring training healthy; perhaps he'll get the chance to work as a starter, where he's pitched well in the past. His career 4.18 ERA as a starter is roughly a full run lower than Burnett's ERA over the past two seasons.
Simply put, the Yankees have an embarrassment of riches in the starting rotation to match their strength in the bullpen and offensively. After a winter filled with inactivity, New York managed to re-assert its position as the preeminent American League team in a matter of hours. For Yankees fans with Yankee-size expectations, life started to make sense again.