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For all the funk the Yankees engendered by not making the playoffs last year after 13 straight seasons, it’s important to note that Chien-Ming Wang missed 15-19 starts because of that June 15 foot injury against Houston, and that if that hadn’t happened, the Yankees likely would have been in the postseason.
Wang won 8 games in 2008 and will probably win 16 this year; he has been 44-15 in three seasons for the Yankees, and it’s a mystery to us as to why he remains so underrated.
That said, the Yankees have a bigger problem than Wang’s performance, namely filling the slot left by Mike Mussina’s departure. We’ll make an assumption here, similar to the one we made about Johan Santana and the Mets’ pitching staff earlier this week, which is that C.C. Sabathia must be normal self and once again be one of the two or three best starters in the league. That will give the Yankees something they haven’t had for several seasons: an ace. (Though Mussina came close last season.)
Clearly the third cog in the great wheel — or probably the second if you’re going to go by probable spots in the rotation — is A.J. Burnett, who was very good last season in winning 18 games for Toronto but who has a tendency to break down. There’s no point in citing statistics in Burnett’s case: it’s 50-50 that he’s going to injure something over the course of the season, and if he does, someone is going to have to make up those starts. That’s probably why the Yankees signed Andy Pettitte, from whom little more can be expected than mediocrity. (Pettitte has been 43-36 in his last three seasons, was 14-14 last year, and doesn’t figure to improve.)
This means that someone is going to have to step up and be a superstar in the rotation if the Yankees are going to make a run at the division title: take a bow, Mr. Chamberlain. It’s time for fans to stop holding their breath every time Joba starts a game. As Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus remarked about Joba’s injury last year, Chamberlain is probably no safer in the pen than he was in the rotation. There ought to be no question that Joba is potentially more valuable to the Yankees as a starter than as a reliever, as anyone can testify who has watched him sitting uselessly in the bullpen watching the Yankees struggle to come from behind in late innings. The Yanks’ other 23-year-old phenom, Phil Hughes, was found to be pitching last year with a stress fracture in a rib, which means that we have yet to see the real deal.
If God wears pinstripes, then Hughes and Chamberlain will blossom, Sabathia will be his usual big bad self, Wang be running the bases, and
Burnett won’t get hurt – all of which means that the Yankee should easily take the AL East, no matter what the Red Sox do.
As for the bullpen, if the starting rotation does its job, the bullpen will take care of itself. Last year Joe Girardi accomplished the minor
miracle of creating a solid Yankee relief corps that functioned even when Mariano and Joba weren’t pitching. The Yanks were 5th in the
league in bullpen ERA, and if Brian Uney, who reported to camp at a svelte 240, discovers the joy of eating tuna packed in water instead of
oil, he should match his last year’s statistics (3-0 in 34 innings with 33 strikeouts) and be a natural set-up guy for Mo.
The point is this, though: the bullpen wins if the rotation stops putting so much pressure on it. If either Joba or Hughes clicks, the rotation will be solid, the bullpen even better, and the Yankees will not only win the AL East but have confidence going into the playoffs for the first time in years.