The consensus as Yankees pitchers and catchers arrive at spring training is that New York’s primary focus is on finding a fifth starter. The competition, it seems, is wide open, and the loser will wind up in the bullpen. What that really means is that at least one of the Yanks’ two big prospects for the last couple of seasons, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, finally shows up or becomes a relief pitcher.
Technically, Sergio Mitre, Alfredo Aceves, and Chad Guadin are all in contention for a starter’s spot, but we don’t think anyone seriously anticipates the defending world champions will begin the season with one of those three in the rotation. So it comes down to Joba and Hughes.
But the loser will be doing much more than simply holding down a middle-reliever’s spot.
For one thing, the setup man in front of Mariano Rivera is far from a minor role. Second, that man will be the heir apparent to the greatest closer in baseball history in just a season or two.
Let’s face it, the Yankees have more to worry about in that starting rotation than who the fifth man will be. Their late-season run and postseason success obscured one very important fact, namely that behind C.C. Sabathia the rotation looks shaky at best. Even if A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte don’t suffer breakdowns — and given their histories, it’s about even money that they won’t — it’s doubtful that, at ages 33 and 38 respectively, they are going to get better.
Much is expected of the return of Javier Vazquez, and if he pitches this year as he did with the Braves last year — 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts — the Yanks could probably endure the loss of either Burnett or Pettitte to injury. But is it likely that a National League pitcher is going to come to the AL and post the kind of numbers Vazquez did last season? Just two years ago he was with the White Sox, finishing 12-16 with a 4.67 ERA and 200 strikeouts. In fact, it’s a stretch to imagine that Vazquez is going to be as good as Chien-Ming Wang was from 2005 through 2008, when he won 54 games and lost 20. (And by the way, you’d think that if any team could afford to give a pitcher like Wang a shot at a comeback, it would be the Yankees.)
Let’s be realistic about this right now: The Yankees’ success in 2010 almost certainly depends on Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes blossoming into the ace starter they were expected to be two years ago.