TAMPA, Fla. – On the day the New York Yankees made themselves the American League favorites, their ace, CC Sabathia, was driving from his New Jersey home into Manhattan when his phone rang. An excited voice greeted him and immediately spit out the good news: The Yankees had traded for hard-throwing 23-year-old Michael Pineda and were about to sign veteran right-hander Hiroki Kuroda. With two moves inside of an hour, the Yankees had turned their greatest weakness into a decided strength.
"You know who called me? Alex," Sabathia said. "A-Rod called me and told me we had made the trade. He was just excited. 'We made the trade. We got you some help.' "
Around the same time, Pineda's phone rang. It was Jack Zduriencik, the Seattle Mariners' general manager who had dealt Pineda and prospect Jose Campos for 22-year-old slugger Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi, the old-school, kid-for-kid trade so many GMs are afraid to pull these days. Zduriencik tried to tell Pineda he was going to New York. Pineda, still learning English, said he didn't understand.
"I'm nervous," Pineda said. "He pass the phone to the translator. I said, 'Oh my God.' I said, 'It's not real. It's not real. The Yankees?' "
Yes, the Yankees. Of course the Yankees, actually. No other team imports big-talent pitchers with such regularity, with such high hopes, with all of the complications that accompany wearing pinstripes. The failure of outsiders has taken on a mythical status in New York and become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you're not a Yankee, it's awfully difficult to come in mid-career and play to their standards.
The latest casualty, A.J. Burnett, was shipped out of town Sunday night with $18 million and a press release that highlighted his three seasons with the Yankees by detailing his propensity to throw wild pitches. They didn't just toss him into the Harlem River. They fitted him for a pair of cement shoes first.
Whether it's Burnett, Javier Vazquez, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown or Kenny Rogers, the legacy of Yankee pitching saviors in the Joe Torre-and-Joe Girardi Era is indeed sordid. In those 15 years, the team has brought in 21 major-league pitchers who spent a significant portion of their time as Yankees in the starting rotation. Only three have pitched better in New York than they did in their other stops.
Sabathia is the best example. Since signing the richest deal ever for a pitcher in 2008, he has dropped his ERA nearly half a run from his time in Cleveland and Milwaukee. His adjusted ERA – a number that compares his ERA to the league average and factors in whether his home stadium is a hitters' or pitchers' park – is 140, or 40 percent better than average, compared to 120 over his first eight seasons.
Roger Clemens? His Yankees ERA, 4.01, was more than a point higher than with Boston, Toronto and Houston, and his ERA+ 47 points lower.
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Mike Mussina? Better as an Oriole.
Randy Johnson? Medium Unit at best.
Even David Cone and Jimmy Key, two linchpins from the dynasty teams, were no better with the Yankees than anywhere else. Cone's ERA swelled and his ERA+ is a smidgen lower with the Yankees. Key's ERA was about a quarter-point higher, while his ERA+ was a tiny bit better.
Jon Lieber, Shawn Chacon, Jaret Wright, Bartolo Colon – all maintained, some at higher levels than others.
The international players haven't fared well, either, with Orlando Hernandez's success offset by Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa and Jose Contreras' struggles.
"Everyone talks about how much pressure it is coming to play here," Sabathia said. "I think it actually takes the pressure off. Look at the guys you've got around you. I love it. I love pitching in the Bronx. Nobody could put more pressure on me than I do myself."
Sabathia's circumstances were different than a majority of players on the list. He arrived still in his prime. Sidney Ponson, Johnson, Brown, Dwight Gooden and Key arrived toward the end of their careers. But Rogers and Denny Neagle were 31, Pavano 29, Vazquez 27 and Jeff Weaver 25. Plenty more arrived at Yankee Stadium with promising careers and left broken.
To see the Yankees' newest duo is a study in contrasts: the massive kid – Pineda's pitching coach last season, Carl Willis, called him a right-handed Sabathia, and the 6-foot-7, 290-pound Sabathia himself calls Pineda "big dog" – and Kuroda, the slight old hand who matches Pineda's upside with security and consistency. Even if history pegs both likelier to bomb out rather than plateau, the Yankees gambling on upside while bringing in an insurance policy in Kuroda plays as the ultimate hedge, a beautiful curlicue of strategy from ever-wily GM Brian Cashman.
The Yankees stuck Pineda's locker next to Sabathia's in hopes that some of his wisdom would rub off. If he happens to impart into Pineda some newcomer pixie dust, the Yankees won't argue. He won't be the only one bobbing for knowledge, either.
"He's definitely someone I'll talk with," the 37-year-old Kuroda said. "I know there have been many pitchers in the past who haven't had success, but I don't have that many years left in me as a professional baseball player. I've always wanted to challenge myself. So that's one of the reasons I chose the Yankees. I know there's a big risk. At the same time, this is a huge opportunity. I want that big risk."
For four years, Kuroda thrived with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He, too, had faced inevitable comparisons to those not necessarily like him: other Japanese pitchers. His predecessors' lack of long-term achievement – those who did pitch well tended to do so for only a few years – birthed the stereotype that Japanese pitchers imploded quickly. Kuroda blew up that pigeonhole right quick.
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This one … well, this one is far bigger, the sort of whirlpool that can suck under even good pitchers. When Vazquez escaped New York's clutches, he started dealing again. Pavano rescued his career. Rogers flourished. Burnett could be the latest.
It could be mental. It could be physical. Or both. If there were a secret to pitching for the Yankees, Major League Baseball would put it on its banned-substance list instantaneously because too many would go ravenous for it. Such are the spoils for being one of the few and proud who turn New York into a personal playground.
"It looks easy from the outside," said Ivan Nova, who went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA last year as a rookie. "It's not. You try to be calm, but I don't think it's possible."
So he'll go about his worrying with Sabathia, Kuroda, Pineda and Garcia or Phil Hughes or whoever else takes the fifth starter spot. They'll try to hold off Tampa Bay and its deep rotation, Boston with a three-headed monster atop its rotation, even Toronto, whose starters' pure stuff rivals the other three groups.
"We have the best staff in the division," Sabathia said. "I'm not going to shy away from that."
In other words, screw history. Sabathia flipped it the bird, and he fully expects Pineda and Kuroda to do the same. These are the Yankees, and they should be better than Burnett and Vazquez and Pavano and Brown and Rogers. If the new guys can make the exception the new rule, Sabathia's right: It will be the best staff in the division. And the AL pennant won't be the only thing they win.
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