They didn’t change the number on the big board at Yankee Stadium last fall, so the Yankees stand at 27, as in world championships, as in parades and, when they open the 2011 season Thursday afternoon (amid forecasts of temperatures in the low 40s and rain), as in the outs that could be so hard to come by.
Yes, the Yankees of the bottomless money pit, of the Cliff Lee(notes) aspirations, of the wickedly bloodthirsty American League East, just concluded a spring training that went as well as it possibly could have and still appear to lack reasonable starting pitching.
Jilted by Lee and unable to farm a deal to bring anything but the old and creaky as stopgaps, they submitted a roster that holds Freddy Garcia(notes) as the fifth starter and Bartolo Colon(notes) as the long man and fifth starter in waiting, and then Kevin Millwood(notes) is in Tampa for extended spring training and eventually en route to Triple-A. If he is not pitching in New York by May 1, Millwood can opt out of his Yankee experience.
In the fourth spot, just ahead of the Garcia trial, is Ivan Nova(notes), the 24-year-old Dominican whose profile reads 42 major league innings. Phil Hughes(notes) (10-7, 4.79 ERA after June last season) and A.J. Burnett(notes) (10-15, 5.26 after March last season) follow CC Sabathia(notes), the one guy so good nobody talks about.
If this all sounds like the kind of thing a second-tier franchise goes through just to cover innings until something better comes along, well, Andrew Brackman(notes), Manny Banuelos(notes) and Dellin Betances are indeed prospects, but probably not in 2011, which is where the Yankees’ interest lies at the moment.
Again, spring couldn’t have gone better.
Garcia somehow got hitters out while pitching with a fastball stubbornly stuck in the mid-80s, Colon had a big fastball and, much as his body probably tried, didn’t break down, and Nova threw his power sinker and grew confident. Hughes had decent results and explained to everyone his velocity is always a late comer. He also worked on a cutter that scouts view as something more like a slider. And Burnett seemed to bond quickly with Larry Rothschild, the new pitching coach who reworked Burnett’s mechanics. The result was a firmer fastball and a tighter breaking ball, along with a more frequent changeup.
Even after all that, and being led by 21-game winner Sabathia, the Yankees’ five rates third in the East behind the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, or fourth if you’re partial to the five in Toronto as well.
It’s a bad time to get thin on the pitching side, what with the Red Sox having added Adrian Gonzalez(notes) and Carl Crawford(notes) to a beat-up offense that still scored only 41 fewer runs than the Yankees did last season.
And so after a month in which the stories out of Tampa were of Derek Jeter’s(notes) place in the lineup (he’ll bat second, to Brett Gardner’s(notes) leadoff Thursday against Justin Verlander(notes)), and Alex Rodriguez’s(notes) productivity, and Jesus Montero’s(notes) flat spring, and Curtis Granderson’s(notes) oblique, and Pedro Feliciano’s(notes) shoulder, and Hank Steinbrenner’s musings, nothing was larger than the Yankees building a rotation in March, a good three months after they were supposed to have.
The plan now appears to be to ride Garcia or Colon and eventually Millwood for as long as they can, pray the first four stay healthy and effective, patch it all together and then hit on an available starter or two in mid-summer.
The farm system has come a long way (Baseball America ranks it fifth), and general manager Brian Cashman got it there by drafting well and turning away from trades he might have made in the past. But, the Yankees are the Yankees, and sometimes prospects are merely currency, so if, say, Felix Hernandez(notes) comes free they’d have to consider gutting the system. After all, they’ve always been about winning the World Series, not the Baseball America poll.
Meantime, the Yankees put their faith – and their season – in Sabathia winning 21 again, in Hughes winning 18 again, in Burnett re-centering himself, in Nova pitching through lineups two or even three times, and then in surviving the fifth spot when that comes around.
It’s not what they had in mind when the Texas Rangers were putting seven runs a game on them last October, or when Lee was throwing eight shutout innings at them in the same ALCS, but this is where they are now.
They start with Sabathia. And at least there’s that. But there’ll have to be a lot more on the way to 28, and if they’ll even be able to consider 28.