Yankees quickly turn pitching into strength
In one frenzied hour Friday night, the New York Yankees went from playoff hopefuls to World Series favorites. Enough was enough. The Yankees do not spend $200 million on players every year for playoff flameouts. Two in a row was two too many.
So in comes Michael Pineda, the 6-foot-7 leviathan whose fastball sits at 95 mph, tops out closer to 100 and looks a whole lot like a right-handed CC Sabathia. Minutes later, the Yankees paid $10 million so Hiroki Kuroda would put off returning to Japan for another year. And gone are all the concerns about a starting rotation that in consecutive years made them mortal.
Why it took this long for general manager Brian Cashman to not only acknowledge this deficiency but act on it is a question now left to history. Because not only does their 2012 rotation of Sabathia, Kuroda, Pineda, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia/A.J. Burnett/Phil Hughes stack up with the best among the other American League contenders, it turns the Yankees' one weakness into a definitive strength.
Most teams would kill to have what's now the Yankees' biggest problem, a poor defensive left side of the infield with Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Look at the rest of the team and find an issue.
Starting-pitching depth? Check-plus.
Bullpen? Yes, please. Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano and, in all likelihood, Hughes, who two years ago was one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the league. Add Cory Wade and a post-Tommy John Joba Chamberlain, and they can afford to ease Pineda and Nova into 200-inning seasons without burning out the bullpen.
Defense? Aside from shortstop and third base – where Rodriguez actually was quite good last season – it's solid, maybe better.
Bats? These are the Yankees, remember. And even though they're going to miss wunderkind Jesus Montero, the main piece heading back to Seattle for Pineda along with pitcher Hector Noesi, they still trot out Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner and Russell Martin nightly. This team will not struggle to score runs.
Yeah, it was a good night to be a Yankee.
The power structure in the AL shifted mightily since September. Tampa Bay added Matt Moore to its dangerous array of young pitching. Texas should officially add Yu Darvish to its rotation sometime in the next 96 hours. Los Angeles spent a small nation's GDP on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. The Red Sox shook off the odor of last season and fortified their bullpen. All of the Yankees' biggest rivals – not to mention a Detroit team that ousted them from the AL Division Series in October – featured better pitching.
[ Related: Yanks trade for Michael Pineda; sign Hiroki Kuroda ]
Now, not so much. If Pineda can stay healthy – and such is always the risk in trading for young pitching – this especially turns into a coup. He turns 23 Wednesday. He struck out more than a batter an inning as a rookie and featured exquisite command of his fastball and slider. He could stand to improve his changeup, though it's not like a move to the AL East will do anything more to what's essentially a two-pitch repertoire than the AL West did. His stuff plays. Anywhere. Even if his flyball tendency doesn't exactly mesh with new Yankee Stadium.
Kuroda is Pineda's perfect complement, a groundball pitcher whose fastball-slider-splitter repertoire should play nicely as long as batters promise not to hit too many balls at Jeter. Kuroda eats innings and doesn't walk anyone, and, well, A.J. Burnett doesn't.
And as much as anything, that's what these moves do: shift the Yankees pitchers where they should be. Nova is an overmatched No. 2 starter. He's a righteous No. 4. The Yankees now can run a competition for the fifth-starter role instead of considering rushing Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, their two best pitching prospects.
That they held onto both is all the better. Few other teams have the resources to trade for one of the best young pitchers in baseball, then sign one of the best free-agent pitchers available. Even fewer have the moxie to wait out both markets, hope other teams don't snipe their targets and in the middle of January, about five weeks away from spring training, perform an on-the-fly facelift.
Not only are these Yankees expected to win, they're now built for it. Six of their eight everyday players are between 28 and 31 years old, and their DH could fall into that category, too. The talent matches the expectations. Which makes World Series talk not just bluster or bravado.
[ Related: A blockbuster night for Yankees ]
Yes, we were saying the same things at this point last year about the Red Sox and Phillies after their big offseasons. Truth is, those predictions proved quite good. Boston was the best team in the American League for the four months between April and September. Philadelphia won 102 games. Just because their seasons ended without a championship did not minimize the talent that flooded their rosters.
The same goes for the Yankees now. They could gag away the season like Boston did last year or flame out in the playoffs a la the Phillies. Or they could win championship No. 28 because the mother lode of talent on their roster is eminently capable of such things.
All of that is speculating on the unknown, which is simultaneously fun and foolish. Only one thing is known after Friday, one that rang out across baseball's 29 teams not named the Yankees.
The Evil Empire is back.
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