The State of the Yankees’ Rotation

Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda

Here was the Yankees’ 2014 Opening Day rotation:

1. CC Sabathia
2. Hiroki Kuroda
3. Masahiro Tanaka
4. Ivan Nova
5. Michael Pineda

And here is how many starts each of those pitchers made in 2014:

1. CC Sabathia: 8
2. Hiroki Kuroda: 32
3. Masahiro Tanaka: 20
4. Ivan Nova: 4
5. Michael Pineda: 13

And here are the other pitchers who made at least one start for the Yankees in 2014:

David Phelps: 17
Brandon McCarthy: 14
Shane Greene: 14
Vidal Nuno: 14
Chase Whitley: 12
Chris Capuano: 12
Esmil Rogers: 1
Bryan Mitchell: 1

What does all of this mean? It means the 2014 Yankees got 85 starts from pitchers who weren’t in the Opening Day rotation and 53 percent of the season was started by pitchers who weren’t in the Opening Day rotation.

Despite 60 percent of the rotation missing nearly the entire season and 80 percent of it missing a lot of the season and despite the offense somehow being worse than 2013’s, which featured Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, Kevin Youkilis and Lyle Overbay, the Yankees missed the playoffs by four games. With the five-team, two wild-card playoff format, the Yankees are always going to be in the mix for a playoff spot and over the last two years they have proved that if they can just stay afloat and even barely over .500, they will be in the playoff picture down the stretch.

For the last two years I would have done a lot of unimaginable things for the Yankees to have clinched one of the two wild-card berths. (That’s depressing to think about and write about considering the team went to the playoffs in 17 of 18 years from 1995-2012.) The same playoff format I vehemently spoke out against had become my best friend and the second wild card that I hated more than the idea of a pitch clock had become the Yankees’ entrance to the playoffs. Back in 2012, had I known the Yankees would be decimated by injuries for two straight years, I probably would have been leading the campaign to add a playoff team and turn a six-month, 162-game grind for two teams into a one-game playoff for a trip to the division series.

The problem is no one wants to be in the one-game playoff (especially the team that clinched the first wild card and wouldn’t have to play a one-game playoff if it were still 2012). If it’s a last resort, that’s one thing. But on Opening Day, no Yankees fan is saying, “I hope we get a wild-card berth this year!” That thought process is saved for Mets, Cubs, Blue Jays, Mariners and Twins fans. It’s all about winning the division and guaranteeing yourself a five-game series in October and not one game where anything can happen (Hello, Oakland) even if both World Series teams last year were wild-card winners.

This year the Yankees are using the same slogan they have for the last two years. I’m not talking about their “Our history. Your tradition.” I’m talking about the “Hope and If” mentality they have settled on, which is equivalent to “We hope we hit a 16-team parlay!” It’s the same strategy the 2013 Red Sox used and it worked out for them, so the Yankees have decided to bank on the idea that it can work for them by hoping that a combination of health and low-risk, high-reward players pay off and the big-name players play to their career numbers. “We hope this thing will go in our favor” and “If this happens we will be good”.

Right now, the Yankees’ infield is Mark Teixeira (.216/.313/.398), Stephen Drew (.162/.237/.299), Didi Gregorius (.226/.290/.363) and Chase Headley (.262/.371/.398). Their outfield is Brett Gardner (.256/.327/.422), Jacoby Ellsbury (.271/.328/.419) and Carlos Beltran (.233/.301/.402). There’s a good chance by Memorial Day I could be longing for the days of Overbay, Wells and Hafner. With an offense as unpredictable since … ever … the Yankees are going to have to heavily rely on their rotation to win low-scoring games. The issue there is that on paper the names in the rotation are attractive, but hearing about a devastating injury to the rotation that could destroy the rotation and derail the season could once again happy at any second.

I have never really liked James Shields and I never wanted the Yankees to sign him. I would have much rather had Jon Lester or Max Scherzer. But over the last week, as his signing somewhere became more imminent, I started to join the “Get me James Shields” movement for the sole reason that the Yankees’ rotation (and therefore season) hinges on the health of Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda, who made a combined 33 starts last season. So when Shields signed with the Padres for a not-so-ridiculous four years and $75 million, I wondered why the Yankees didn’t sign up the pitcher who hasn’t pitched less than 203 1/3 innings in any of his eight full seasons in the league and who is a reliable front-end starter.

Brian Cashman talked with Mike Francesa on WFAN on Friday about the overall state of the franchise heading into spring training next week, so I did the only thing I know how to do when Cashman speaks and that is to comment on his comments. This time I focused on his comments on the rotation.

On if he’s worried about Masahiro Tanaka.

“You have to be cautious, you have to be honest. There is risk, nonetheless, no matter what. Tanaka had a great winter. He finished the season as a healthy player. He wasn’t prescribed any different regimen because of what happened last year. He went back to his normal throwing routine, rest routine, all that stuff … We hope he can be Tanaka.”

Last year in my 2014 Yankees’ Order of Importance, Masahiro Tanaka was No. 5. (CC Sabathia was No. 1.) This year, Tanaka is going to be No. 1. When healthy, he is in the elite tier of starting pitchers in baseball. I wouldn’t take him over Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez, but he is right there, right after them.

The problem is his health and the problem is that his elbow may or may not be one pitch away from putting him on the shelf for a calendar year and possibly destroying his career. That pitch could come on Feb. 21. It could come on April 6. It could come sometime in July. It could come in September. It may never come. Every time I sign on Twitter or hear Tanaka has a bullpen session or during any of his starts, there could be news that he is going to have to undergo Tommy John surgery, so I will have to live on the edge of my seat.

But like Cashman said, “There is risk, nonetheless, no matter what,” and that’s true of any pitcher.

On the durability of Michael Pineda.

“In terms of the shoulder, he had a healthy season. What we saw was very exciting, very promising and again, if he can maintain health and stay on the field we believe we’re going to have a very quality arm every five days to take the that position.”

I like to believe that Michael Pineda is going to pitch a full season for the Yankees at some point. Then again, I also believe that March 1 is the start of spring.

When Pineda pitched last season, he was great. He was as good as advertised when the Yankees traded for him three years ago and as good if not better than he was in the first half of 2011 with the Mariners. Watching a young starter consistently deliver front-end performances was refreshing after watching Phil Hughes do the exact opposite for seven years.

But the key with Pineda has always been health (or a total disregard for wear he places his pine tar). If he can finally pitch a full season for the Yankees for the first time in his four years with the team, they have a top No. 2 starter or even a No. 1-A. Another “if”.

On what he’s expecting from CC Sabathia and if he needs to reinvent himself.

“He’ll be a cautious guy for us in the spring just because of the surgery he came off on the knee. He’s working hard. I saw CC at the Stadium last week … There might be some tweaks here and there. Again, as these guys become older they make some adjustments. We saw Pettitte go through that. He’s an amazing pitcher. We believe he’s going to be a healthy player. We know pitchability is there. I don’t know if we’re going to see the No. 1 or 2, but we do expect to get the 200 innings and the high-end pitchability.”

(My computer knows “pitchability” is a word because of these Brian Cashman “State of the Yankees” addresses.)

Here’s what I wrote about CC Sabathia in the 2014 Yankees’ Order of Importance when I ranked him No. 1:

He’s still No. 1 on the list and has been since he got here in 2009. The only way it will change is if Sabathia really hasn’t figured out how to pitch with less velocity like his former teammate Andy Pettitte and his so-called best friend Cliff Lee (who he couldn’t convince to come here after the 2010 seas0n). If Sabathia tries to pitch with a power-pitcher mentality and tries to pitch the way he did pre-2013 then he won’t be No. 1 on this list a year from now. If he isn’t No. 1 on this list a year from now then the 2014 season will end the same way the 2013 season did.

Apparently, Cashman and I are on the same page when it comes to CC needing to learn how to pitch and realizing that he can’t just blow people away when he needs to get out of a jam anymore.

The thing to notice here is how confident Cashman is that CC is healthy and that he will give the Yankees 200 innings. Usually, Cashman uses words like “hope” to project his players’ seasons, but his word choice of “believe” and “expect” make me think that Sabathia will be a full-season pitcher. What kind of full-season pitcher?

It would be nice if CC could be 2009-2012 CC, but there’s a better chance it’s going to be 60 degrees here in New York tomorrow than there is of that happening. But 2013-2014 CC isn’t going to cut it. We need something between 2012 (15-6, 3.38) and 2013 (14-13, 4.78). Somewhere between that would be 14.5 wins, 9.5 losses and a 4.08 ERA. Sign me up right now for 15-10, 4.08. Please sign me up for that right now.

On what he likes about Nathan Eovaldi.

“He’s not a finished product. He’s got a big arm. I know every time I talk to Larry, he’s excited about the player’s makeup, work ethic … The player is motivated. He hit 200 innings last year and 24 years old. So again we have someone with that type of ability, you connect him with Larry, it gives you a chance to dream a little bit more.”

Clearly, Cashman thinks highly of Larry Rothschild.

I was devastated when the Yankees traded Martin Prado. He was the most reliable hitter in the 36 games he played for the Yankees last year. He was supposed to be the most important piece of Joe Girardi’s lineup for the next two years since he has played first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field and right field in his career. But now he is a Marlin.

If Eovaldi can put it all together as a hard-throwing, 24-year-old starting pitcher he will be much more valuable than the 31-year-old Prado. But like most of the Yankees, he’s an unknown, with one full season of starts in his career (2014) and in that season he allowed the most hits (223) in the league.

For a third straight year, the offense is full of question marks that the Yankees hope go their way, and because the offense is full of overpaid underachievers, the Yankees will again rely on the rotation to carry them. The 2015 Yankees: Hope and If.