On paper the Yankees have, admittedly, an awesome looking rotation. If all five pitchers were to stay healthy, the result would likely be one of the all-time great seasons from a starting five. One on par with the 1998 Atlanta Braves when their five all registered 16+ wins.
But that is a very large "if." Most of New York's hurlers also have injury issues. And the one that doesn't has his own issue.
CC Sabathia is an awesome talent. That is indisputable. Every year of his career he has registered 11+ wins and has thrown 180 or more innings. He averages over 180 strikeouts per season and never has an ERA worse than the league average.
But that is a lot of wear-and-tear on a body in just eight seasons. And CC doesn't have the physique that lends itself to holding up over time. If he's 250 pounds then John McCain voted for Barack Obama. Sabathia is getting perilously close to eating himself into some time on the DL. But if he can hold the line, he should be outstanding for the Yankees. Until the post-season, anyway...
AJ Burnett is a mercurial pitcher. When he is "on", he is as good as anyone in this game. The problem for New York is that he is only "on" in his contract years.
It is not coincidence that the only three times Burnett has reached 200 or more innings pitched, has approached/surpassed 200 strikeouts and has appeared in 30 or more games were in his three contract years (2002, 2005, 2008). Any other year he seems to be DL-bound. Does anyone really believe he'll last the season with that fat contract under his belt?
Chien-Ming Wang has the talent to be a superstar. Look at his 2006-2007 numbers; a combined 38-13 with 417 innings pitched. But that Lisfranc tear in his right foot still has to scare the folks in New York. Those kinds of injuries are wildly unpredictable. Can Wang still plant that right foot and deliver the ball as well as he could before? His spring has left that question still up for debate.
Andy Pettitte is timeless. I was hoping beyond hope the Sox could snag him as their fifth starter. So don't expect me to say anything bad about a pitcher who has registered fewer than 12 wins just once in his career. The only possible downsides for him this year is whether age catches up with him or his shoulder starts acting up. Otherwise, Pettitte is a solid fourth starter.
Joba Chamberlain is the fifth starter, but shouldn't be. This will be a story all year long. I still believe that forcing Joba into the rotation is a huge mistake by the Yankee ownership. He is their closer of the future and should be leading to Rivera the way Mo led to Wetteland in 1996. Add to that his past shoulder injury and declining velocity this pre-season, and you have to ask yourself what the hell Hank is thinking? But, as a Sox fan, I am fine with this.
Possible fill-ins for the Yankees if and when one of their starters breaks down include Phil Hughes and...well, Phil Hughes. I suppose Ian Kennedy and Kei Igawa are in the mix as well. But do any of these guys give Yankee fans any confidence?
The Red Sox have their own questions in their starting rotation, but enjoy the luxury of depth to deal with problems that may occur in 2009.
Josh Beckett broke spring training healthy, which is good news for the Sox. After a stellar 2007 Beckett broke down in 2008, going 12-10 and throwing only 174 innings, his lowest total since 2004. But his back and elbow look healthy coming out of camp. If he can maintain that level of health, Beckett is as good a #1 pitcher as there is in the majors today.
Jon Lester is considered Boston's ace of the future, although I would say he is there right now. He had a breakout 2008 season, going 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA. Some people are concerned that his innings total (210) could have a negative effect. But it hasn't looked like that this year. And the kid is only 25; at that age your arm can handle a lot more work. Add to that the fact that Lester is a bulldog and never takes a game off, and I think you can expect another great season from Lester.
Daisuke Matsuzaka is an enigma. He walks batters like fat kids steal cookies; all the time and without remorse. He seems to give up runs like clockwork. And yet when the game is over, more often that not Daisuke has the win.
He went 18-3 last year despite giving up 94 walks in just 168 innings. His WHIP was 1.324, which put him behind guys like Gavin Floyd and Armando Galarraga. And yet his ERA was 2.90 because Daisuke has a bizarre ability to give up those walks and hits when it least mattered. That will likely continue this year. Daisuke will give Boston fans fits every start and still compile between 15-20 wins.
Tim Wakefield is immortal. Right now it looks like he could give the Sox 10+ wins from the four-spot until the sun went supernova. And I have to object to this "injury prone" business some people give him; Wakes has started 30 or more games in five of the last six seasons. And he has thrown 180 or more innings in those five seasons. Do I have to mention his ERA+ has been 100 or better in those years as well? More than a few teams would kill to have Wakefield throwing for them and it isn't just because of his perpetual $4 million per year contract.
Brad Penny...who knows what the Sox will get? The 2006-07 Penny who looked unstoppable and went to two All-Star games? Or the 2008 Penny who completely broke down?
He has looked good in spring training. And he only turns 31 in May, which gives him another two "prime" years (if you go by the 26-32 standard). There is no reason that Penny can't recapture the magic from two years ago. And if he doesn't...well, the Sox have John Smoltz waiting in the wings. I would love to see Boston alternate these two guys as the season unwinds, keeping them both healthy for the post-season.
If Beckett breaks down or the Penny-Smoltz Experiment is a bust, the Sox have some backup. Justin Masterson could make the move from the bullpen and proved last year he could get the job done. The Sox also have Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden in the minors as fill-ins, though I don't trust those two like I do Masterson. In a pinch, the Sox could thrown Dervin Hansack on the mound or Japanese phenom Junichi Tazawa. Although if Tazawa is called up for injury reasons, then Boston is in a bad way.
So, if you were going to line these two rotations up head-to-head...
Sabathia vs. Beckett: Give the edge to CC based on his outstanding performance in Miliwaukee and Beckett's injuries. But this could easily switch if Beckett is healthy, if CC can't handle the Bronx or if he gets hurt again.
Burnett vs. Lester: Lester gets the nod. He is healthy and improving each year. Burnett has major questions surrounding his durability and his performance in non-contract years. If Burnett plays to his talent, it's a push.
Wang vs. Matsuzaka: Push. Both guys have the ability to dominate. Both guys have injury questions stemming from last year. Both guys are potential Cy Young winners.
Pettitte vs. Wakefield: Push. Both guys are old, gutsy and better than fans give them credit for. Both will also give their teams between 10-15 wins this year.
Chamberlain vs. Penny/Smoltz: Penny/Smoltz. Chamberlain doesn't belong in the rotation. I don't think his shoulder will hold up and he will eventually either have to go back to the bullpen or he will go on the DL again. And Yankee fans better pray it's the first option.
Hughes/Kennedy/Igawa vs. Masterson/Buchholz/Bowden/Hansack/Tazawa: Edge goes to Boston for two reasons. First, they have more depth and that gives them more flexibility. Second, they have Masterson. He is the one pitcher out of all these guys who has proven he belongs in the majors right now. New York doesn't have that guy to fill in as a starter...yet. If Hughes can straighten out, he definitely can fill that role.
If both rotations were to remain perfectly healthy all year, you'd have to give the nod to New York. But when does that ever happen? Both rotations have their questions and their potential shortcomings. But Boston's rotation is better built to ride out the ups and downs of the season. In the toughest division in the majors, that's the difference between the playoffs and playing golf come October.
Winner: Boston (but by less than you would think)