Friday, April 3, 2009

Aviv's View: The Starting Rotations

Since 2003, the biggest thing holding back the Yankees was their starting rotation. Gone after that season were Roger Clemens, David Wells and Andy Pettitte, to be replace by the likes of the aging Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson, the injury ravaged Jaret Wright and the afraid-to-pitch Carl Pavano, among countless others. The Yankees had ceded the pitching advantage to the Red Sox, yet still believed they could win.

They were proven wrong and they appear to have rectified that deficit. With the signings of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the pitch gap with the Red Sox no longer exists and the Yankees may even have the edge (I know, shocking a Yankees fan would say that).

New York

Sabathia is what the Yankees have long been missing. A true ace. A strikeout pitcher. A workhorse who demands the ball with the season on the line. He’s won a Cy Young in the American League and appears to have a demeanor and approach that should allow him adapt to New York much faster than Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and Johnson.

The biggest concern appears to be about his weight, which has been listed anywhere from 250 to 290 pounds. Some scouts have dismissed those concerns by pointing out Sabathia is built like a linebacker and has a tremendous “base” that takes a lot of pressure off his arm. Some studies suggest “bigger” pitchers are less susceptible to arm injuries because they tend use their bodies and legs more. Still others point to other large pitchers, such as Fernando Valenzuela, Sid Fernandez and David Wells, who all had long careers and have a combined record of 526-306. Sabathia’s weight might eventually become an issue, but that’s likely to happen later in his contract, not this year.

As for his lack of his success in the playoffs, I’d point out he was the guy who carried the Indians and Brewers down the stretch just to make the playoffs. He piled up the innings in September, completing games for team that had suspect closers, and likely was spent by October. He should not have that issue with the Yankees and Mariano Rivera as his closer.

Chien-Ming Wang appears to have recovered from his Liscfranc injury and shown no ill effect this spring, even making some very nice fielding plays. His arm remains sound and he has shown no reason why he won’t return to the form that allowed him to win 38 games in 2006 and ’07. He’ll be solid No. 2 breaking up the power arms of Sabathia and Burnett.

The biggest concern about Wang is his performance against the Red Sox. In 14 career games, 13 starts, he’s 6-5 with a 4.82 ERA over 84 innings. Some are also concerned about Wang in the postseason based off his disastrous ALDS starts against the Indians in 2007. They forget his brilliant start against the Tigers in 2006 ALDS. At best, Wang’s postseason resume is incomplete.

I did not like the Burnett signing. He’s been injury prone and his best seasons have always been in walk years. Two huge red flags. He says he’s learned how to take care of himself and prepare by hanging with Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay. We’ll see. But if he stays healthy, he’s as tough a pitcher as there is in the AL East. He’s proven he can beat the Red Sox and his stuff is devastating. If he’s not healthy, well, he won’t be able to escape comparisons to his buddy Pavano.

Pettitte is getting old. But he’s perfect as a No. 4. He doesn’t have to be workhorse and can protect that at-times suspect elbow. Getting 180 quality innings and 12-15 wins would be enough … and he’s certainly capable of more. An offseason free of distractions caused by PEDs and Clemens might have also helped his conditioning and preparation.

The Yankees, today, would be better off with Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen. The problem is he wants to start, and we all saw what happened when the Mets tried to force a reliever role on Aaron Heilman. That ended poorly. Yankee management also believes Chamberlain can be a starter. There’s only one way to find out: make Joba the fifth starter and let him prove it. He certainly hasn’t been impressive this spring, though he finally hit 96 mph with his fastball a pitched into the sixth in his last start. If it turns out Joba isn’t the starter he believes he is, he can be moved back, but time will.

Phil Hughes is on call. He struggled mightily last season, like many young pitchers do in their first season. Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are two who come to mind. Given Hughes’ talent, I expect he’ll bounce back when he’s called upon. After him are Ian Kennedy, Alfredo Accedes (who ascended quickly through the farm system last season to reach the majors and impress) and Dan Giese. Steven Jackson is another name to keep an eye on in Triple A


Josh Beckett is a proven ace. A Cy Young Award winner and postseason stud. He’s as good as anyone in the majors when healthy. But that’s the key. His health has been a major factor in his career. Last season he was not healthy, going 12-10. He was not himself in the playoffs and that, as much as anything, prevented the Sox from reaching another World Series. He’s healthy entering the season, so that’s a good sign for Boston.

If Beckett is Boston’s No. 1, Jon Lester is 1A. After beating cancer, he’s a guy that hard not to root for, even for Yankees fans. And he’s gotten better each season. He has had no problems with injuries and if continues to progress, he could be in line for 20 wins and a Cy Young. The only thing left for him to show is year-to-year consistency and that’s something that can be proven only over time.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is prototypical No. 3. He can be brilliant at times, and he can be painful to watch other times. He can blow away any batter, yet is capable of walking the ballpark. If he pitches deep into games, the Sox are in good shape. Yet, he’s equally as capable of producing a five-inning clunker. He’s maddening. Twenty wins might be a much to expect from Dice-K, but 16-18 wins is certainly in his reach and likely.

Tim Wakefield, 41, has been a terrific Red Sox, but he’s reaching the end. He might be a bargain at $4 million a year, but for how much longer? He went 10-11 with 4.13 ERA last season in 30 starts. He might be able to replicate that or slightly improve it, but that will be against the weak teams in AL, not the Yankees. There was a time the Yankees hated to see Wakefield because that knuckler would put them in a weeks-long funk. Not anymore. Consider Wakefield’s splits against New York since 2005:

2005, 6 starts, 40-2/3 IP, 1-4, 4.20 ERA, 27 hits, 10 HRs

2006, 3 starts, 19-2/3 IP, 1-1, 5.49 ERA, 16 hits, 2 HRs

2007, 3 starts, 14 IP, 0-3, 10.93 ERA, 19 hits, 4 HRs

2008, 4 starts, 21-2/3 IP, 1-1, 4.98 ERA, 22 hits, 4 HRs

Brad Penny has been named the fifth starter. He’s coming off a season during which he had shoulder problem, but he hit 96 mph in his start Thursday. His spring numbers were decent and if he returns to form, the Sox have a steal. The thing to remember with him is he has not been consistent during his eight-year career, winning a high of 16 games twice and pitching 200 innings only twice. He’s only 30 and has been an All-Star, so you’d expect more. He’s also never pitched in the AL or in a media pressure cooker, such as Boston. Those will be adjustment.

Next in line are Clay Buchholz, who like Hughes should rebound this season, an aging and rehabbing Smoltz, and Justin Masterson, who last year was good as a starter (4-3, 3.67) but brilliant in relief. He could become the Red Sox’s version of Joba.

Line ’em up and I’ll call Sabathia-Beckett a wash, give the edge to Lester over Wang, take Burnett (I’ll say Burnett stays healthy) over Dice-K, Pettitte over Wakefield, and Joba over Penny based on Chamberlain’s upside.

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