Around the Horn: Starting rotation
Blend of youth, experience makes staff a true wild card
The following is the fifth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starting rotation.
NEW YORK -- With so much ink spilled concerning Johan Santana's next potential destination, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman didn't bother dropping the left-hander's name last week. He also didn't have to wait long for public opinions on the Yankees' youth movement.
"My strong recommendation is that we stick with our young pitching and keep it in-house," Cashman said, drawing loud cheers from an audience at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.
Set to move forward without this year's Hot Stove heartthrob, the Yankees gear for Spring Training with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy staking their claims to New York's starting rotation -- all under 25, showcasing a smattering of big league experience and a world of future promise.
Joined by returning 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang, 15-game winner Andy Pettitte and veteran Mike Mussina, the Yankees figure to have six capable starters for what they insist will be a five-man rotation. That's to say nothing of a promising second wave of prospects who could contribute by year's end.
"You can never go into Spring Training with too many pitchers, especially too many quality guys," pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
One storyline of Spring Training could be a competition between the 38-year-old Mussina and the 23-year-old Kennedy. With his style and ability to change speeds often compared to Mussina's, Kennedy may represent a wild card for the Yankees, in that he could start the year in the big leagues or at Triple-A, depending on New York's needs.
"He's a very polished pitcher, but there are still a few things he's continuing to work on," Eiland said. "He's a guy who uses both sides of the plate with his fastball, and he changes speeds at any time in the count -- ahead and behind. He's not a guy that a hitter can sit one pitch or location, because he can do a lot of things with the baseball."
Kennedy made just three starts with the Yankees in September and likely would have been on the postseason roster if not for a strained back muscle that sidelined him into October.
As for Mussina, his season was an overall disappointment, finishing 11-10 with a 5.15 ERA in 27 starts (28 games). Opponents batted .311 against the veteran, who lost his spot in the rotation after a series of poor outings in August but returned to log three consecutive victories in September duty.
New York Yankees
"Mike has a lot left," Eiland said. "I know he went through a little bit of a rough stretch there last season, and that happens to everybody. I think as you get a little bit older and you go through a rough stretch, people want to jump on that and make more out of it than what it really is. I expect Mike to come in and pitch well and be a major contributor this year."
Smarting from their early playoff exit, the Yankees were facing a winter of uncertainty. Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada highlighted potential departures from the Major Leagues' most productive lineup, but the rotation was impacted by indecision from Pettitte, who contemplated retirement before finalizing a one-year, $16 million contract in December.
Though Pettitte's offseason would be clouded by his inclusion in the Mitchell Report, the Yankees stood by the 35-year-old left-hander and supported his decision to admit twice using human growth hormone in 2002. Pettitte could repay that gesture by again anchoring the pitching staff, one year after going 15-9 with a 4.05 ERA in 34 starts (36 appearances), ranking ninth in the AL with 215 1/3 innings pitched.
"They're bringing me back not to be a fifth starter, but to try to help lead that staff," Pettitte said in December. "I knew I needed to make a decision, for the organization's sake and mine."
Part of the basis of New York's intermittent pursuit of Santana was a perceived need for a "true ace," despite the fact that last year's No. 1, Wang, has won 38 games over the past two seasons -- more than any other pitcher in the big leagues.
Despite going 19-7 with a 3.70 ERA in 30 starts, Wang fizzled in October, getting hit hard in two losses in the AL Division Series. His sinker-ball style may have induced 32 double-play groundouts during the regular season, but Wang did not even garner one vote in the AL Cy Young Award balloting, his career-high 104 strikeouts paling in comparison to tallies scored by the likes of Boston's Josh Beckett and Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia.
Some Yankees, like Posada, supported the push for Santana, saying, "We need a No. 1 ... it is a need in October, no question about it." But others weren't quite as sold.
"There's been a lot of speculation that we need a true power arm ace," Pettitte said. "I disagree with that. I think Wang is an absolute stud. I think he is an ace. I understand that he struggled in the postseason [last] year, and that's going to happen. I've struggled just like he has."
Then again, some within the Yankees hierarchy believe their next go-to guy might already be on the roster. After making his big league debut in August, the 22-year-old Chamberlain became an overnight sensation as a phenom setup man, going 2-0 with one save and a 0.38 ERA in 19 relief appearances before the Lake Erie midges derailed his storybook season.
Groomed as a starting pitcher in college and the Minor Leagues, the Yankees are prepared to return Chamberlain to his natural role in 2008, despite continuing speculation that Chamberlain may still not have thrown his final relief innings. That would be more to protect Chamberlain after throwing 112 1/3 innings in his first pro season, just 24 of which came in the big leagues.
Whereas Chamberlain was able to successfully set up for Mariano Rivera on the strength of his high-90s fastball and biting slider, duty as a starting pitcher would call his curveball and changeup into play more often. Using the four-pitch arsenal as more than just a cameo is an assignment Chamberlain seems to be excited about.
"They're pitches that I didn't throw very much when I came up here, but they're pitches that I still have," Chamberlain said. "You never lose them. It's like riding a bike. You just have to get back on and do it again."
Hyped as the Yankees' future ace last spring, the 21-year-old Hughes can fly under the radar a little more this year, motivated by what he called a frustrating debut campaign. Hurried to the big leagues due to injuries, Hughes was eight outs shy of a no-hitter on May 1 at Texas when he was forced out by a strained left hamstring.
Also spraining his left ankle while on rehab in Tampa, the next time Hughes would see a big league mound was August, where he'd finish the year 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA in 13 starts before logging the Yankees' only victory of the playoffs in ALDS Game 3, relieving Roger Clemens.
"This will be a good spring for me, I think, coming in a different position than the last two years," Hughes said. "We're going to have a really good team and there's going to be plenty of attention spread around some other guys. With a lot of young guys stepping up and the core from last year coming back, it should be exciting."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.