From the position players to the pitchers. Today's season review post tackles the starting rotation, the foundation of any and almost all success the Yankees had this season. There was high turnover, from the projected starting 5 to the rookie replacements to the deadline pickups. That turnover did not come with much deviation in performance, however, and the Yankee rotation ended up being the biggest positive storyline in a season of disappointment.
Best- The Upside
For the first time since the championship teams of the late 90s, the Yankees entered this season with a projected starting 5 that was not only a strength, but potentially one of the best top-to-bottom rotations in baseball. They had ace potential in Tanaka regardless of the tempered public expectations they set for him, a legit #2 in Hirok and #2 starter potential in Pineda, #2-3 starter potential in Nova, and, if he could show that he had learned to work with diminished velocity and his body held up, the reasonable hope was that CC could settle into a reliable #3-type of guy.
There were flashes of this group upside early too. Tanaka and Pineda each allowed 2 ER or fewer in their first starts without walking a batter. Kuroda looked like his usual self in his second start, and Nova looked like Good Nova in his third one against the Red Sox. There were even signs that Sabathia would be OK buried within his mediocre early results. If the health held up, there was a chance for this fivesome to be dominant.
Worst- The Injuries
Simply put, the health didn't hold up. Even in this format of trying to avoid the same old talking points, there's no way to discuss the rotation injury problems other than to do it directly. Ivan Nova going down with the elbow injury and subsequent TJS in mid-April was a major blow, as was CC succumbing to his knee problems and getting shelved in mid-May. Pineda's shoulder/back muscle issue was not completely unforeseen, but the amount of time he missed was significant, as was Tanaka's UCL tear. The crew of replacement arms that filled in during all this missed time did a more than admirable job picking up the slack. There's just no way to expect a team to fully overcome losing 80% of its Opening Day rotation for months at a time.
Best- The Rebirth of Michael Pineda
When the Yankees traded for Pineda, they did so with visions of him assuming and holding down a top-of-the-rotation spot for years to come. It took a while for that to materialize, but they finally got a look at that scenario this year. It was in a 13-game (76.1 inning) sample size thanks to the shoulder muscle injury, but Pineda's results in that sample were spectacular. 1.83 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 59 strikeouts to just 7 walks, an improved GB rate and very good HR rate in a flyball-friendly ballpark, and an 11.2% whiff rate that was almost identical to his 2011 level.
While down from his mid-90s heat in 2011, Pineda still flashed good velocity and late life on his fastballs, and he supplemented them by mixing in more cutters and changeups. He looked like a more polished pitcher and, save for the 1.2-inning pine tar game, if you look through his game log you're going to have a hard time identifying 1 really "bad" start. Helluva debut season for a pitcher who's still only 25 years old.
Worst- The Beginning of the End of CC Sabathia
As Pineda's sun rose this year, it continued to set on the now former staff ace. Expectations were as low as they could have been for the big fella heading into the season and he still managed to fall beneath them, both in terms of performance and health. He was striking plenty of guys out early and not walking many, but he was more homer-prone than ever and always got hurt by the big inning. In 8 starts, he pitched to a 5.28/4.78/3.11 slash line before more problems with his degenerative right knee shut him down for good in mid-May. Almost 5 months, another surgery, and a couple rounds of stem cell injections later, and he's still not back on a mound. Sabathia will be 34 going on 35 at the start of next season and there's a non-zero chance that he never pitches again. The bar has been set that low.
Best- Pleasant Rookie Surprises
As the Novas and Sabathias and Pinedas of the world dropped out of the rotation, the Yanks dipped into their pool of Triple-A depth to replace them. And we're not even talking about the ManBans and Jose Ramirezes of the world. Chase Whitley, converted to a full-time starter this year, got called up and pitched to a 2.26/2.42 ERA/FIP split in his first 5 starts. The league eventually caught up to him, but by then Shane Greene was healthy and stretched out as a starter and he got the call to replace Whitley. Greene's debut went much better, as he stuck in the rotation and pitched to a 3.78/3.73/3.40 slash in 78.2 IP over 14 starts, with a very good 23.5% K rate. Greene looked poised on the mound and showed plus Major League-quality stuff, and he very well could have earned himself the new lead slot in the 5th starter competition next year. Not too bad from an organization that can't develop any pitching.
Best- A Big Deadline Pickup
In addition to the internal boost provided by Whitley and Greene, Brian Cashman went out and found himself another capable replacement starter when he traded for Brandon McCarthy in July. McCarthy was borderline ace-like in his 13 starts in pinstripes. He prevented runs, he pitched deep into games, he struck a lot of batters out, he didn't walk many, and he kept the ball on the ground. What more could a manager ask for? McCarthy's performance was so good that he's positioned himself as one of, if not the next best free agent pitcher available this offseason after Scherzer and Shields. Cash would be wise to re-invest on his primo acquisition and keep McCarthy in the fold for next year.
Also, a quick shout-out to Chris Capuano. He came in a much smaller deal and gave the Yanks 65.2 innings of sub-4.00 FIP ball over 12 starts.
Worst- No More Hirok?
This one doesn't even require analysis. It'll just be a plain old bummer if Hiroki Kuroda isn't back in the rotation next year. He's been the rock and sneaky ace of the staff since he first signed in 2012 and he deserves more love and recognition from the Yankee fans than he had the chance to get underneath the Jeter spotlight. If he is interested in another go, the Yanks should be too. If he decides he's had enough and wants to go back to Japan, then I'm going to miss him.
Best- The New Ace
There was always going to be huge hype for Masahiro Tanaka. No amount of public underselling by Cash was going to quell that. I bought in on the hype early in spring and was more excited for Tanaka's debut than probably any Yankee since Sabathia. He did not disappoint. Tanaka became the best starter on the Yankee staff almost immediately, racking up 6 wins and 66 strikeouts in his first 8 starts while surrendering a mere 14 earned runs. His stuff, most notably his splitter, was top notch; his command was pinpoint; his mound presence and competitive reputation resembled that of the best MLB pitchers, and his results were at or near the top of every statistical category. Tanaka was one of the best and most exciting pitchers to watch in his first 18 starts before the injury, and at age 25 he definitively positioned himself as the new staff ace of the present and the future.
Worst- The Cloud Hanging Over Him
That he only made 2 second half starts is the reason Tanaka won't be crowned American League Rookie of the Year this year. He was diagnosed with a partially torn UCL in his right elbow in July and, following the advice of multiple doctors, spent 2 months resting and rehabbing the ligament before returning for those few shortened September starts. There was talk of the team opting for TJS when the injury was diagnosed, but doctors thought this was the best path. The concern over the status of the ligament will not go away over the offseason though, and Tanaka will have this lingering fear of setback and eventual surgery hanging over his every appearance from here on out. It won't be fun, but it's a risk worth taking considering the diagnosis and the chance that he could follow in the path of a few other pitchers and continue to pitch without issue.
** Coming up tomorrow- The Bullpen. **