With the advent of the free-agent signing season coming, the New York Yankees obviously are in the market for some starting pitching help. We have already detailed the Yankees’ likely interest in the Rangers’ C.J. Wilson, Japanese star Yu Darvish and longtime White Sox ace Mark Buerhle. But what if the best laid plans of general manager Brian Cashman do not work out as planned and the Yankees sign none of those players? What if they are unable to make a trade for a starter? Let’s see if there is a creditable Plan C if free agents and trades are unavailable. This is a two-part report. The first part deals with the Yankees options at the major-league level. Part two will deal with their minor-league options.
PART 1: POTENTIAL MAJOR LEAGUE OPTIONS
Last winter, the Yankees struck out on Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte retired and the Yankees decided to make smaller moves to patch their starting rotation holes.
They signed a pair of veteran free agents, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.
Most baseball observers were underwhelmed by those moves. But a strange thing happened as spring training unfolded.
Colon, 38, actually started pitching a lot like he did during his 2005 Cy Young Award-winning season with the Angels. Though he did not initially earn a rotation spot out of spring training, his work in the bullpen was so exceptional that he was placed in the rotation on April 20 in place of an injured Phil Hughes.
Colon not only won his first two starts, he was pitching impeccably. Of his first nine starts, he was 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA and he had thrown seven quality starts.
However, the other end of Colon’s saga played out in that ninth start on June 11 against Cleveland.
The Yankees were not happy when Colon reported to spring training well over his listed weight of 265 pounds. But they overlooked it when Colon threw so well during spring training. They put him in the bullpen largely because of concerns about the fact he had not thrown more than 99 innings in any season since 2005.
Well, Father Time has a way of penalizing overweight players in the middle of their success. That is what happened to Colon when he strained his right hamstring covering first base. Colon won the game but landed on the 15-day disabled list. He ended up missing three weeks.
Colon won his return start against the Mets on July 2 by pitching six shutout innings but then lost his next two outings. He then ran off a stretch of four quality starts in his next five outings to run his record to 8-6 with a 3.31 ERA as of Aug. 11. But, from that point on, Colon would struggle so badly he would not only lose a spot in the playoff rotation; he also was left off the playoff roster altogether.
In his last eight starts, he did not win a single game. He also gave up 28 runs over the last 44 2/3 innings (a 5.84 ERA) and he did not look anything like the Colon who was probably the Yankees’ second-best starter behind CC Sabathia in mid-August. But after 110 innings, Colon’s stuff went south quicker than a Kim Kardashian marriage.
The prospects of the Yankees re-signing the veteran right-hander are very slim. In addition to his age, Colon will never be able to slim down enough to make the Yankees want to take a chance on him again. Colon’s only hope is to catch with another club and pitch out of the bullpen. His days as a starter look to be over.
On the other hand, Garcia did not really pitch exceptionally well in the spring. Of course, the 34-year-old right-hander had a habit of not pitching well in the spring. So Garcia was kept as the team’s No. 5 starter despite a less than stellar spring.
Much like Colon, Garcia started out hot by winning his first two starts by throwing 12 innings of shutout baseball in those two games.
While Colon was doing it with his mid-90s fastball, Garcia could have been clocked on his pitches with a sundial.
Yet, Garcia was effective in putting away hitters with a devastating slow split-finger fastball. It may not have looked as impressive as Sabathia or Mariano Rivera blowing ptches by hitters but it was nevertheless effective. Garcia was able to keep the Yankees in almost every game he pitched.
On Aug. 7, Garcia made his 20th start of the season at Fenway Park, giving up one run in five innings a no-decision victory. At the point, Garcia was 10-7 with a 3.09 ERA. Then a mishap with a knife at home cost him a trip to the disabled list with a deep cut to a finger on his pitching hand.
He came back on Aug 29 to beat the Orioles with his 15th quality start in his first 21 starts of the season. But September proved to a cruel month for the pitcher nicknamed “Chief.”
Of his four starts that month, only his final start – six innings of shutout baseball over the Red Sox at Yankees Stadium – was a good start. He was 1-1 with a 7.36 ERA in September but he did finish the season 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA and he earned the third spot in the Yankees’ postseason rotation against the Tigers.
Unfortunately, Garcia did not pitch well in that start. He gave up three runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings in a loss to Justin Verlander and the Tigers.
If the Yankees are to advance in the playoffs in 2012, it would seem they would have improve their pitching enough that they would not need a Colon or Garcia in their rotation. But if the Yankees fail to land a top-flight free agent or get a decent starter via a trade, you could very well see Garcia re-signed.
Garcia stands out as a very possible Plan C.
But there are many options the Yankees can look to within the organization. After all, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova both are products of the Yankees’ minor-league system and they are being counted upon as two member of the starting rotation next season.
Hughes followed up a 18-8 season in 2010 with an injury-plagued 2011 campaign where he was 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA.
Hughes, 25, arrived at spring training with a strange lack of velocity on his fastball. As the spring unfolded in was obvious that there was something wrong with Hughes. After three ill-fated starts and a 13.94 ERA, Hughes was placed on the disabled list with weakness in his right shoulder.
He returned in July and showed flashes of his old self. Through Aug. 25, he made seven starts and he gave up more than two earned runs in only one of them.
But in back-to-back starts against Oakland and Boston, Hughes surrendered 12 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings. However, few fans remeber that his last two starts against Baltimore and Seatlle were both quality starts before he was placed in the bullpen due to recurring back spasms.
if Hughes is able to regain the form that made him an 18-game winner in 2010, the Yankees will be very lucky. Hughes is still the poster boy for Cashman’s renewed emphasis to develop pitchers in the Yankees’ farm system rather than trading good young prospects away for pitchers well past their prime.
The Cashman strategy also worked in Nova’s case. But it was quite by accident.
Nova’s minor-league numbers showed ability but it hardly screamed out that he was an star pitcher. He had good stuff but he was hardly a Stephen Strasburg who will blow you away with velocity. Nope, Nova is more like Chien-Ming Wang, another Yankees pitching prospect Cashman helped develop into success in the majors.
Nova relied on the groundball outs to get by in the majors. Who would have guessed it would have took him so far in 2011?
Nova pitched so well in spring training he forced manager Joe Girardi to use him in rotation at the expense of Colon.
In his first three starts, Nova was 1-1 and he lost a game in relief the Blue Jays to go 1-2 with a 7.63 ERA. A more impatient team might have given up on Nova and shipped him back to the minors but with Hughes injured they still needed the 24-year-old right-hander.
After winning his next two starts, Nova was blasted on May 12 by the Kansas City Royals, of all teams, for 10 hits and eight runs (four earned) in three innings. He was 3-3 with a 4.70 ERA.
From that point on, Nova only lost one more game the entire season when he gave up two earned runs in six innings on June 3 to the Angels in Anaheim, CA. Nova was 13-1 with a 3.40 after that outing against the Royals. That also included a stint of one month when Nova was sent down in July when Hughes retuned to the rotation.
Yes, the Yankees actually sent a pitcher to the minor leagues who ended up with a 16-4 record and 3.70 ERA and who became the team’s second-best starter behind Sabathia by the time the playoffs rolled around.
Nova actually starred in the playoffs with his amazing start in Game 1 (which actually was a relief appearance) in which he limited the Tigers to just two runs on four hits in 6 1/3 innings. He also started Game 5, but was obviously pitching injured when he gave up two first-inning home runs after a regular season in which he given up just 13 in 165 1/3 innings.
Nova left, the Tigers scored only one more run and we all know the Yankees failed to get the big hit the rest of the way and lost. It would have been nice to have seen what would have happened if Nova were healthy that day. But the Yankees can take comfort that Nova will return and he looks like he will be a successful pitcher for many years to come.
He will never be an ace. But he is plenty good enough to win.
But, if the Yankees fail at Plan A (signing a free agent), Plan B (trading for a starter) and Plan C (signing a veteran retread like Garcia). What will they do? Is there a Plan D?
In other words, are there any pitchers the Yankees can count on to come up like Hughes or Nova to fill a void in the rotation in 2012. The answer is, thanks to Cashman and the scouting department, is yes.
We will discuss the options in the second part.
NEXT: MINOR-LEAGUE OPTIONS