The immediate response of most fans would be, "CC Sabathia." They would be right.
The Yankees have two young pitchers in Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda with great potential. Each has major league experience and each has demonstrated that he can win.
In addition, Phil Hughes won't be 26 years old until June. When he is healthy, he is a force on the mound.
Nova just turned 25. Last season, he won 16 games with a 119 ERA-plus. His 1.331 WHIP was not merely good, it is a palindrome .
With the offensively challenged Seattle Mariners, 22-year-old Pineda had a great first half of the season. He faltered in the second half but still finished with nine wins (King Felix Hernandez won 14), a 1.03 ERA-plus in a pitcher's park and a 1.099 WHIP.
With the exception of wins, and the difference between the Mariners and Yankees' offenses explains that, Pineda and Nova had similar statistics.
Now, here comes the fun.
In his first full season, which was 2001 with the Cleveland Indians, 20-year-old CC Sabathia won 17 games with a 102 ERA-plus and a 1.353 WHIP.
The main difference among Nova, Pineda and Sabathia is their age during their first full season.
In his second season, Sabathia won only 13 games with a 100 ERA-plus and a 1.362 WHIP. He tailed off slightly from his rookie season, but he was still only 21.
When Sabathia was Pineda's age, which is 23 going into this season, he had three seasons under his belt. That difference is significant.
Sabathia was 11-10 with a 106 ERA-plus and a 1.319 WHIP. Pineda should at least match that.
When Sabathia was 25 years old, he finished at 12-11 but with a 139 ERA-plus and a 1.173 WHIP. Nova should win more games this season, but we should be more than pleased if he matches Sabathia's other numbers.
So, which starter will be the ace?
In 2011, Sabathia won 19 games. He had a 147 ERA-plus and a 1.226 WHIP.
Nova and Pineda should do better at their respective ages than Sabathia did at those ages. They will be fine sophomore starters that should help the Yankees get to the World Series and be the favorites to win it.
Sabathia was slightly less effective in his sophomore season. He has become one of baseball's best pitchers. Will Nova and Pineda have similar fates? Will they tail off slightly in their sophomore seasons and eventually become part of the elite?
In 2012, it is unlikely that anyone other than Sabathia will be the ace. He has been the go-to guy. He remains the go-to guy.
Wait a second. Did I hear someone say, "Phil Hughes"?