2012 New York Yankees: Battle for the Fifth Starter Slot

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2012 New York Yankees: Battle for the Fifth Starter Slot
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The Yankees’ rotation was the biggest weakness on the team last season. Phil Hughes fell victim to a dead arm and A.J. Burnett floundered through another sporadic season. Players like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia came back from the dead to perform well far beyond their prime.

The same success could not be counted on going into another year.

The Yankees were able to fix that hole in the offseason. With the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to tighten the rotation, one of the Yankees’ biggest weaknesses has turned into a strength. 

The first four pitchers in the rotation are locked in: the newcomers, Pineda and Kuroda; ace CC Sabathia; and Ivan Nova, fresh off a breakout season. That leaves the fifth spot up for grabs. 

The two most likely candidates for the job are Freddy Garcia, coming off a 12-8 season last year, and Phil Hughes, who is aiming to regain his All-Star stuff from two years ago. 

If Garcia starts the season in the rotation, Hughes will be relegated to middle-relief duty. With the already stacked bullpen—featuring Mariano Rivera as the closer, David Robertson in the eighth inning, and Rafael Soriano in the seventh—Hughes would be slotted in the sixth inning or mop-up role. 

That way, if Garcia’s performance tails off, Hughes’ arm will not be stretched out enough to take over immediately in the rotation. The same applies if another starter other than Garcia gets hurt for an extended period of time.

Hughes gives the Yankees more of an upside than Garcia in the rotation. Hughes, at 25, is far younger, with a livelier arm. With Garcia, at 35, you’re getting a pitcher whose fastball has diminished. He needs to deceive batters in order to get them out, rather than blowing them away like Hughes can. 

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It makes sense to give Hughes the spot in the rotation to start the season because he will have a more difficult time transitioning back to a starter later in the season.

Garcia has always been a starter and will always be a starter—even if he goes to the bullpen he will still be able to make an occasional spot start and fill in if a starter gets knocked out of a game early.  On the other hand, if Hughes moves to the pen this season, that is likely the end of his starting career. 

The rotation looks to be set for this year and beyond. Sabathia, Nova and Pineda likely won’t be going anywhere any time soon, and if Kuroda and Garcia leave after this season, their spots will quickly be snatched up by plenty of young talent lying in wait in the minors. 

While his numbers as a reliever are better, Hughes is ultimately more valuable as a starter. This value comes from the fact that starters pitch more innings throughout the year, and it is easier to find a good reliever (and a cheaper reliever) than it is a competent starter. 

So why not give Hughes the chance to prove himself as a starter once and for all?

This is the time to give Hughes his final shot. 

The team should be healthy to start the season. With a lineup at full strength, Hughes can overcome some small bumps in the road. 

With Garcia, the rotation is still very good, but it lacks the killer edge at the end that would take it over the top. With a 2010 version of Hughes inserted as a starter, the Yankees will have a rotation to rival any in the American League, and tops in their division. 

This is a much better scenario for the Yankees. 

Hughes can justify the Yankees’ choice of taking him in the first round of the MLB draft in 2004 by proving himself as a legitimate starter. His strong showing so far this spring should be a springboard to greater things to come and solidifying his slot as the final starter in the Yankees’ rotation this season.

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