Yankee Baseball 2009 Preview, Part I: Pitching
The Yankees took the final step today towards completing their pitching staff for 2009, signing Andy Pettitte to a one-year contract that, with incentives, could be worth as much as $12 million.
With as much ink as the New York area press will spill talking about the two big free-agent acquisitions in the Yankees' rotation, anyone sober enough to remember the pre-A-Rod era of Yankee baseball will be resting a little bit easier knowing that the veteran left-hander who's been a quiet face of the franchise's last thirteen years of success (and whose absence from 2004-2006 was notable in its failures) is back in pinstripes for another year.
With four of the five rotation spots now locked (I still hold out hope that Girardi will see the light, stand up to the brass and put Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen as setup man and heir apparent to the great Rivera), and pitchers reporting to Florida in a mere three weeks, it's time to look at the team the Yankees will be putting on the field in 2009, starting with the most important piece of all: the pitchers.
1. C. C. Sabathia
Not much you can say about this guy that hasn't already been said. 2007 Cy Young, 11-2, 1.80 ERA down the stretch for Milwaukee, all the complete games, etc. It's not the impressive stats I like the most about this guy—it's the heart. The type of ace that will volunteer to pitch on short rest on multiple occasions in September is the rarest kind. It says team-first.
It says he wants to be playing in October and, of course, the talent is there. Look for him to dominate—even the extra pressure of pitching in the brightest of bright lights won't be able to mitigate the enormous benefit of having the ridiculous supporting cast the Yankees have assembled around him.
2. A. J. Burnett
Burnett hit his stride last season—his first complete season in, well, awhile—pitching as the No. 2 man behind Roy Halladay, arguably the best pitcher in the American League this decade. He's a strikeout pitcher with an enormous fastball and a curveball to match it. I've watched the Yankees flail hopelessly against his best stuff for the last three years, and if nothing else they've added a win or two per season just by no longer having to face him.
Big red flags are his health (only two 30-start seasons over the last five), and the fact that he has thrown a grand total of zero pitches in the postseason. Sounds like the type of guy you'd need a little insurance for...
3. Andy Pettitte
215 career wins. Two 20-win seasons. Thirteen career victories and an ERA below 4.00 in the postseason. Only one campaign with less than 20 starts. The big man is a horse who knows how to win must-win games. And his accepting a contract as incentive-laden as the one he signed today ($5.5 million base, $6.5 in incentives) is the sign of a man with something to prove after a woefully disappointing second half of last season. Count on him to come up huge. Just a feeling I have.
4. Chien-Ming Wang
The erstwhile ace of the staff is coming off two major disappointments - the odious, embarrassing dump he took in the 2007 ALDS against Cleveland and an injury-shortened season last year after he tore a ligament running the bases, causing Hank Steinbrenner to politely ask the National League to "join the modern era."
This guy has a great arm (see, 6-0 start to 2008) but he pitches to contact, so he needs to prove that he has some other club in his bag besides his sinker—if he continues to have problems throwing a breaking ball or change-up for strikes, he's dead meat on any given day (see, 0-4 finish to 2008 before injury).
5. Phil Hughes / Joba Chamberlain
These two young guys are both going to be awesome. Make no mistake about it. Hughes' 2008 stinkbomb was the product of him trying to pitch through a broken rib. Most people try not to even breathe through an injury like that.
And Joba—well, he's Joba. He's already awesome. The one thing that defaults the fifth spot in the rotation to Chamberlain will be another injury to Hughes that continues to delay his development. Otherwise, I say let the big fella go into the bullpen, hit triple digits on the radar gun for the next 10 years, and give us an automatic answer the day Mariano Rivera decides to hang it up.
The aforementioned Rivera is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the greatest closer in the history of the game, and seems to lose none of his abilities as he ages. He's a one-pitch pitcher—fastball, either cut or two-seam—and has never thrown an off-speed pitch in a meaningful ninth inning, and people still can't touch him. One thing to be worried about is how quickly he rebounds from the minor shoulder surgery he underwent in October.
In front of him, the Yankees have an assortment of good young arms to choose from; Mark Melancon and Humberto Sanchez will join Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, Brian Bruney, Jose Veras, and others to compete for the five spots leading to Rivera and, if Hughes stays healthy and has a good spring, Chamberlain.
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