The first 63 games of the 2013 season have been a magic carpet ride for the New York Yankees. Despite only outscoring their opponents by a total of 16 runs, the team is 11 games over .500, just one game back of Boston in the loss column and riding a wave of clutch hitting to a 6-0 record against former Cy Young Award winners.
Of course, there aren't any guarantees this success will continue over the next 99 contests, leading to another trip to October baseball. In fact, ESPN's current playoff odds give them just a 50 percent of reaching the postseason, good for third in the AL East and behind other contenders like Tampa and Oakland.
If New York is going to stay in the race all summer, it will be on the back of a consistently excellent staff.
Over the weekend, a potentially major addition to that staff took the mound in Tampa for the High-A Yankees.
As Michael Pineda's rehab clock began with 4.2 IP of one-run (unearned) baseball, the strength of the Yankees could be just 30 days from becoming even stronger.
Even with the impending summer returns of Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, not to mention the recent return of Mark Teixeira, the Yankees don't profile as a very good offensive team this season.
Their summer and fall will hinge on the back of a rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes. While David Phelps has thrived recently, the role of a fifth starter in the Bronx isn't set in stone, leaving the door open for Pineda to reemerge after shoulder surgery cost him all of 2012.
Heading into play on Monday evening, New York's rotation—including starts, due to injury or rotation promotions and demotions, by Vidal Nuno and Ivan Nova—has combined to amass a 3.75 ERA over 374.1 innings.
That figure is good for 12th in all of baseball and fifth in the higher run-scoring environment of the American League.
Despite the success thus far, duplicating it over the next four months will be easier said than done for Joe Girardi's rotation.
While CC Sabathia has recovered from his May funk to strike out 19 over his last 16.1 innings, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte remain quality, yet older, arms.
Before Pettitte's Saturday evening gem in Seattle, doubling as his 250th career victory, he had amassed a 6.31 ERA—including a stint on the disabled list—from the end of April through early June.
Hiroki Kuroda, while performing for most of the first two months of 2013 like a legitimate Cy Young candidate, has regressed recently, pitching to a 5.23 ERA over his last four starts.
Then there's Phil Hughes. While the 27-year-old right-hander, in his walk-year, can be dominant at times, there's always the specter of a bullpen-breaking outing around the corner. In fact, Hughes has given up two or fewer runs in seven of his last 10 starts. His runs allowed in the other three: five, six and seven.
In other words, don't be fooled by the success of the Yankee rotation early in 2013.
They are very good, but they likely will need a boost to continue the success needed to buoy what looks to be an injury-prone, average offense, despite their early knack for the clutch hit.
If Michael Pineda can find his way to the Bronx around the All-Star break looking like he did in 2011, the Yankees have a front-end-of-the-rotation starter as their fifth man.
With the looming sense of Kuroda's and Pettitte's ages, Sabathia's velocity issues and Hughes' inconsistency, the 2013 Yankees could hinge on how much Pineda provides in the second half of the season.
If he's dominant, expect the starters' ERA to linger around the top of the American League. If he's not, it puts added pressure on the four mainstays in the rotation now, as well as on players like Chris Stewart and Jayson Nix to continue to come up with game-changing hits despite their pedestrian overall numbers.
It's easy to think of Pineda as a luxury for a 37-26 team, but he actually represents something closer to a necessity moving forward.
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