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How the Yankees Can Build Championship Rotation Without Masahiro Tanaka

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How the Yankees Can Build Championship Rotation Without Masahiro Tanaka
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In the offseason thus far, the New York Yankees have certainly proven their intention to contend for a championship in the 2014 MLB season—at least on the offensive side of the ball. Big-money acquisitions like Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran imply a win-now mentality that strips any rebuilding talk of its validity and rationality.

But pitching is another story, and they can't show up on Opening Day in Houston without confidence in a starting rotation. Even with top-to-bottom offensive production, they still won't be championship contenders—or postseason participants—without five productive arms, two of which still need to be resolved behind CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova.

Since October, per Mark Feinsand of the Daily News, Masahiro Tanaka has been their first choice—a No. 2-type arm they ultimately expect to not only fill the gaps left by Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes, but also to catapult them right back into the contender discussion alongside the other three known starters. 

But signing the right-handed ace—let alone entering the bidding process for him—has been an increasingly elusive and illusory process for the Bombers, and now they must consider the alternatives to building a championship-caliber rotation without him.

Adam Pretty/Getty Images

On Thursday morning, according to Ken Belson of The New York Times, Japanese newspapers were reporting that the Rakuten Golden Eagles would not allow MLB teams to bid for him after all. The Eagles would abandon their promised $20 million posting fee in favor of signing their star to a lucrative deal that could make him the highest-paid Japanese pitcher ever. 

As CBS Sports' Mike Axisa keenly points out, the NPB ballclub has yet to make an official announcement—and Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal even reported that one MLB general manager isn't buying what could be the Eagles' bluff.

But, if these rumors prove true, the Yankees are left with two holes. Without Tanaka, relying on two internal options presents uncertainty right off the bat, and banking on their development contradicts the win-now attitude of the other signings. And, on the other hand, signing two short-term veterans presents health- and performance-related risk.

In the end, however, the outlook may not be as daunting as it seems.

In fact, the route to a championship rotation is still theirs for the taking—especially if they make the following move this offseason for the remaining two spots: stick by one young, in-house pitcher and sign a low-cost, high-reward veteran.

First, here's a profile of the best options from each of the available talent pools for keeping their championship rotation aspirations afloat in 2014.

 

In-House Options

David Phelps

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The 6'2", 200-pound righty was solid in 22 appearances in 2013, posting a 4.98 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 8.20 strikeouts per nine innings and 0.83 home runs per nine. The 27-year-old picked up a good deal of experience in middle-to-long relief in 2012 (33 appearances, 99.2 innings, 11 starts).

He also put up decent numbers in his 12 starts at the back end of the rotation last season, with a 4.98 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 7.26 strikeouts per nine and six home runs; right-handed hitters batted .276 and lefties hit .253.

Phelps is not a bad option as a No. 4 or 5, and it pays to have his big league experience—whether that's for beating out Pineda or pitching alongside him and a future signing. Either way, the Yanks should have him in the bullpen and ready for extended outings—whether that's in a starting role or a fill-in role.

 

Michael Pineda

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The big right-handed Pineda (6'7", 260 lbs) may ultimately represent the best internal option for a No. 4 or 5 because of his age and upside. In his only full season in the bigs in 2011, he made 28 starts and went 171 innings for Seattle. He compiled a 3.74 ERA and 3.42 FIP. He excelled at missing bats (9.11 K/9) and he had a 3.2 WAR. 

There is some uncertainty—or better yet, doubt—surrounding the soon-to-be 25-year-old since he has yet to throw a pitch for the Yankees after coming over in the trade that sent Jesus Montero to Seattle. The young Dominican missed the entirety of 2012 because of shoulder surgery for a torn labrum. After beginning 2013 on the disabled list, he pitched 10 games between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, and there remains two big "if's": his health and his identity.

Does he show up to spring training healthy, and should we worry about his velocity or command coming off the surgery? And since he has yet to pitch a season for the Yanks—or in general since 2011—Brian Cashman recently wondered aloud“The legitimate question is, ‘What is he?'" according to George A. King III of the New York Post.

Yes, he may prove to be an unhealthy bust, but if he is healthy, you can't ignore his ability and how optimistically the Yanks once invested in him. He is, after all, a former All-Star, and his only internal competition entering spring training are Phelps and Adam Warren. Many have projected that 2014 has to be Nova's year, but it could be just as important should it turn into Pineda's year too.

 

Adam Warren

USA TODAY Sports

Bottom line, you don't like Warren to beat out the two names above him, but he was strong in 34 appearances in 2013. Over 77 innings, he compiled a 3.39 ERA, 4.32 FIP (though, 3.98 xFIP) and 64 strikeouts (7.48 K/9). He only started two games, but one of them was in Houston at the end of the season where he picked up the win and went five scoreless innings.

 

Free Agents

The Record writer Bob Klapisch recently reported that the Yankees were not interested in signing top free agents Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jiminez and would instead turn to internal options. That was prior to the recent news that Tanaka may not be wearing pinstripes in 2014, however.

Let's consider those exact arms as the best available options from the free-agent market should the Yankees decide to choose one to fill a spot in the rotation.

 

Ubaldo Jimenez

David Maxwell/Getty Images

You might be partial towards skipping right over Jimenez and Garza because of their most recent track records, or inconsistency, or simply as a result of the Yankees' apparent disinterest. But the picture for either one is not terrible if you set the priority as a serviceable arm for the back end rather than a No. 1 or No. 2.

Jimenez famously shone (peaked?) in Colorado in 2010 (6.5 WAR, 2.88 ERA, 8.69 K/9) and was very good in 2008 and 2009 as well (respective 3.9 and 5.6 WAR and 3.99 and 3.47 ERA). He was pretty bad in 2011 and 2012, and then was solid again in 2013 with Cleveland—especially down the stretch. He finished last year with 3.2 WAR, 3.30 ERA and, best of all, missed a ton of bats (9.56 K/9).

He unfortunately also missed a lot of the strike zone last year (3.96 BB/9) and over the course of his career (4.04 BB/9). And you may not be expecting the term "upside" for a previously proven pitcher, but Jimenez will be just 30 years old in 2014 and probably has a lot of life left in him (and may not be too expensive).

Steamer projects a 2.9 WAR and 3.90 ERA in 192 innings for 2014. Would you really pass on a 30-year-old former All-Star at the back end of your rotation as at least some insurance with the potential for 200 innings, sub-4.00 ERA and maybe 3.0 WAR?

 

Matt Garza

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The 30-year-old right-handed Garza may be generally considered the top free-agent pitcher on the market. But in the similar vein that Jimenez' outlook is enhanced by what he did in the past, Garza's best numbers came for the Cubs in the NL Central, not while he was with the Rays in the stronger AL East. 

Giving him the benefit of the doubt (or at least acknowledgement for his career-high stats), Garza finished with a 4.9 WAR, 3.32 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 8.95 strikeouts per nine and 2.86 walks per nine in 2011 with Chicago. But the following season, he only pitched 103.2 innings, his FIP ballooned to 4.17 and his WAR sunk to 1.1.

Garza was solid in 11 starts for Chicago in 2013 (3.17 ERA, 7.9 K/9), but then he was just average in 13 starts for Texas when he returned to the American League, compiling a 4.38 ERA.  

Save for 2011, his numbers have consistently declined since his three-year stint in the AL East (with a no-no to show for it in 2010). His Steamer Projections are 3.1 WAR, 3.73 ERA and 8.01 strikeouts per nine. The question is are the Yankees buying it, and are you buying it? Better yet, would you feel safe giving Garza a three- or four-year deal?

 

Non-Roster Invitees

Low-cost, high-reward options have blessed the Yankees in the past when non-roster invitees have provided big years in exchange for minor league contracts.

In 2011, 38-year-old (!) Bartolo Colon pitched 164.1 innings and posted a .400 ERA and 2.8 WAR (!), and 34-year-old Freddy Garcia pitched 146.2 innings, with a 3.62 ERA and 2.2 WAR. 

You might be craving/contemplating Bronson Arroyo as a name who might find himself without a team, but the workhorse is entering his age-37 season and you'd expect him to command at least a three-year deal until he's 40.

You also shouldn't feel safe about bringing the righty's high-80s fastball into Yankee Stadium when you consider he led the entire National League in home runs allowed (32), has a career 1.2 homer per nine and had a 2013 of 1.4 homers per nine.

Here are the best pieces to the puzzle from that lower-level-starter perspective, with emphasis on two southpaws.

 

Paul Maholm

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Maholm is perhaps the best option for a minor league deal and an invite to spring training. For one, the Yankees are seriously lacking in lefties at the big league level and could use one in the No. 4 or 5 spot. After Sabathia—and even with Tanaka—the rotation appears to inevitably go righty, righty, righty, righty.

The longtime Pirate, and most recently Brave, will turn 32 in June 2014. Over nine seasons, eight of which were full-length, he has a 4.28 ERA and has fluctuated between league-average and slightly above-average FIP and between solid and role-player-level WAR. 

He absolutely does not overpower hitters (career 5.8 K/9, 6.18 in 2013), though he has shown above-average control (career 2.9 BB/9, 2.76 in 2013) and only surrendered 17 homers in 2013. His best seasons came over a two-year segment in Pittsburgh between 2008 and 2009, in which he had 2.4 and 2.9 WAR and 3.71 and 4.44 ERA.

Simply put, Maholm isn't a star, but he's a consistent journeyman who can be trusted in the back end.

 

Johan Santana

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Santana is a flashier left-handed idea than Maholm, but high-risk is a robust understatement. Johan missed both 2011 and 2013 because of injury (that's two out of the last three seasons) and if the Yanks want to gamble on that twice-torn shoulder capsule, well, they can likely do it for cheap.

He has a career 3.20 ERA, well above-average 8.8 strikeouts per nine (1,988 career strikeouts), solid 2.5 walks per nine and .641 win percentage, and he threw the first no-hitter in Mets history in 2012. With Minnesota, Santana was a 20-game winner in 2004 (7.5 WAR)and a 19-game winner in 2006 (7.2 WAR), and more recently he was a 16-game winner with the Mets in 2008 (4.8 WAR). 

But even a four-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young Award winner doesn't deserve more than a one-year minor league deal with so much in question. At 35 years of age for the 2014 season, would you risk more than a non-roster invite on him without knowing whether his career will even continue?

 

The Bigger Picture: Yankees Need a Solid No. 4

No matter which way you slice it, the Yankees primarily need to establish their fourth starter. They can survive the regular season by patching together their No. 5 role if they have to—much like they did in 2009 behind Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain.  

Here is what the Yankees got out of their Nos. 1-4 in the 2009 regular season, after which they went on to win their 27th title:

Pitcher GS IP W-L ERA WAR
CC Sabathia 34 230 19-8 3.37 6.1
A.J. Burnett 33 207 13-9 4.04 3.1
Andy Pettitte 32 194.2 14-8 4.16 3.6
Joba Chamberlain 31 157.1 9-6 4.75 1.7
Total 130 788.3 55-31 4.08 14.5

Once they make the postseason, moreover, nothing is more important than the first three of the rotation. We can lament not having Tanaka as one of the first three arms, and we can worry about the two gaping holes currently remaining at the back end.

But we can also consider that the Yankees truly need just one quality arm to contend and produce, and they can get creative for the final role as the season progresses.

For another comparison, here is the output from the four most productive pitchers for the 2013 champion Red Sox, who also used multiple arms as the No. 5:

Pitcher GS IP W-L ERA WAR
Jon Lester 33 213.1 15-8 3.75 4.3
John Lackey 29 189.1 10-13 3.52 3.2
Ryan Dempster 29 171.1 8-9 4.57 1.3
Felix Doubront 27 162.1 11-6 4.32 2.8
Total 118 735.4 44-36 4.04 11.6

 

The Blueprints: Projected Rotations

Finally, using Steamer Projections, let's look at a three realistic 2014 Yankees rotations related to the best options and see how they might theoretically stack up.

If they fill entirely from within with the two best in-house options:

Pitcher GS IP W-L ERA WAR
CC Sabathia 30 192 12-11 3.84 3.6
Hiroki Kuroda 31 192 12-11 3.92 3.4
Ivan Nova 32 189 12-12 3.99 3.1
Michael Pineda 7 38 3-2 4.32 0.6
David Phelps 32 182 11-12 4.35 2.1
Total 132 793 50-48 4.08 12.8

If they fill one spot with a top free-agent target and the other with the best in-house option:

Pitcher GS IP W-L ERA WAR
CC Sabathia 30 192 12-11 3.84 3.6
Hiroki Kuroda 31 192 12-11 3.92 3.4
Ivan Nova 32 189 12-12 3.99 3.1
Ubaldo Jimenez 31 192 12-11 3.90 2.9
David Phelps 32 182 11-12 4.35 2.1
Total 156 957 59-57 4.00 15.1

If they fill with a top free agent and one of the best-fitting non-roster invitees:

Pitcher GS IP W-L ERA WAR
CC Sabathia 30 192 12-11 3.84 3.6
Hiroki Kuroda 31 192 12-11 3.92 3.4
Ivan Nova 32 189 12-12 3.99 3.1
Ubaldo Jimenez 31 192 12-11 3.90 2.9
Paul Maholm 17 96 6-6 4.13 1.2
Total 141 861 54-51 3.96 14.2

 

Final Verdict: 1 In-House and 1 Non-Roster Invitee

What's the best combo without Tanaka?

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Piecing together those above projected rotations obviously does not imply definitive predictions, but it illustrates the sense that success is certainly within reach in a number of fashions.

Based upon the profiles of the best-fitting options at the back end and in looking at some preliminary rotations, the most vigilant decision seems to be one young, current Yankee and one older player to be signed. And if you want to simply view this as the route to establish security at the fourth starter, then think of this as a way to hedge their bets with some competition and insurance.

A foreseeable back end could have the Yankees fill the No. 4 hole with a solid, improving David Phelps and complement him with a buy-low, high-reward type such as Paul Maholm. Such a plan isn't flashy, nor is it particularly exciting; but it's also inexpensive, and it could bring tremendous upside to the Bronx in 2014.

Sure, the Yankees still have holes and unanswered questions in their rotation for the upcoming season. But they are a long way away from rebuild mode, and they do have several viable and financially prudent options out there. 

And these choices may not only make them a contender in the brutal AL East, but if the Yankees play their cards right the next few months and see a healthy arsenal of starters, they also could open the season with a realistic championship outlook.

Remember, CC Sabathia could prove 2013 was his down year, Hiroki Kuroda could make us forget his age and shaky end to last season and Ivan Nova could have a breakout season. Then it's just a matter of finding that reliable, extra one-two punch

And, by the way, we're pretty sure Andy Pettitte won't come back for another ride. 

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and advanced metrics, including Steamer Projections, provided by Fangraphs, unless otherwise noted.

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