Yankee fans and management had been growing uneasy recently, as the state of the starting rotation heading into the final weeks of the season has helped to create as many question as it has answered.
The prospect of heading into the post-season with a starting rotation led by CC Sabathia, followed by Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, and Javier Vazquez or Ivan Nova was enough to shake the confidence of even the most ardent supporter of the team.
Of course, CC is the indisputable ace of the staff, providing stability at the head of the rotation, and the obvious choice to start any Game One the Yankees have. Immediately thereafter however, the uncertainty begins.
Phil Hughes, the 24-year-old right-hander, whom the Yankees view as a potential future ace, has stumbled occasionally down the stretch as he nears the proposed innings limit the Yankees have in place to protect his arm. He has won 16 games, and was named an All-Star in July, but as he has ventured deeper into uncharted territory in regard to his innings total, fatigue has appeared to take its toll upon him.
That's not to say he has pitched poorly because that's not the case. But his results over the last three months have been uneven, and in three of his last five starts, he's given up four earned runs or more. Of course, in his last start against the Rays in Tampa, he pitched masterfully but was undone by two swings of Dan Johnson's bat, ending up on the wrong end of a 4-3 result.
As he has now doubled his innings total from last season, it is difficult to know what to expect of the young hurler going forward into October. Add to that the fact that he has not yet started a playoff game in his young career, and one can understand the reluctance to lean on him too heavily.
A.J. Burnett on the other hand boasts 12 seasons of major league experience, as well as five starts for the Yankees in their run to the World Series title during the 2009 post-season.
Despite his resume, the 33-year-old Burnett represents possibly the biggest question mark on the Yankee staff. To say he has been inconsistent in 2010 would be an understatement. The variance between his good days and his bad days could possibly be the greatest chasm in baseball today. Blessed with such phenomenal stuff, he's just as likely to hurl a thoroughly dominant gem as he is to completely lose control and toss what resembles batting practice to the opposing team.
In Burnett's 30 starts in 2010, he's gone at least six innings and allowed two earned runs or less 10 times. Conversely, he has given up at least five earned runs in nine other starts. The utter inconsistency becomes more frustrating when you know what he's capable of. His four September starts have been an improvement from his embarrassingly awful August, where he went 0-4 with a 7.80 ERA. A continual trend of improved performances must be demonstrated if Joe Girardi is to show faith in Burnett and reward him with post-season starting pitching assignments.
Javier Vazquez has been similarly inconsistent, but he has at least developed enough of a pattern to gain some level of expectation regarding his performance. After dealing with "dead arm" issues, and apparently working through them to see his velocity increase once again, Vazquez has returned to the bullpen for the time being. This could only be temporary however, so he remains a consideration for the October rotation.
His candidacy is harmed by his poor playoff experience, especially that of his showing against Boston in 2004, too recent to have been expunged from the collective memory of Yankees fans.
The other issue is that against stronger offensive clubs in the AL, Javy has almost invariably struggled. His efforts against Tampa, Texas, and Minnesota (his likely playoff adversaries) are among his very worst of 2010. Against those three potential foes, in five starts over 27 innings he has allowed 52 base-runners and 27 earned runs. Those are numbers that don't exactly instill the kind of confidence necessary to send him to the mound in the ALCS. He would likely serve out of the bullpen in the first series, as a fourth starter may not be necessary in a best-of five set.
23 year-old Ivan Nova, he of five career major league starts, will be around for an emergency, but is unlikely to see a spot in the playoff rotation with all those veteran arms around. If it became necessary for the Yankees to use him, his demeanor and poise could serve to calm the panic over starting such an inexperienced pitcher on such a dramatic stage. However unlikely the scenario may be, Nova doesn't seem the type of young player to wilt under pressure.
These various uncertainties combine to make the return of Andy Pettitte all the more critical for the Yankees. After a few hiccups on his path back to the big league rotation, Pettitte finally found himself back on a mound at Camden Yards yesterday. Out of action since injuring his groin against Tampa on July 18, the veteran left-hander's presence had been sorely missed. At the time of his injury, Pettitte had been 11-2 with a 2.88 ERA and was in the midst of one of the finer seasons of his career.
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