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Starting Pitching, Randy Johnson to Aaron Small. Evaluating starting pitchers from Randy Johnson to Aaron Small is probably the most difficult area of the team to analyze and which to feel confident in making predictions. The top end of the rotation could be quite strong in quality, and the starters could be as deep as any set of starters in the Joe Torre era.
But, if the Yankees do not make the playoffs this year, or if they make the playoffs, but do not advance far in the playoffs, the most likely culprit will be the starting pitchers.
Worst-case scenario: Aging Randy Johnson and aging Mike Mussina continue to decline, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright can’t shake injuries and/or ineffectiveness, and Shawn Chacon, Chien-Ming Wang, and Aaron Small prove to be one-year wonders. This scenario isn’t likely to occur, but the chance of it happening (to some degree) is nevertheless more than just a slight possibility.
Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina Lead the Starters
The Big Two, Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, have to produce on the mound like true Number One and Number Two starters, respectively — not like last year when they pitched like Number Two and Number Three starters.
Johnson started the 2005 season having lost something off his fastball, which he eventually regained (or nearly regained), but his slider is the pitch that really deserted him for much of the year and prevented him from getting into a groove until late in the season. He needs that pitch to bore in on right-handed batters — not flatten out — now, more than ever.
Mussina has seemed to lose a little bit off his fastball each year for the past few seasons and currently does not throw nearly as hard as he could throw occasionally when he pitched in Baltimore. That means he needs to have complete command of his assortment of breaking pitches, be precise in hitting his spots, and outsmart the hitters. There is not much room for error now. He also may need to take more speed off more pitches in order to make his average fastball look quicker to the hitters.
The Big Question Mark is Carl Pavano
Pavano should be the Number Three starter. He certainly is being paid well enough for Yankees fans to expect more than what he showed last year. The feeling here is that last year he was riddled with injuries (some worse than others), starting in spring training, and he never had a good chance to show what he could really do. The media have been mercilessly unkind in questioning his intestinal fortitude and whether he has the psychological make-up to handle the big stage at Yankee Stadium.
But don’t be too quick to show this guy the door. Remember how the New York press was universal in their condemnation of Jose Contreras? I seem to recall that he was instrumental in helping the White Sox win it all last year.
Yet, make no mistake about this: Getting good production (14 to 16 wins) from Pavano is essential to the Yankees having a strong starting rotation.
Shawn Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang Complete the Rotation
I think Chacon has earned the right to start the season as the Number Four starter. To me, he was often the Yanks’ best pitcher after he joined the club last summer. The Yankees are also getting him at the right time, as he is hitting his prime, unlike so many pick-ups whose better days were in other uniforms.
Wang was very impressive, too, but the Yankees need to be careful with him because of his history of injuries. Putting him into the Number Five slot and not letting him accumulate too many innings over the 2006 season would seem to be wise.
He is young and has the kind of upside (he could eventually be a top-of-the-rotation ace) that the Yankees should protect. Skipping his turn occasionally wouldn’t be a bad idea either. In other words, get some mileage out of his talent this year, but don’t lose sight of the long-term possibilities.
Jaret Wright, Aaron Small, and Al Leiter Provide Depth
I like the way Wright handled numerous adversities last season and am rooting for him to find a good niche with the Yankees, although I’m still not sure why the Yankees made such a large financial commitment to him, based on his limited career production and history of injuries.
I’m also not sure Wright’s proper job isn’t in the bullpen setting up Mariano Rivera, but right now he should be the 6th starter and long man in the bullpen. Based on last year’s high-injury count in the rotation, though, if Wright can remain healthy, he should get his share of chances to start.
Small was a revelation in going 10-0 in 2005 after never previously having done anything so impressive in his career. He wasn’t as lucky as some have suggested either. There were days when he put on a clinic on how to pitch to major-league hitters without overpowering stuff. He should be a long/middle man in the bullpen this year, but I don’t belief Joe Torre would be afraid to start him if the situation presented itself.
Leiter is in spring camp trying to make the team. If he makes the team, he would probably be the left-handed choice in long/middle relief, but he would also give the Yankees a potential 8th starter and one whom the team could expect to do a decent job if called upon to start. Last year the Yankees did not have such good choices this deep in the staff, and it cost them a number of give-away games.
Other Starters to Watch
The Yankees recently signed Scott Erickson to a minor-league contract, but the chances he has anything left are slim.
Two minor-league starters known to Yankees fans are right-hander Jorge DePaula, age 27, and left-hander Sean Henn, 24. DePaula, who flashed some promise in New York a few years ago and is making his way back from Tommy John elbow surgery, was 4-2 with a 4.58 ERA at Columbus last season.
Henn, who was 5-5 with a 3.23 ERA at Columbus in 2005, is unfortunately better remembered for his 11.12 ERA in 3 poor starts for the Yankees last year. Although he was obviously not ready for the majors last year, he should not be dismissed too quickly because he is left-handed and throws hard.
The development of three top pitching prospects bears watching. First, right-hander Matt DeSalvo, 25, who is on the spring 40-man roster, mixes a variety of off-speed pitches effectively. He was 9-5 with a fine 3.02 ERA at Double-A Trenton in 2005.
Two other pitchers who are close to being ready are right-handers Tyler Clippard, 21, and Steven White, 24. Clippard is known as a consistent, but not overpowering, pitcher who has great control and was 10-9 with a 3.18 ERA in High-A Tampa last year. White struggled with an abdominal strain and had a poor year but is said to have potential.
Finally, the cream of the crop in the farm system is the highly-touted 19-year-old Philip Hughes, who was the Yanks’ 1st-round draft pick in 2004. Hughes features a fastball in the mid-90′s. However, he has been battling injuries since signing with the Yankees and was shut down for the season last August 1st with shoulder soreness. He had spent most of the 2005 season at Low-A Charleston, where he was 7-1 with a 1.97 ERA. Even more impressively, opposing batters hit only .192 against him and took Hughes deep for only one home run in his 68 2/3 innings pitched at Charleston. If Hughes can stay healthy, he should eventually make a big impact with the Yankees.