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Andy Makes Five

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On January 27, 2009 @ 10:55 am In Cliff Corcoran | Comments Disabled

It sure took them long enough, but the Yankees finally came to terms with Andy Pettitte yesterday, re-signing the veteran lefty to a one-year deal with a base salary of $5.5 million and incentives that could make the deal worth as much as $12 million. With that, the Yankees have the final piece of their 2009 rotation in place. Here’s a quick look at the Yankees’ projected starting five along with my thoroughly un-scientific innings and ERA projections for each pitcher:

Pitcher Proj. IP Proj. ERA
CC Sabathia (L) 230 3.20
Chien-Ming Wang 200 4.00
A.J. Burnett 170 4.40
Andy Pettitte (L) 215 4.20
Joba Chamberlain 160 2.90

Quibble with those projections however you want, but consider what they add up to: 975 innings of a 3.73 ERA. Last year the collected Yankee starters–that is every pitcher who started for the team all year, not just the top five–combined for just 898 1/3 innings and a 4.58 ERA. Meanwhile, team that got the best performance out of it’s starting pitchers in 2008 was the Toronto Blue Jays, whose starters combined for 1,012 2/3 innings of a 3.72 ERA. Given that, the Yankees could have the best rotation in baseball even with that underwhelming performance from A.J. Burnett, average performances from Pettitte and Wang, and the limit placed on Chamberlain’s innings total. The catch is that their two top rivals for baseball’s best rotation are the Rays (with David Price taking over for Edwin Jackson) and Red Sox.

Note that I expect Chamberlain, not Pettitte, to be the Yankees’ fifth starter because of the limit the Yankees will need to place on his innings. Chamberlain threw 100 1/3 innings last year. Tom Verducci’s Rule of 30 [1] would suggest a cap of 130 innings this year, but I expect the Yankees’ cap to be around 150 frames, and for Chamberlain to surpass that slighly due to a solid performance. The one remaining flaw in Chamberlain’s game is an inefficiency stemming from his being both a strikeout pitcher and one who walked 3.5 men per nine innings last year. That inneficiency will likely limit him to an average of six innings per start (which is exactly what he averaged in the nine starts prior to his shoulder injury last year). At that rate, he could make 26 starts this year and still have thrown just 156 innings. If the Yankees keep him in the fifth spot and use the odd off-day to skip his turn, he should come in right on target.

Meanwhile, with Pettitte having now rounded out the rotation, Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves become replacement starters rather than potential fifth-starters. That’s good news for the Yankees as there’s a decent chance that at least one of the pitchers in the chart above will wind up throwing as many as 100 innings less than I’ve projected for him due to injury. Aceves is a classic sixth starter, a crafty, junkballing righty who relies heavily on his defense and staying one pitch ahead of the hitter. In scout speak, Aceves has great pitchability, but not much stuff. He’s not far removed from the pitcher he’s replacing in the organization, Darrell Rasner, and is thus better suited as a replacement than one of the organization’s top five starters.

Hughes, of course, is still a top prospect, but even before Pettitte signed, I felt that Hughes needed to start the year in Triple-A and spend a couple of months just getting his legs under him and his confidence up so that he could return to the majors with some momentum rather than start the year trying once again to prove he deserved to break camp with the big club. Remember, Hughes has made just two major league starts since last April, and while he was excellent in the second of those two, essentially beating A.J. Burnett head-to-head (though Jose Veras wound up with the win), it came in late September against a long-since eliminated Blue Jays team. Hughes developed a strong cut fastball while rehabbing his broken rib last year and pitched well, if inconsistently [2], in the Arizona Fall League. With Pettitte in place, Phil can now build on those two developments at Triple-A in the hope of becoming a mid-season injury replacement (I didn’t write “for Burnett,” but I thought it) and forcing Joe Girardi to make a tough decision in the second half. Remember, Hughes won’t be 23 until last June. He still has plenty of time to make the transition from Triple-A to the majors.

While I’m on the topic, I might as well address Ian Kennedy. I don’t think Kennedy, who is a year and a half Hughes’ senior, was ever going to be in the picture for the big league rotation this spring. He did enough to discourage Girardi and the team last year that he wasn’t even brought back as a September call-up. Kennedy needs to spend the year at Scranton letting his pitching do the talking and hoping for a chance to make his case for the 2010 rotation in September. The good news on Kennedy is that he supposedly found a new way to throw his curve after working with Scranton pitching coach Rafael Chaves last year and dominated the Puerto Rican winter league [3] with the pitch. Kennedy’s big problem last year was his refusal/inability to use his curve in his major league stints, making him a very hittable two-pitch fastball/changeup pitcher without much heat on his heater and a resulting tendency to shy away from contact. If the improvement in his curve proves sustainable, he may well revive his prospect status, making the A.J. Burnett contract all the more regrettable for expensively clogging up the rotation.

Still, taking the short-term view, it’s hard to complain about the Yankees’ top five starters entering the season. The Yankees haven’t had an Opening Day rotation this strong since they were making annual trips to the World Series. They’ve paid a lot for the priviledge, but it just might pay off.

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URLs in this post:

[1] Tom Verducci’s Rule of 30: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008/writers/tom_verducci/02/05/verducci.YAE/

[2] inconsistently: http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?n=Phil%20Hughes&pos=P&sid=milb&t=p_pbp&pid=461833

[3] dominated the Puerto Rican winter league: http://www.minorleaguebaseball.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?n=Ian%20Kennedy&pos=P&sid=milb&t=p_pbp&pid=453178

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