Thursday, March 6, 2014

Who will win the New York Yankees’ last rotation spot?

The New York Yankees began spring training with a mostly settled starting rotation. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova are holdovers and they added Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka in late January. That leaves one spot available and four players working to grab hold of it.

Michael Pineda is finally healthy and ready to compete for the role. David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno, all of whom made starts for the Bombers in 2013, are also in the thick of the race.

Pineda came over to the Yankees in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, with the Bombers surrendering then top catching prospect Jesus Montero. The trade seemed like a fairly balanced deal of potential stars, but has failed to live up to expectations for both sides.

Pineda, after enjoying a very productive rookie season in 2011 (9-10, 3.74 ERA, 173 K in 171 IP), has made ZERO big league starts since. The 25-year-old right-hander suffered through a labrum tear and subsequent shoulder issues in 2012 and parts of 2013. He has had issues with his work ethic particularly where it concerns staying in shape.

Pineda was able to make 10 starts across three minor league stops last season, compiling a 3.32 ERA in 40.2 innings. He struck out 41 batters, walked 14 and held opponents to a .200 batting average. The Yankees had hoped he would reach the majors again last season, but the constant shoulder problems prevented him for stepping on a big league mound.

This spring he is healthy, somewhat leaner and the team is impressed with his work thus far. He has yet to toe the rubber in a spring game, but is scheduled to do so March 7. Pineda has the best upside of the bunch simply based on his performance in 2011 and his evaluations prior to coming up to the big leagues. The bigger question right now is will Pineda have enough time to prove he is ready as the other three starters have innings under the belts?

Phelps, 27, would seem to be the next in line based on his tenure with the club and familiarity with holding the spot. Phelps has been on the major league roster for much of the last two seasons, making 23 starts along the way. He owns a 10-9 career record with a 4.11 ERA across 186.1 innings, contributing in various roles.

Phelps, who had elbow issues in 2013, has the ability to pitch out of the bullpen which bodes well for Pineda if they both have similar results this spring. It’s fairly safe to say that barring injury Phelps will have a spot on the roster considering the lack of bullpen depth should Pineda win the starting job.

Warren spent the 2013 season with the big club making two spot starts and serving time as the long man out of the pen. He tossed 77 innings and recorded a 3.39 ERA in the process. The 26-year-old righty would seem to be a long shot for the final rotation spot, barring injury, but could easily be returned to his 2013 role.

Nuno, the only southpaw in the group, made two very good spot starts for the Yankees in 2013, only to be sent back to Triple-A once roster spots were needed. He suffered a strained groin and missed the entire second half of the season. Nuno seems like a long shot to claim the final rotation spot in my opinion. He will likely end up at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and be at the ready for MLB starts if any of the Yankees fall to injury.

The battle really seems to be between Pineda and Phelps. I further believe if the Yankees could write the scenario, they would rather have Pineda in that fifth slot and use Phelps as a reliever. Pineda was brought here to be a youthful member of the rotation for years to come. If he is healthy and not completely awful on the mound, he will be the fifth starter.

Even with Pineda a little behind the others in the amount of work so far this spring, there is a chance that the team will not need a fifth starter at the onset of the regular season due to the way schedules usually fall out in the beginning of the season. So, despite the late start Pineda could still be lined up to be ready for the initial time the Yankees need the fifth man on the hill.

Phelps’ ability to pitch well out of the pen would also relieve some apprehension about the relief crew beyond closer David Robertson. I could see Phelps earning some important innings in front of Robertson, especially if Shawn Kelley is unable to lock down the right-handed setup role.

None of this speculation has anything to do with expectations of how Pineda and Phelps would perform. I actually believe that both players can thrive in a role where not a whole lot of emphasis is placed on them. Yes, the job is important, but the eyes are going to be zeroed in on the top four members of the rotation.

When it comes down to it, the Yankees will likely break camp with three and potentially all four of these players on the 25-man roster. I think Pineda is best suited to begin as the fifth starter with Phelps and Warren in the pen waiting for opportunities that will likely come about through injuries, and maybe even because Nova or Pineda falters.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

New York Yankees logo courtesy of SportsLogos.net.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer/editor and the Director of Content Strategy for Sportsideo. Connect with Chris on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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