Friday, February 28, 2014

Hiroki Kuroda remains extremely valuable to New York Yankees

When the New York Yankees initially signed Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal in 2012, I’m not sure they felt he would still be on the roster in 2014. Based on his performance in his two seasons in the Bronx, I bet they are happy he is still in pinstripes.

Kuroda instantly became a stabilizing force in the rotation in 2012, picking up the slack when necessary en route to a 16-11 record with a nifty 3.32 ERA. From the beginning of the 2013 season through July he was undeniably the team’s best pitcher. He compiled a 10-6 record with a 2.38 ERA during that time. Unfortunately, Kuroda hit a wall after the calendar hit August, going 1-7 with a 5.40 ERA to finish off the season.

Kuroda kept the Yankees in the mix while he was hot and once he trended downward, it was difficult for the team to keep up in the playoff hunt. As Kuroda enters his age-39 season, there are obvious question marks about his ability to provide 30 or more starts and continue to be a major piece of the rotation.

The Yankees face questions with each of their anticipated starters. CC Sabathia is coming off his worst season, fellow countryman Masahiro Tanaka has never thrown a MLB pitch, Ivan Nova has consistency issues to still overcome and the Yanks do not know who their fifth starter is.

Kuroda’s part is fairly simple. He does not need to be the man he was through July of last season, but he certainly cannot be the pitcher he was over the final two months either.

Some of this can be relieved by giving Kuroda some extra rest this season. The Yankees were not afforded this luxury in 2013 as they continually found themselves looking up in the American League East standings as the season wore on.

Should Sabathia turn things around, Tanaka gets quickly acclimated and Nova remains the pitcher he was down the stretch in 2013, Kuroda will be able to ease off the gas pedal some. If this is the case, it should allow him to be more consistent through the 2014 season.

As far as expectations are concerned, what the Yankees need and what they’ll receive are potentially two different things. In order for the Bombers to have a sniff at the postseason, they’ll need close to 200 strong innings from Kuroda. That, in and of itself, is asking a lot of any 39-year-old pitcher.

In those innings, he’ll need to pitch well enough to be considered the number two starter on the team. I do not think it is fair to assume Tanaka will blossom immediately, and until I see Ivan Nova be successful across a full season, I’m not fully buying. I wrote Thursday that I expect Sabathia to turn things around, but there are no assurances there.

I have little faith that Kuroda can go on a lengthy stretch of dominance like he did last year. I also do not think he will be nearly as bad as his numbers looked at the end of last season. I believe the key is to manage Kuroda’s innings. While this will be no easy task, it is more or less a requirement in my view.

This is not so much about how many starts he makes, but rather how far manager Joe Girardi sticks with Kuroda in games. If the Yankees are to remain in the thick of the playoff picture toward the end of the season, they’ll need a reliable and not tired Kuroda.

If this is allowed to happen -- and they’ll need the rest of the rotation to do their share -- Kuroda can be very valuable to the Yankees. I’d be happy with about 30 starts and somewhere in the neighborhood of 185-200 innings. Put the conservative estimate at 14 wins with a 3.70 ERA or so. He’ll likely go through some peaks and valleys, but I do not suspect they will be as extreme as they were in 2013.

Couple the kind of on-field performance suggested above with the notion that Kuroda will be a mentor of sorts for Tanaka this season and Kuroda’s overall value soars. I expect this will be Kuroda’s last year in pinstripes regardless of how he performs. He’ll either choose to retire and head back to Japan or the Yankees will move on from the steep commitment required to keep Kuroda on the roster.

The indisputable fact is that Kuroda is a major piece of the puzzle for the Yankees in 2014, but he cannot be the main component of the pitching staff. If he is relied on in such a manner, it could be another long season for the Bombers.

Statistics provided by Baseball-Reference.

Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

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.