April 18, 2007
Q: Who are five people who have never been in my kitchen?
If the answer was that simple, Yankee fans would probably not be tearing their hair out right now. The truth is, that's the current starting rotation for a team that came into the season picked to be one of the best in baseball, with the game's highest payroll and expectations that it would end the long, dark championship drought for its fan base.
Injuries to Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, and Carl Pavano have knocked three members of the projected rotation out of action. Top prospect Philip Hughes, who some-including me-thought would have moved up into the big league rotation by now, struggled in spring training and is currently sporting a 6.30 ERA at Triple-A. As dominant as he was in the minors last year, his age and his performance above Double-A indicate that he's not ready to make the leap just yet.
So the Yankees are sweating the return of Jeff Karstens from the disabled list. Karstens is a command-and-control right-hander who features a good curve and change with a so-so fastball. He actually washed out of Triple-A early last year, but pitched well enough at Trenton to land in the Yankees' rotation for a bit during a midsummer spate of injuries. For a pitcher who doesn't put the ball on the ground or get a lot of strikeouts, he had a low home-run rate last season, and that number doesn't figure to hold up. Though only 24, Karstens isn't really a prospect, just rotation filler, and at that, rotation filler with implosion potential.
As with Karstens, Darrell Rasner's fastball is nothing to get excited about. Unlike Karstens, Rasner gets it done with sinkers and sliders, rather than a big deuce and a change. The results are basically the same, a low strikeout rate and a reliance on his defense. Rasner has slightly more impressive track record-he was a college draftee who pitched well in the Nationals' system before being inexplicably waived last year-and he has a better pitcher's build. A shoulder problem limited him to 17 starts last season, but in those he had a 70/20 K/BB in 92 2/3 innings at four levels, an excellent number. He should be ahead of Karstens in the pecking order, and has a better chance to survive in a major league rotation thanks to a somewhat higher groundball rate.
Chase Wright is a fun story. Drafted in 2001, the lefty took six seasons to reach Double-A, then needed just two starts to get from Double-A to Yankee Stadium. It's a fluke, of course, the combination of the Yankees' desperate need for a starter, the poor performances of the candidates ahead of him in the system, his 19-whiffs-in-14-innings start to the season, and his availability to pitch yesterday. He was the Florida State League Pitcher of the Year in 2006, but given that he was 23 and in his sixth year as a pro, that's not as impressive as the capital letters make it seem. The Yankees made it easy on him yesterday, staking him to eight runs in the first two innings, but he didn't pitch well, and the thought of him facing the Red Sox in Fenway on Sunday is a bit daunting.
That's how the Yankees will try and get through this stretch. Wright, Karstens, and Rasner are placeholders, marginal major league pitchers who have been placed into roles that they didn't earn so much as they inherited. What the Yankees need is survival, the kind of three runs-in-five innings outings like Wright provided last night, so that the best offense in the AL can do its thing. Even with a healthy rotation, the Yankees were going to be reliant on the lineup to make hay in the AL East; now, with a patchwork collection of starters, scoring 950 runs may not just be a good idea-it may be the only way they fend off the Red Sox.
Does any of this sound familiar? Two years ago, the Yankees went through a similar midseason stretch in which they were faking the rotation. Free agent acquisitions Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright got hurt, and veteran Kevin Brown was getting pounded when he did take the ball. The Yankees tried journeymen like Darrell May and Tim Redding, called up an unready Sean Henn, and stooped to using relievers Scott Proctor and Tanyon Sturtze for spot starts. They did, however, win 95 games that year, as journeyman Aaron Small, trade pickup Shawn Chacon, and legitimate prospect Chien-Ming Wang were brought in and eventually stabilized the rotation. Neither Small nor Chacon made through July with the Yankees the next season, but their work in 2005 helped pushed the club into the postseason.
Two years ago, the idea that Wang, Small, Chacon, and Al Leiter could make 48 starts for the Yankees in a year in which they won 95 games and the division would have seemed silly. With that experience in mind, though, it's worth noting that Karstens, Rasner, and Wright don't look all that much worse, this morning, than the latter three would have looked to us two years ago. If the Yankees can continue to pound the ball, and if they can get good work from the bullpen-a concern in itself, as Steven Goldman pointed out in the New York Sun-they could once again survive the loss of three big-name starting pitchers.