It was seemingly the Yankees' biggest need at this time last year. It was seemingly the Yankees' biggest need at the beginning of spring training in February. It was seemingly the Yankees' biggest need on the night they were eliminated by the Tigers in the American League Division Series in October.
And it is seemingly the Yankees' biggest need right now.
Yet manager Joe Girardi isn't so sure the Yankees' need for starting pitching is as acute as so many others seem to think. If the season started today, the Yankees would have the same rotation that finished last season—left-hander CC Sabathia (2.91 FIP in 2011) leading the way, followed in some order by A.J. Burnett (4.81), Freddy Garcia (4.15), Phil Hughes (4.61), and Ivan Nova (4.04).
While outside analysts and fans look at the rotation and see holes—especially Burnett—the Yankees look at their starters and see a group that helped them win an American League-best 97 games and finish third in the league in runs allowed with an average of 4.06 ERA a game. They also feel the prices for free agent starting pitchers are too inflated—even for a team with a payroll in excess of $200 million—which is why they never made an offer on left-hander C.J. Wilson before he signed with the Angels and have lukewarm interest in Japanese sensation Yu Darvish.
"Obviously you always look to improve your club, but sometimes the asking price is too much, whether it's a free agent signing or be it a trade," Girardi said. "If that's the case, I do feel good about our rotation. If we have any chance to improve it, I'm sure we'll do anything we can that makes sense for us, but it has to make sense for us, and we're not just looking for a one-year deal. We're looking long-term, as well. We feel we have some pretty good prospects in the minor leagues that are going to have the ability to help us (next season), and these are the guys that are talked about in trades all the time."
The only starting pitching move the Yankees have made this winter was to re-sign the 35-year-old Garcia to a one-year, $4-million contract.
"I liked what Freddy did for us," Girardi said. "Freddy is a totally different look than all our other pitchers when you look at the type of stuff that he has. I like the progress that Nova made, and I think he'll continue to get better. (Burnett) is a guy that we know has the capacity to throw very good games for us. We saw him throw a great game against the Tigers (in the ALDS). Last year was the year where he had really only month in the month of August, seemed to bounce back in September, had some good months early on. He is a guy that always takes the baseball every fifth day and gives us innings."
August was indeed the enigmatic Burnett's worst month by far in 2011, as he had an 11.91 ERA and 1.142 OPS allowed in five starts and 22 2/3 innings. However, it is not entirely accurate to imply the other five months were good; Burnett finished 40th in FIP among the 41 pitchers who qualified for the AL ERA title, ahead of only the Tigers' Brad Penny (5.05), his one-time teammate with the Marlins.
Girardi believes Hughes could be the Yankees' X factor after he was limited to 74 2/3 innings last season when he developed arm fatigue early. In Hughes' first full season as a major-league starter in 2010, though, he was selected to the All-Star Game but also had a ho-hum 4.22 FIP. Girardi, though, feels the 25-year-old still has upside.
"Phil Hughes, how does he bounce back?" Girardi asked rhetorically. "Is he able to be the guy that we had in 2010, and if he is that's almost like going out and making a move, because now you're acquiring a guy in a sense we didn't really have the Phil Hughes from 2010. He could be really important to our rotation. This is a guy that won 18 games in 2010, and that's not always easy to do, win 18 games. But he pitched well for us, and that's what we're asking him to do to give us a chance to win, keep us in the games like he did in 2010. I do consider him a big part of our rotation."
The two pitching prospect whom Girardi alluded to as continually being asked about in trade talks are left-hander Manny Banuelos and right-hander Dellin Betances. Banuelos, 21, had a combined 3.75 ERA in 27 starts and 129 2/3 innings for Double-A Scranton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and the 23-year-old Betances had a 3.70 ERA in 25 starts and 126 1/3 innings for the same two clubs before getting a September call-up to the Yankees. Girardi believes one or both could wind up in the Yankees' rotation at some point in 2012, and the Yankees feel right-handed prospects D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, and Adam Warren are also close to helping at the major-league level.
"We called up a number of guys to our bullpen last year, signed a number of guys that really panned out," Girardi said. "If you have a feeling about a young guy that he can really help you, I'm not afraid to do that."