The Battle For The New York Yankees’ Fifth Rotation Spot

burnettThe New York Yankees took a big step towards solidifying their starting rotation, which was pretty middling last year past CC Sabathia. By acquiring Michael Pineda and signing Hiroki Kuroda last week (for the low – in New York terms, at least – cost of their top prospect and $10 million in salary), the Yankees added both an electrifying young arm and an experienced, solid hand to their rotation to give Sabathia a little support. But in the grand scheme of things, rotations have five spots, and the Yankees have a bit of a battle for the final slot.

Looking at the Yankee top four of Sabathia, Pineda, Kuroda, and 2011 rookie sensation Ivan Nova should give Yankees fans a nice sense of refreshment after a season where Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia occupied spots in the middle of the rotation. While both Colon and Garcia were solid for the Yankees (they combined for 5.1 fWAR), neither has the potential of Pineda nor the consistency of Kuroda. While Garcia and Colon combined for 5.1 fWAR last year in 311 innings, Pineda and Kuroda combined for 5.8 in 373 innings. Not only does the new Yankee duo give the team more overall value, they’re also eating more innings.

The race for New York’s fifth starter’s spot will be interesting, with the returning Garcia, former top prospect and dominant reliever Phil Hughes, and the insanely overpaid AJ Burnett all going head to head for that slot. In 2010, Hughes amassed 176 1/3 innings and a 4.19 ERA, while last year, he battled injuries and slumped to just 74 2/3 innings and a 5.79 ERA. He could be a better option for the team in the bullpen, unlike Garcia and Burnett, because he’s got experience there. In 2009, with 44 of his 51 appearances coming in relief, Hughes threw 86 innings of 3.03 ERA ball, with a career high strikeout rate of 10.05 per nine innings and a career low walk rate of 2.93. The 2.4 fWAR he posted that season was just a fraction off of his career high of 2.5 in 2010.  If I were in Brian Cashman’s shoes, as tempting as it is to let him start, I’d have Hughes work out of the bullpen. The upside seems higher there.

As for the battle between Burnett and Garcia, I think Burnett has the inside track just because of his contract. Since arriving in New York prior to the 2009 season, Burnett has been paid $49.5 million, been worth 6.4 fWAR, and hasn’t had an ERA under 4.00.  He’s still scheduled to make $16.5 million in each of the next two years, and for the Yankees to move him, they’d have to eat a significant portion of that salary. That’s in stark contrast to Garcia, who can max out at just shy of $5.6 million if he starts 32 games. Burnett has been worth 2.9 fWAR over the last two years combined, while Garcia was worth 2.2 just last year (though he was worth 3.1 cumulatively over the four years prior to that). It’s a risky proposition for Garcia to be worth anywhere near that mark again in 2012, but he still seems to be a better option than Burnett, who has fallen out of favor both with Yankee management and fans.

Overall, I think Garcia would be the safer option for New York’s final rotation spot. But because of Burnett’s exorbitant salary, I can definitely see New York giving him every chance to take the bull by the horns and contribute to the team in 2012. Garcia would be a nice fallback option for them in that case, but I’m really not sure that he could be effective out of the bullpen, where he’s just made two appearances from during his career. It’s hard to call a decision between Garcia and Burnett a decision that will shape the team, but at least New York is focusing on the back-end of their rotation right now as opposed to the middle of it.

About Joe Lucia

I'm the managing editor of Awful Announcing and the news editor of The Comeback. I also made The Outside Corner a thing for six seasons.