Who Wants To Be The 5th Starter?

When you look at the fifth starter competition in 2010, you also have to look back and look ahead.  Look back to 2009 and all the Yankees went through to get Joba stretched out and ready to pitch without innings limits.  Look ahead to 2011 and realize that the only two definite starters the Yankees have on the roster are Sabathia and Burnett.

That means it is vital that the Yankees develop a starter in 2010 who can slot into the 2011 rotation.  It makes it much more likely that Joba and Hughes (two guys who aren’t going anywhere) beat out guys like Gaudin and Mitre (who knows where they will be).  I suppose you could put Aceves in the former group, but I think the Yankees value the flexibility he gives them in the bullpen.  Now, a small disclaimer.  I fully believe the Yankees would go in a different direction than Hughes or Joba if they continue to stink in spring training, but assuming they improve a little bit, this is a two-horse race.

Now, in that race, I think Joba is the favorite.  He is the guy they tried to develop in 2009 and while it was bumpy at times, he certainly showed potential.  Through the end of July, Joba had a 3.58 ERA as a starter.  That was the point the Yankees started messing with his starts (and his head) and things went downhill from there.  What caused the fall off in performance in the final two months?  I’m not sure anyone knows for sure, but I think it’s another reason the Yankees will give him every chance to show it was his head and not his arm.

What will be interesting to watch is what the Yankees do with Hughes.  The smartest approach may be to put him in the minors as a starter for a couple of months.  This would achieve two things.  First, keeping Hughes in Scranton for part of the season would allow him to build up his innings which would put him in line to start in 2011 without an innings cap. More importantly, it would give the Yankees insurance if one of their starters got hurt.

That could be a huge factor in the decision.  Aceves will almost certainly make the team as a reliever.  Gaudin’s deal isn’t guaranteed and I would expect the Yankees to cut him loose if he didn’t make the club.  (Why pay him $3 million to relieve when you have guys like Melancon who can do it for much cheaper?)  I believe Mitre woudl have to agree to a minor league assignment, so he is probably gone.  Now look at Scranton’s roster.  There really isn’t anyone with major league experience.  Having Hughes in Scranton would give you a solid replacement if a pitcher got hurt. 

I can hear the argument against this and it is a good one.  Why keep one of the 12-best arms on your club in the minors for a situation that may never arise?  Well, if the paragraph above didn’t sway you how about we think about 2011 again?  Mariano is 40 and while I wouldn’t bet against him, it is fair to say that he might not have many years left.  If the Yankees are going to develop Hughes and Joba as starters, then they also need to develop some other guys as possible closers down the line.  If Hughes opens in Scranton, I would assume that gives Robertson a chance to be the 8th-inning guy (along with Marte).  Additionally, it might give a guy like Melancon a shot at making the team outright.  My opinion is that starting 2010 with Joba in the fifth spot, Hughes in Scranton and Robertson being the bridge to Rivera is the best way to handle the delicate balancing act of winning in 2010 and preparing for 2011.  If something doesn’t work, let’s say Joba blows up, then Hughes can jump into the rotation and Joba into the pen.  If Robertson blows up, Hughes can replace him in the bridge role.  And, if a starter gets hurt, Hughes is ready to jump into the rotation.

Is it perfect?  No, you waste Hughes’ talent for the part of the season he spends in the minors.  But, if people stay healthy you could end up with Joba as a rotation cog, Hughes ready to become one and Robertson (or Melancon) as a reliable bridge to Rivera.  That’s the best case for 2010 and 2011.