We spend a lot of time here at RAB being optimistic. In fact, as the 8.2 weighted average (as of 1 p.m.) from the team confidence poll suggest, we’re not alone in our rosy outlook for 2009.
But we can’t put the Yankee blinders on and assume that everything will go according to plan for the 2009 season. To that end, The Artist Formerly Know as “The” Steve wrote in with a question for me this morning:
The Yanks are not without question marks as they enter the 2009 campaign. What’s our worst case scenario? And more importantly, how are the Yanks prepared to deal with it?
So let’s put on our doom-and-gloom hats while we tackle Steve’s concerns. Mo willing, that worst-case scenario won’t come to pass, but we can’t ignore the obvious concerns. Today, we’ll tackle the pitchers.
First up is the big name and latest Yankee ace CC Sabathi. Asks Steve, “Will the innings load from last year affect him this year?” Josh Kalk at The Hardball Times tackled just this very question in September and concluded that Sabathia, so far, has been a horse. We don’t know how Sabathia will respond following two seasons and over 500 innings, but the Yanks will attempt to keep his innings down. Experts seem to agree that his easy, repetitive motion shouldn’t expose him to a greater-than-normal injury risk for a pitcher in his late 20s.
If Sabathia goes down, the Yanks will have to bump everyone up a slot while turning to a rookie. To that end, Steve’s next three questions are all related.
- On A.J. Burnett, coming off of a career-high 221.1 innings: “If/when he misses a month or two due to a minor injury, what can we reasonably expect from Hughes/Aceves/IPK?”
- On Andy Pettitte: “Is he starting to break down with age and no longer able to effectively hold up through an entire season? At 36 and never a hard thrower, what does he have left?”
- On Joba Chamberlain: “[He] has never pitched more than 120 innings at any point in his career, and some analysts like BA’s Bill Callis have always felt he won’t hold up to a full season.”
Remember too that Chien-Ming Wang is coming off of a serious injury as well.
That said, every team faces health questions about pitchers; it’s just the nature of the beast. I believe, though, that the Yanks could weather the storm of losing one pitcher. Right now, Burnett is slotted third in the rotation and Pettitte fourth. Clearly, the Yanks would rather not lose either, but to lose one would probably not crush the team’s playoff hopes. Here, the Yanks would have deploy their depth and turn to Phil Hughes, Al Aceves or Ian Kennedy probably in that order.
For Hughes, it’s really a matter of which pitcher shows up. In September and October in his career, he is 3-0 with a 2.59 ERA in 41.2 innings. He has struck out 28 and walked 12. In 65 MLB innings in other moths, Hughes has good strike out numbers but a 6.78 ERA and is 2-7. If Hughes has to fill in, the Yanks need the late-season Hughes to show up.
Kennedy, meanwhile, is one of the more polarizing figures in the Yanks’ system right now, as the comments to Joe’s IPK post show. Many fans don’t want to see Kennedy again because of some media-constructed story about his supposedly bad attitude; others are rightfully willing to him the benefit of the doubt. After his 2008 effort in the Bronx though, he’s third on the Minor League depth chart.
Al Aceves would fill in if Hughes can’t. The Mexican Gangster threw 30 decent innings last year, but his 16:10 K:BB ratio doesn’t scream future success. He does a good job of keeping the ball low though and limited the number of opposing baserunners.
Because all three are young and have limited MLB epxerience, it’s hard to project how they’ll do. Rather, with Burnett and Pettitte on board, the Yankees have the depth in the minors to weather the storm of a pitching injury. Last year, the Yanks were counting on Hughes and Kennedy to be effective Major Leaguers from Opening Day. This year, they’re the reserved, developing further at AAA until they are summoned. If a member of the starting five goes down, someone or a few someone’s should be able to piece together a league-average effort, and with this team’s offense, that’s all they need.
Of course, the Yankees, because of Joba, are going to need better than league-average performance from some pitchers not in their starting five. To that end, Hughes or Kennedy or Aceves will have to step in at some point (unless Mike Mussina is in shape and can be coaxed back). But the Yanks have a fallback plan for Joba too. He is adept at getting outs out of the bullpen. If he fails as a starting pitcher, the Yanks will slot him in as the heir-apparent to Mariano Rivera. While the B-Jobbers would be happy with that move, the Yanks are going to run Joba out there every five days or so until they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can’t do it. That’s a future we don’t have to contemplate yet.
As with any team, the Yankees are not without their question marks. By bolstering their big league staff, though, the Yanks have ensured themselves the potential to exploit their depth should the need arise. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the questions surrounding the lineup and the bullpen, but the 2009 injury scenarios are much less dire than they were a year ago.