Yesterday we examined A.J. Burnett‘s case for the Yankees’ fifth starter spot, an admittedly flimsy case at best. Today we’re going to move onto Freddy Garcia, who would deserve the job with no questions asked if the decision was based solely on 2011 performance. He pitched to a 3.62 ERA and a perfectly league average 4.12 FIP in 146.2 IP, and was arguably the team’s most consistent starter from Game One through Game 162.
There are some question marks at age 35, but there are also some very real reasons why Garcia should get the get the ball every five days over Burnett and Phil Hughes. Let’s break it down…
He’s The Incumbent
Before rain suspended Game One of the ALDS last year, the Yankees intended to use just three starters in the five-game series, and one of the them was Garcia. Both Hughes and Burnett were in the bullpen to open the series with the Tigers. Like I said, Freddy outpitched both of those guys pretty handily during the regular season and earned that spot in the postseason rotation. He’s done nothing to lose it over the last three months.
Sweaty Freddy has pitched in 329 games as a big leaguer, and he appeared in all but two of those games as a starter. He has basically no experience in a relief role. Hughes has pitched very well out of the bullpen throughout his career, and although Burnett doesn’t have much bullpen experience in his career (just five career relief appearances), the Yankees obviously felt comfortable enough with him in that role since that’s where they intended to put him in the playoffs before the weather forced him into a Game Four start.
Its worth noting that Garcia has undergone some major shoulder surgery in the not-too-distant past, so he might need more time to warm up than the typical pitcher. I know that’s part of the reason why the Rays never tried Jeff Niemann in the bullpen back in the day, when he was running out of minor league options without a clear path to the big leagues. Needing a long time to warm up isn’t an issue as a starter, but if Freddy needs a good 20-30 minutes to get going while pitching out of the bullpen, well that’s a major issue. He’ll need a full innings’ notice, which just isn’t how baseball works these days.
He’s Crafty (…and he’s just my type)
The front four of the Yankees rotation is quartet of hard-throwers. CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda had two of the seven hardest fastballs in all of baseball last season while both Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova averaged better than 92 with the heat (92.1 and 92.4, respectively). The last time Garcia hit 92 mph with his fastball was about six years ago, and these days he does most of his living in the 85-88 mph range. He makes it work though, and it’s a pretty extreme change of pace from the rest of the pitching staff, bullpen included. A full five-man rotation of craftiness won’t work (coughTwinscough), but mixing one soft-tosser into a staff of power pitchers adds some nice variety and deception. Pitching is all about disrupting a hitter’s timing, and Freddy does that in a big way compared to his teammates.
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Given his age, his stuff, his injury history, and the fine line he treads every time he goes out to the mound, it’s easy to cast Garcia aside. He’s now four full years removed from shoulder surgery and has thrown 150 IP in each of the last two seasons, so the questions about his durability are being answered. He had to continually prove himself each time out last season, and he did just that in a tough pitcher’s environment (in terms of division and ballpark). Freddy showed he was up to the challenge, and we’ve heard a lot about the Yankees liking his toughness and his veteran presence. I hear he also gives the young players some nice veteran presents as well, but that’s besides the point.
The Yankees have very little invested in Garcia. He’s one a one-year contract and his $4M salary will represent less than 2% of their payroll next season. They don’t have to worry about his development (like they would with Hughes) or try to justify the investment they made in him (like they might feel they have to do with Burnett), they could just send him out there every give days and basically forget about him. If he pitches poorly, then just cut him. No big deal and no strings attached. Garcia’s been through it all in his career, and serving as the fifth starter on a contending team is job in which he is more than qualified.