In terms of the 2012 team, the Yankees staged a coup this weekend. They went from having a rotation with several question marks to having one that ranks among the best in the American League. At the same time, they created something of a conundrum for themselves. What was once three spots for Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, and Freddy Garcia has turned into just one. While that will certainly help the on-field performance of the 2012 Yankees, it creates a difficult scenario. What are they going to do with the two pitchers who don’t win the last rotation spot?
It might seem as though Phil Hughes is the easiest to deal with here. He has experience in the bullpen, so he can slide in there and leave the last spot to either Garcia or Burnett. But at the same time, Hughes might be the best option for that fifth rotation spot. He’s still relatively young — entering his prime years. He’s working on rebounding after a poor season, and there are reasons to be optimistic about him. If he succeeds in the role, he can extend his stay with the Yankees. If he fails, the Yankees can simply slide him into the bullpen and hope he regains his mojo there. In pure baseball terms, he probably makes more sense than either Garcia or Burnett for a rotation spot.
The problem with using Hughes as the fifth starter is that leaves little recourse for Burnett and Garcia. They have a combined 10 innings of relief experience among them, and only 2.1 of those innings have come after 2005. Perhaps one of them could act as the long man, but it’s highly unlikely that the Yankees use their last two bullpen spots on both Garcia and Burnett. It even sounds unlikely that they’d use the last two bullpen spots on Hughes and either one of them.
Burnett’s and Garcia’s contracts present further problems. The Yankees owe Burnett $33 million, making it unlikely that they’d just release him. Even if they traded him, they’d have to pay him a considerable amount to pitch for another team. While Garcia makes far less, at just $4 million, his recently signed contract makes a trade impossible without his consent. Maybe he would consent if the Yankees told him he’d play only a minuscule bullpen role, but that’s far from a guarantee. It will not be easy to get rid of either Burnett or Garcia.
This all adds up to another move on the horizon, whether now or in spring training. The Yankees would do well to hold off, since that gives them time to evaluate Hughes and to adjust in case of injury. It could also open up opportunities if another team finds it needs a pitcher, for whatever reason, in March. But one way or another the Yankees will have to make a transaction or two to solve their logjam at the fifth starter spot. It’s probably the most interesting item left on their pre-season agenda.