A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at the impressive pitching depth that has been compiled by the Boston Red Sox, mostly at the Major League level. The New York Yankees organization, a division mate of the Sox, also has some nice depth on hand in case injuries strike the Major League starting rotation.
With a few weeks to go until spring training, the Yankees’ rotation currently includes free agent signees C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett, holdovers Andy Pettitte, and Chien-Ming Wang, as well as Mr. Can-Do-It-All Joba Chamberlain. That is a pretty formidable rotation if everyone is healthy and pitching up to their potential.
But as we all know, in the game of baseball no organization is safe from the injury bug – especially when it comes to the pitching staff. We also need to keep in mind that Chamberlain has never pitched more than 118.2 innings in a season – and that was at the University of Nebraska in 2005.
Luckily, the Yankees have at least five young starting pitchers who will be a phone call away at the organization’s Triple-A affiliate in Scranton-Wilkes/Barre: Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, Ian Kennedy, and Eric Hacker.
Hughes has been, in a word, disappointing. Injuries and general ineffectiveness have taken a toll on his reputation amongst fans in New York but there is good news. He’s only 22 years old, which is something that is easy to forget. And although he posted a 6.62 ERA in 34 big league innings in 2008, Hughes’ FIP was just 4.34 and he may never have actually been healthy last season. He also had a 4.46 ERA (4.35 FIP) in 72.2 MLB innings at the age of 21. The projection systems for 2009, including Bill James, CHONE and Marcel, vary somewhat, but they all suggest reasonable production for a 23-year-old starting pitcher.
Kennedy, like Hughes, faced pretty high expectations after being selected out of USC with the 21st overall pick of the 2006 draft. A number of teams avoided the right-hander in the draft because his success in college came despite dominating stuff. The same can be said for his minor league success, which includes an eye-popping 1.99 ERA in 226 innings. Kennedy has been a different pitcher at the Major League level. He sports an 8.17 ERA (5.45 FIP) and has allowed 50 hits in 39.2 innings. With a little more experience (and possibly a little more use of his breaking ball), he should become a pretty successful No. 4 starter, if nothing more.
Aceves appeared out of nowhere in 2008, after previously being expunged from the Toronto Blue Jays Dominican Summer League team. In one season, the right-hander rose from High-A ball to the Majors. The problem, though, is that Aceves pitched far more innings in 2008 than he ever had before, having played in short-season leagues. His 170.2 innings could be seen as a warning sign for 2009. As well, his 2.40 ERA does not look quite as rosy after looking at his FIP (4.80) and strikeout rate (4.80 K/9).
Marketing opportunities abound with Phil Coke. The 26-year-old left-handed pitcher has put up some nice minor league numbers. He had a solid Major League debut in the bullpen for the Yankees and allowed just eight hits in 14.2 innings. He also posted a 0.61 ERA (1.63 FIP) in those 12 games. There are not a lot of southpaws that can average 93 mph.
Hacker, 25, was a recent addition to the Yankees’ 40-man roster and he follows along the same path as Kennedy, as a starting pitcher who has posted nice minor league numbers despite lacking an awe-inspiring fastball. You can also lump southpaw Chase Wright into that category. After making a forgettable MLB debut in 2007, Wright spent all of 2008 in the minors and was recently removed from the 40-man roster. Both Hacker and Wright could develop into middle relievers at the Major League level.
Obviously the Yankees’ Big Five in the rotation look pretty good on paper going into the 2009 season. The Live Five (plus one) don’t look too shabby, either.