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Yankees camp report: Cashman retools rotation at reasonable cost

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Rafael Soriano and Freddy Garcia are part of a deep pitching roster for the Yankees. (US Presswire)  
Rafael Soriano and Freddy Garcia are part of a deep pitching roster for the Yankees. (US Presswire)  

TAMPA, Fla. -- The most amazing thing about Yankees GM Brian Cashman's retooling of their rotation is that he improved it drastically at a financial savings. By now Yankees people all understood that the mercurial, high-priced A.J. Burnett never was going to make it in New York, and Cashman saved $13 million by shipping him to Pittsburgh, where Burnett seems thrilled already. That's just as well, though he can't be any more thrilled than the Yankees, who replaced him with Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, two pitchers who are distinguished from Burnett in that they have a chance to thrive in the Bronx.

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Pineda and Kuroda left the celebratory pies at home, but Pineda brings one of the most dynamic two-pitch arsenals since Dwight Gooden and Kuroda has an impressive four-pitch array. Total cost to the Yankees in terms of dollars: a little more than $10 million ... or almost a $3 million savings. Not that it concerned them, but they happened to find a much better spot for Burnett, who told writers upon arriving in Pittsburgh that there were too many people "tinkering'' with him in New York. Maybe Pittsburgh, where Ed Whitson thrived, is more his speed.

Regardless, the Yankees possess maybe their best pitching rotation since the days of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Cone, David Wells and El Duque at a time when their lineup, and especially their bullpen, look devastatingly good. Their overall talent remains supreme, and what's more, the only real age questions concern the left side of their infield, particularly Alex Rodriguez, who's spent too much time on Page Six and the disabled list the last couple years. Sure, all-time great closer Mariano Rivera (age 42) must have a magic elixir, but even his hint he might retire after the year didn't bring too much concern. Setup man David Robertson posted as good a year as any reliever in 2011, even Rivera.

The rotation looks solid, one through six, but it is not totally without questions. Pineda announced upon entering camp that he is up to 280 pounds, which would put him only 10 pounds below staff ace CC Sabathia. More to the point, Pineda needs to refine his third-pitch changeup, an improvement Cashman calls "vital." Sabathia's lone issue is his own weight, and he entered at 290, close to his optimal weight and somewhat less than the second half last year, when his ERA ballooned from 2.72 before the All-Star break to 3.44 after it. Kuroda is a mature, proven pitcher, but he understands he needs to adjust to a lot after mainly thriving as a Los Angeles Dodger: a new city, a different league and a more hitter-friendly ballpark. "It hasn't really sunk in," Kuroda said of the switch. "But being able to wear this uniform is such an honor."

Fantasy Writer
Breakout ... Michael Pineda, SP: Pineda is going from a pitcher's park to a hitter's park, sure, but before you condemn him to a higher ERA and WHIP, think back to just how dominant he was early last season. Through 17 starts -- the first 17 of his career, mind you -- he went 8-5 with a 2.58 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP and 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings. In other words, as a 22-year-old fresh out of Triple-A and with virtually no offense backing him, he was an ace. And it's not like Pineda was overachieving then, not with his high-90s fastball and stellar strikeout-to-walk ratio. More likely, the innings simply caught up to him. He had never pitched more than 139 1/3 in a minor-league season. With a year of experience, he'll be better equipped to handle a full workload, which could lead to 15-plus victories with the Yankees' stellar lineup backing him. And most likely, any rise in ERA will be in relation to the early 2.58 mark, not the final 3.74 mark.
Sleeper ... Phil Hughes, SP: Over his last 35 appearances -- 30 of them starts -- Hughes has a 5.39 ERA, which might lead some Fantasy owners to believe he's a lost cause. But if the Yankees felt that way, they wouldn't have been so quick to deal A.J. Burnett. In 2010, Hughes' second-half struggles were predictable given the sudden rise in innings. As for 2011, it was doomed from the first reports of his velocity being down in spring training. Hughes' excuse is simple enough. He showed up out of shape, causing him to fall behind. With an improved workout program this offseason, he should be able to pick up where he left off late last year, when he was throwing in the low-to-mid 90s. True, Hughes wasn't exactly an ace then, but just by holding a regular rotation spot for the high-scoring Yankees, he's a sleeper in Fantasy. And if he can recapture the form he showed in the first half of 2010, when he was an All-Star, he's a late-round steal. -- Scott White
Depth Chart | Roster | 2012 Draft Prep

It's honorable enough that he spurned a $13-million offer from the Diamondbacks, although he twice before rebuffed Yankees' overtures. As a free agent a year ago, Cashman was told not to even bother making an offer and he took what Cashman described as an "under-market" $12-million salary from the Dodgers. At the trade deadline last year, Kuroda told the Dodgers he wouldn't consent to a trade anywhere, not to the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Indians or Tigers. About which, Kuroda explained, "Before spring training last season, I decided I wanted to wear the Dodger uniform and win a championship in the Dodgers uniform, so it was really difficult to change my mind midseason."

The Yankees, meanwhile, never wavered on Kuroda, despite his reticence to leave the comforts of Los Angeles. Cashman said he heard Kuroda's wife was having a baby last year so it's understandable why he wanted to stay. "I also know Japanese are very concerned with respect, tradition and loyalty," Cashman said. In turn, the Yankees have great respect for Kuroda, who had the reputation for being very professional and a great teammate.

Pineda, with only one full year in the big leagues, is a bit more of a wild card. But the Yankees couldn't resist his awesome two pitches and the potential that enabled him to limit American League hitters to a .211 batting average, fourth best to Justin Verlander, Jeremy Hellickson and Josh Beckett. They understand full well what they gave up in that trade, though, as Cashman makes clear his forecast for Jesus Montero. Some have suggested the Yankees just sold high on Montero following his impressive late-season cameo in pinstripes last year, but Cashman doesn't feel that way at all. "He's going to be a great hitter. Seattle's going to be very proud of what they received," Cashman said. "I know what we gave up, a middle of the order bat for a long time."

What mattered most to the Yankees is that they saved a lot of money by avoiding the priciest pitchers on the free-agent market. With a keen interest in fulfilling what seems like a long-shot goal of getting below the luxury tax payroll threshold of $189 million in 2014, the Yankees were determined not to go beyond two years for any pitchers, and actually never offered anyone more than one. They rebuffed C.J. Wilson's agent's attempts to have a visit to New York, never considered going anywhere near the $58 million the Marlins gave to Mark Buehrle for four years and shied away from Roy Oswalt, who's still available, because of their concern about pitchers with any sort of back issue.

That left Kuroda and Edwin Jackson as the main options, and the Yankees showed their preference by signaling a willingness to only go to $8 million for Jackson. They did like Jackson's potential beyond his so-so primary stats, seeing something in a consistent 95-mph thrower, not to mention the rare durability for a pitcher of only 28. "We had interest in Jackson," Cashman said. "We think Washington got a real nice player. We respect Edwin Jackson's ability."

For good measure, Cashman brought back the cagey veteran Freddy Garcia at a reasonable cost of $4 million, meaning Garcia and Phil Hughes are likely to battle for the fifth spot, barring injuries. Cashman is careful to say that only the great Sabathia and high-salaried Kuroda are guaranteed rotation spots, but it would be a major disappointment if Pineda and rising right-hander Ivan Nova didn't make the improved rotation, too.

The Yankees managed to win the difficult American League East last year when they began the season with a seemingly more questionable Garcia and the miraculous, comeback-ing Bartolo Colon as their Nos. 4 and 5 starters. But this year it's Boston in the unenviable position of having only three viable, set starters. Knowing the Yankees have twice that many is indeed quite a comforting thought for them.

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