Around the horn: Rotation
CC projects as No. 1 starter; Pineda leads list of four candidates for No. 5 spot
With the start of Spring Training finally upon us, anticipation is building for the 2014 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, continuing with this look at the rotation.
Masahiro Tanaka grabbed the headlines this winter, scoring a huge contract and celebrating his arrival with the largest news conference ever held at the current Yankee Stadium. The hype is legitimate and warranted, according to those who watched the right-hander's work in Japan.
Yet the responsibility of pointing the rotation toward the postseason continues to fall heaviest upon CC Sabathia's broad (if not quite as burly) shoulders, as the left-hander and undisputed leader of the staff checks in for his sixth spring with the Bombers.
Once again, Sabathia's spring will revolve around preparation to take the ball on Opening Day, but he is also going into the season with something to prove. He was displeased by his performance in 2013, when he went 14-13 with a career-worst 4.78 ERA in 32 starts and allowed 28 home runs.
Now more than a year removed from surgery on his left elbow, Sabathia may regain some of the velocity he lacked last season. He dedicated much of his offseason to improving his core strength, and although photos suggest that he lost a considerable amount of heft, he said he is just stronger.
"Actually, I lost all the weight last year," Sabathia said. "So this year was just about making sure I kept it off. I tried to put on muscle and stay healthy, and I've been able to do that. I feel pretty good, and I'm excited about the year."
The second spot in the rotation will likely go to Hiroki Kuroda, who was the Yankees' best pitcher for much of last season. He went 11-13 with a 3.31 ERA in 32 starts and was on the fringe of American League Cy Young Award consideration into mid-August, compiling a 2.33 ERA through his first 24 outings.
But Kuroda went winless over his final eight starts, and manager Joe Girardi acknowledged that he may have pushed Kuroda too hard in trying to keep the Yanks alive in the postseason chase. The 39-year-old Kuroda told Sponichi in January that this was the first offseason in which he seriously considered retirement.
"As a pitcher, getting hit is a tough thing to swallow," Kuroda told the news outlet. "The Majors is not a place where you can get excused from winning because of your age. There is no preferential treatment. If you cannot perform, you walk away."
After Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155 million contract in January, it surprised some that general manager Brian Cashman downplayed the 25-year-old as being a potential No. 3 starter.
The Yankees surely aren't looking for Tanaka to go 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, as he did last year for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Cashman allowed that Tanaka may grow into a No. 2 or No. 1 starter, but the Yanks also understand that he has many adjustments to make.
"I think in fairness, I'm going to say -- especially here in the first year -- it's No. 3 starter," Cashman said. "If we get more, all the better."
"When I take the mound, I feel that I like to win every single game," Tanaka said. "Being an ace is something that not myself, but other people label. What I want to do is go out there, compete and do my best."
Ivan Nova returns to the rotation after an up-and-down 2013 campaign. Nova struggled in six early-season appearances and was optioned to the Minors, but he returned in late June to go 7-5 with a 2.70 ERA in 17 games (16 starts) through the end of the season.
Nova, 27, won the AL Pitcher of the Month Award in August and completed the season 9-6 with a 3.10 ERA overall. Confidence has never been a problem for the right-hander, who once described himself as "the best pitcher in the world" and has a career .673 winning percentage as a starter.
Girardi said that the competition for fifth starter is "wide open" going into camp and that the Yankees will give plenty of consideration to a cast of candidates that includes Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno.
Of that group, Pineda is the greatest unknown. He tantalized observers as an All-Star with the Mariners in 2011, but he injured his right shoulder the following spring after being acquired by the Yanks.
Pineda, 25, has yet to throw a pitch at the big league level for his new club, but he reported to camp at 260 pounds, which is close to where he was with Seattle.
"I'm the same Michael Pineda," Pineda said. "I'm feeling 100 percent right now, and my body is in perfect shape, so I'm ready to go. ... Everything's in the past right now. This year is the new year, the new season, so I'm ready [to] compete and ready to go."
The Yankees would love to begin seeing some returns on their gamble if Pineda can stay healthy. Otherwise the 27-year-old Phelps is a capable option to round out the rotation, having gone 6-5 with a 4.98 ERA in 22 games (12 starts) last season.
"It's good to have somebody pushing you, and it's two great guys to be out there with," Phelps told reporters, referring to Warren and Pineda. "We're not going to root against each other, because if we all do well, our team does better."