Yankees pitching just couldn't hold up

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 6, 2011

Well, who exactly was going to pitch for the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, anyway?

The question became irrelevant after the Tigers eliminated the Yankees on Thursday night with a 3-2 victory in Game 5 of the Division Series.

But a quick stroll through the Yankees’ options shows just how dire their rotation troubles had become — and why the Tigers, a team with superior starters and formidable late-inning relievers, won this series even though their ace, right-hander Justin Verlander, pitched only once.

The Rangers will open the ALCS at home Saturday night after winning one more game than the Tigers during the regular season. But for the Rangers, who will now face Verlander on full rest in Game 1, the Yankees would have been the preferred opponent, even if it meant opening on the road.

Just play it out.

The Yankees’ likely Game 1 starter would have been right-hander Freddy Garcia, who shut out the Rangers for six innings on April 16, but no longer is anyone’s idea of an ace.

Left-hander CC Sabathia probably could have started Game 2 after throwing 37 pitches in 1 1/3 innings in his first career relief appearance on Thursday night. But Sabathia looked gassed in the postseason and at times down the stretch. The Yankees might have pushed him back to Game 3 in favor of — gulp — righty A.J. Burnett.

And Game 4? Righty Ivan Nova, who left the Division Series clincher with tightness in his right forearm, probably would have been done for the postseason, creating an opening for righty Phil Hughes.

The Rangers would have trashed such a collection. They won’t trash Verlander and fellow right-handers Doug Fister and Max Scherzer.

Ah yes, Fister, the winning pitcher in Game 5.

While the Yankees and Red Sox complained that little quality starting pitching was available at the non-waiver deadline, the Tigers made arguably the best trade of the season, obtaining Fister from the Mariners in a five-player trade.

The Tigers will tell you they paid a steep price, parting with lefty Charlie Furbush, outfielder Casper Wells and third-base prospect Francisco Martinez for Fister and reliever David Pauley. But they didn’t just get Fister for this season. They will control him through 2015.

When the deal was made on July 30, I asked on Twitter, “The Yankees and Red Sox couldn’t have gotten this guy?” or something to that effect. Fans from both those teams responded, “Can’t pitch in the AL East.” And some club officials from both those teams surely felt the same way.

Well, there was Fister in Game 5, this supposed fraud from the Mariners, holding the Yankees to one run in five innings. There was Scherzer, touching 99 mph while getting four big outs in relief. There were setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde putting down the mighty Yankees for good.

If the immediate future is disappointing for the Yankees — “terrible” is the word that manager Joe Girardi used — then the actual future looks even more daunting.

Let’s start with the same question that I posed at the start of this column, only in a different form: Who exactly is going to comprise the Yankees’ 2012 rotation?

Sabathia, 31, is expected to opt out of his contract, become a free agent and seek a deal in excess of the four years and $92 million remaining on his contract. The assumption is that the Yankees will re-sign him, if no other reason that they have little choice. But they should think twice about such a move.

I know that the Yankees lack strong internal alternatives. I know that the top free-agent starter, Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson, is probably no more than a No. 2. I know that Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish, whose rights are likely to be auctioned to the highest major league bidder, cannot be expected to be an ace, at least not initially.

But really, what is Sabathia now?

He wasn’t the same pitcher after Girardi twice brought him back from rain delays in Seattle on July 26. In his first 24 starts, he had a 2.55 ERA and allowed seven homers in 176 2/3 innings. In his last nine starts, he had a 4.30 ERA and allowed 10 homers in 60 2/3 innings. He also turned in a rocky performance in his one true Division Series start (not the abbreviated one), allowing 13 baserunners and four runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Don’t get me wrong — Sabathia still is a top-of-the-rotation starter, and if he gets his weight back under control, he almost certainly will be one again. But if the Yankees sign him to say, a six-year deal, they are almost certain to regret two or more of the years on the back end.

They already are stuck with one albatross of a contract, the six years and $143 million remaining on third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s deal. First baseman Mark Teixeira, owed $112.5 million over the next five years, is showing early signs of offensive decline. Closer Mariano Rivera is 41, shortstop Derek Jeter 37.

The Yankees are not without young talent — Jesus Montero, 21, could become the full-time DH, and infielder Eduardo Nunez, 24, could play an expanded super-utility role. Two highly regarded pitching prospects — lefty Manny Banuelos and right Dellin Betances — figure to enter the rotation sometime in ’12. And who knows? Maybe the Yankees can package some of their kids for a starter who is in his prime, though few such pitchers are expected to be available this offseason.

No one should shed a tear for the team with the highest payroll in the sport; the Yankees will put their vast resources to work and figure it out.

Then again, maybe the Yankees are in more trouble than most of us think.

Imagine if they had reached the ALCS. Imagine what their rotation might have been then.

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