Is there a more fascinating rotation in fantasy than the one sported by the New York Yankees? All five projected starters carry compelling storylines into 2014, whether they’re attempting to stave off injury or prove themselves as capable big league hurlers as the team looks to return to postseason baseball.
There’s nothing wrong with being 33 years old, but the question for fantasy owners is how quickly CC Sabathia’s advancing years are diminishing his value. There’s plenty to be down about: the lefty last season posted the lowest WAR (2.7), highest batting average against (.267), ERA (4.78) and WHIP (1.37) of his 13-year career. Optimists might look at his 3.76 xFIP and believe he was cheated a bit on the 27 home runs he allowed, and less home runs would improve his strand rate, and a better strand rate would help bring down his ERA. But what’s most alarming to fantasy owners is the drop in strikeouts; his 19.3 percent strikeout rate was his lowest since 2004, his whiff rate dropped nearly two percentage points from 2012 and his average fastball velocity declined for the third straight season.
About that fastball: since 2010, the isolated power against Sabathia’s four-seamer has jumped nearly 100 points to a not-comforting .194 last year. Not a great sign. His health is also worth considering; gone are the days when he averaged 240 innings a season, and his 2013 campaign came to a premature end due to a hamstring injury. He’s dropped some weight over the offseason (almost to an unsettling extent), which could be a meaningful sign, or not.
Such are the factors that have led owners to draft the likes of Marco Estrada and Dillon Gee ahead of Sabathia on Mock Draft Central. That’s a bit harsh, though if Brett Talley can make a convincing case for why Jon Lester shouldn’t be viewed higher than a No. 4 hurler in mixed leagues, perhaps the same should be said for Sabathia as he begins 2014.
Hiroki Kuroda’s 11-13 record may not have looked too great on TV broadcasts, but aside from the disappointing win total, you didn’t see too many fantasy owners complain about his 2013 output. That’s because, as he enters his age-39 season, Kuroda has honed a reputation for delivering the goods as advertised: solid production without a lot of fuss. His 1.9 BB/9 was good for sixth among qualified American League starters and was largely responsible for a delectable 1.16 WHIP. His peripherals all check out, and, aside from the aforementioned win total, he delivered essentially the same season last year as he did in 2012, when he posted a 3.7 WAR. Frankly, the only concern about Kuroda is his age, though that hasn’t stopped him from averaging 205 innings and 32 starts over the past four seasons. As a solid No. 4 starter with the ability to produce positive results across the board, consider all systems go for Kuroda as he begins his third year in New York.
How will Masahiro Tanaka, coming off an astounding 24-0 season in Japan, translate to the major leagues? No one knows with any certainty — the 25-year-old will be adjusting to a new league while looking to justify a $155 million contract, to say nothing of the American League East’s high level of competition and the launching pad that is Yankee Stadium. But he’s expected to be packing a highly-touted splitter and an ability to keep the walks down, which surely makes him attractive to fantasy owners. The comparisons to Yu Darvish are inevitable — with some believing Tanaka is better — but Tanaka likely won’t produce Darvish-like strikeout totals, and the Yankees are trying to keep expectations in check. Recently, FanGraphs’ J.P. Breen and Mike Podhorzer independently projected Tanaka outside the top 20 among fantasy starters, and owners on MDC are plucking him 23rd (127 ADP). That puts him after the likes of David Price and Anibal Sanchez, but ahead of guys like Homer Bailey, Doug Fister and Hyun-Jin Ryu (not to mention Sabathia and Kuroda), which sounds reasonable.
Ivan Nova’s 2013 campaign was a tale of setback and eventual triumph. After battling a triceps injury and being bounced to the bullpen in the first half, Nova returned to the rotation for good in early July and produced a 2.59 ERA with a solid 2.5 K/BB ratio the rest of the way, hurling two shutouts for good measure. It was good enough to lower his ERA to 3.10 and finish with a 2.5 WAR. In August, Michael Barr picked up on Nova’s increasing reliance on his curveball, but the truth is, that’s a trend now two years in the making, as he’s almost completely ditched his slider. The results — a career K/9 that was 5.4 at the end of 2011 now stands at 6.8, while his walk rate has decreased each season — are encouraging for a guy who just turned 27. Steamer and Oliver, doubting Nova’s ability to replicate a 79.8 percent strand rate, see his ERA touching four, but Nova does enough things well — including an ability to keep the ball on the ground in homer-happy Yankee Stadium — that he’s worth drafting as at least a spot starter in all but the shallowest of leagues.
In the Yankees’ only rotation spot battle of the spring, fantasy owners are rooting for Michael Pineda, 25, to get the job, as he’s got the highest ceiling among the competitors. You remember his story: he had a terrific rookie season in 2011 before being traded to the Yankees, where he showed up out of shape to spring camp before suffering a labrum tear in his shoulder. Two years later, he says “I’m the same Michael Pineda,” which fantasy owners hope is a sign he’ll be back to throwing mid-90s heat and 25 percent strikeout rate goodness this summer. Last year, Pineda made 10 appearances over three minor league levels, posting a combined 3.32 ERA while punching out a batter per inning, though he was shut down in August with shoulder stiffness.
He’s back on the mound, and the signs from Yankees camp so far seem promising. Assuming Pineda gets the job, it’s probably dangerous to depend too closely on his 2011 numbers as a harbinger of things to come in 2014, but as long as we dream of high strikeouts and sub-3 BB/9 control, however, we’d do well to recall the Dominican’s penchant for flyballs — his 44.8 percent rate was sixth among qualified starters in 2011 — which could be poisonous in the Bronx. Still, such projections are merely academic until fantasy owners can see how well he’s holding up next month — and whether the Yankees officially anoint him as the fifth starter.
If Pineda’s not ready, David Phelps is the most likely candidate, having split 2013 between the bullpen and rotation. The 27-year-old has amassed a decent major league career so far, and wouldn’t be entirely useless to fantasy owners given a career 21 percent strikeout rate, but has meh ERA and WHIP numbers so far and offers more help to real-life teams than fantasy ones. Adam Warren pitched exclusively out of the Yankees’ bullpen last year save for two spot starts, and his minor league numbers don’t suggest big things were he to be handed the ball every fifth day. Vidal Nuno is perhaps the most intriguing candidate out of the group, as the 26-year-old lefty posted a better than five-to-one K/BB ratio over 428 innings in the minors and looked especially sharp in Triple-A last year before a groin injury in June cost him the rest of the season.
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