Starting rotation to shape Yanks' fate

Starting rotation to shape Yanks' fate

TAMPA, Fla. -- The flecks of gray hiding under Andy Pettitte's cap are more plentiful, and the years don't lie. That fresh-faced rookie left-hander has grown into the veteran sage of the Yankees' rotation.

Starters have come and gone during Pettitte's 11 seasons in pinstripes, interrupted on the back of his baseball cards only by those three lines in Houston. They say good pitching wins championships, and Pettitte has learned a hard lesson about forecasting that a staff will be able to bring one home.

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"For me, you expect to get to a World Series," Pettitte said, "but I think we're realizing how much work and how difficult it is to do that. We haven't been there since 2003 and haven't won it since 2000. It's extremely hard to do.

"I think everybody is finally realizing, it doesn't matter how much you spend or what kind of team you put together. It's awfully tough to win in this league."

After missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993, the Yankees wasted no time in promising that they would make upgrading their starting pitching the top priority.

They all but telegraphed their intentions to the rest of the league. No matter what it cost, the Yankees were going to make sure they upgraded a rotation that was forced to stagger to the finish line last season with a patchwork array of arms.

If general manager Brian Cashman had to slip out of Las Vegas to dump more cash on CC Sabathia's doorstep, so be it. And after players like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon pestered Cashman to steal A.J. Burnett away, the Yanks promptly trumped the Braves' offer by a few measly million dollars.

The end result is a rotation that could be as strong as any since the championship seasons, those same ones that Joe Torre delighted in recounting for his book -- at least, before things turned sour with Javier Vazquez, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown and, yes, Carl Pavano.

"By far, our depth in the rotation is unbelievable," Pettitte said. "When you have a rotation like we're going to run out there, how can you not feel like you're as well equipped as anybody in baseball?"

Perhaps it won't all work out with a parade down the Canyon of Heroes. The Yankees have been fooled before.

Sabathia's arm could pay a heavy price for recording 1,482 outs in the past two regular seasons. With no contract to pitch for, Burnett's track record doesn't necessarily inspire confidence that his first Yankees season won't include a disabled list detour.

But if everything clicks right, the Yankees may have one of baseball's best staffs appearing every night at their sparkling new $1.5 billion cathedral.

"We've definitely got the talent in there, we've got the guys in there," Sabathia said. "I'm excited to see what our staff will be."

That feeling has been contagious. Upon arriving in camp, Burnett found the rotation so solid -- Pettitte as the No. 4, Joba Chamberlain as the No. 5 -- that he proclaimed each pitcher should win at least 15 games.

"There is," Burnett said convincingly, "no back end."


"When you have a rotation like we're going to run out there, how can you not feel like you're as well equipped as anybody in baseball?"
-- Andy Pettitte

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been careful not to count his blessings before the team gets to the blocks, especially considering how the club's season shifted on a steamy June afternoon in Houston last season.

The memory is still cringe-worthy: Chien-Ming Wang, a 19-game winner two years running and well on his way again, limping off the field while using Girardi's shoulders as a brace after a fluke baserunning mishap.

Now a sworn enemy of the National League, Wang was done, his final record stuck at 8-2. But now that Wang is back to pounding the strike zone with what former pitching coach Ron Guidry referred to as his "bowling ball sinker," Girardi calls Wang's return vital to the staff.

"I think this rotation is very strong," Wang said. "CC and Burnett are going to get a lot of innings. Pettitte and Joba, too."

Looking up and down the starting five -- Wang sandwiched as the No. 2 between the strikeout-heavy Sabathia and Burnett -- Girardi can't help but feel more confident about his rotation's chances over last year's five. That staff basically handed starting jobs to rookies Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, who finished the year without recording a win.

"It's definitely a lot more experienced," Girardi said.

"These guys have a track record of what they've done, what they're capable of doing. Mentally, you don't necessarily worry about them as much if they have a couple of bad starts in a row.

"If they don't get off to a good start, you don't worry about them as much because they have that track record to fall on."

The wild card could be Chamberlain, the owner of four quality pitches and a never-ending debate that follows him from city to city. So far, the bullpen supporters are losing the fight, as Chamberlain will have his opportunity to follow up on the promise he showed during a part-time starting stint last season.

Chamberlain's badge of honor, so far, came in a July 25 start at Fenway Park, when the right-hander locked heads with Josh Beckett and came away victorious in a 1-0 duel. Chamberlain walked none and struck out nine that night, a big see-told-you-so in his favor. He promises to be ready for encore performances.

"Nothing's 100 percent, and I understand that in this game -- especially with this team," Chamberlain said. "But I also understand that I have a pretty good idea that's what I'm going to do. I can stay in my routine and not shuffle and try to figure out what works during the year. As a starter, I know what it's going to take during the season."

But so much is still up for debate. On the topic of October -- the organizational motto so emblazoned in the public perception that it might as well replace the script word on the top-hat logo -- Pettitte takes a page from Jeter's book.

It's the captain's often-spoken belief that the best eight teams get into the postseason, but the hottest team comes away the champion. The biorhythms of the game play such a large part during that final dance, Pettitte's opening round of expectations for the Yankees are simply to crack back into that Division Series layer.

"First and foremost, the expectations for me are to get to the playoffs," Pettitte said. "We got knocked out last year and we didn't get there. If we get to the playoffs, we'll go from there -- see how everybody is pitching and how our health is.

"Hopefully you have things go right for you and you're able to advance to the World Series. But the way the league is now, it's awfully tough to go in and say, 'Our expectation is to win the World Series.' That's what you want, but it's just hard to do."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.