(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)
By most objective standards, the Yankees have the best pitching staff in the American League. And yet, according to some, Brian Cashman’s inability to acquire another pitcher has branded the team as a “trade deadline loser”. So much for perspective.
American League Pitching Staffs, Ranked by Average WAR*
Note: AvgWAR = bWAR + fWAR/2
Source: Baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
Let’s be honest. The reason so few people seem to believe in the Yankees’ rotation is because the team’s second and third best starters were looked upon as veteran retreads less than four months ago. No matter how well Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon continue to pitch, that stigma will remain until they come up big in October. Based on the injury history of each veteran, it’s hard to criticize that perception. After all, if the Yankees were completely confident in the pair, Cashman probably wouldn’t have even entertained some of the discussions he reportedly had with other general managers.
‘I think they’re in trouble,’ said one scout. ‘I look at their rotation, and there’s CC [Sabathia]. And then there’s CC.'” – anonymous scout quoted by Jayson Stark, July 31, 2011
The second part of the above statement is a reasonable one. In fact, I’ve probably uttered it myself on occasion. However, just because the Yankees do not have another pitcher on Sabathia’s level (very few in the entire league are), does that really mean the Yankees are in trouble? Even though Garcia and Colon remain legitimate question marks, is every other American League contender that much stronger in terms of rotation reliability? Let’s take a look.
To no surprise, Justin Verlander currently ranks as the best American League pitcher in terms of average WAR, but can he shoulder the load for the Tigers in the playoffs? Although the addition of Doug Fister lengthens the rotation, the 27-year old right hander, who is enjoying the best season of his career by far, is hardly a proven commodity. Perhaps more than any other team, the Tigers’ ability to win a playoff series seems tied to the performance of their ace.
The Tigers may have the best starter, but with Jered Weaver, the Angels come pretty close. In fact, Dan Haren isn’t that far behind either. Weaver and Haren both have an average WAR above 4, which is significant because no other potential playoff rotation has two pitchers above three. What’s more, Ervin Santana, a potential game three starter, is probably the most reliable pitcher among similar options on each team, both in terms of health and experience.
The only other team with a tandem to match the Angels’ pair is the Red Sox. Although Jon Lester has not performed up to his usual standards, if healthy, the lefthander would combine with Josh Beckett to form a daunting one-two punch. However, even if both starters are on top of their game, the Red Sox could suffer at the bottom end of the rotation, which projects to include Erik Bedard and John Lackey. Both of those pitchers currently rank last among their respective counterparts.
Along with Weaver and Verlander, the Yankees’ CC Sabathia is also in the conversation for league’s best pitcher (according to bWAR, the lefty ranks first). The conventional wisdom is the Yankees’ post season chances will ride heavily on Sabathia’s performance, but considering how well he has pitched, is that such a bad thing? Although it’s hard to deny that the Yankees will need their big man to lead the way, Colon and Garcia, who both have an average WAR of 2.2, do not seem that outclassed when compared to some of the potential competition. Even A.J. Burnett isn’t overwhelmed by the other game four candidates he could be in line to face.
Although Texas lacks a true number one starter, the Rangers have managed to build a relatively deep rotation. In fact, it is the only staff that features four starters with an average WAR of 2. So, even if C.J. Wilson isn’t on par with many of the potential aces he’d likely face in an opening game, Texas might be the team most capable of winning a series after falling behind.
The Indians’ acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez makes them legitimate playoff contenders, but unless the right hander can return to his 2010 form, Cleveland is still facing an uphill battle. However, if Jimenez is able to once again be an ace, Justin Masterson suddenly looks much more attractive as a rotation sidekick. Otherwise, its hard to imagine Masterson holding his own as a post season leading man so early in his career.
Based on the current breakdown of potential post season rotations in the American League, the Yankees may not be a prohibitive favorite, but that doesn’t mean they are “in trouble”. Granted, there is a pretty big drop off from Sabathia to the rest of the rotation, but the same could be said for several other teams. Obviously, the Yankees will need Sabathia to carry the load, but when you consider the team’s relative strength on offense and in the bullpen, there are also plenty of others capable of doing some heavy lifting.
At the beginning of the year, the Red Sox were credited with winning the offseason. Now, conventional wisdom has suggested the Rangers won the trade deadline. What really counts, however, is who wins the post season, and at this point, the Yankees are still as good a bet as any.