Hot Streak or Not, the Yankees Still Need Starters

The New York Yankees showed Friday night, with a dramatic 1-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox, that their years-long attempt to find a number one starter is finally over with the development of Joba Chamberlain.

But as Sidney Ponson’s horrible outing Sunday night in New York’s 9-2 loss to the Red Sox showed, it is the back of their rotation that needs help if the Yankees are to win the American League Eastern Division title, or even the wild card. Teams need top-flight starting pitching once they reach the postseason—but the Yankees may not have enough depth to get there.

The Yankees have three reliable pitchers right now: the reborn Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, and, of course, Joba Chamberlain. The much-hyped Chamberlain has been better than even his biggest boosters had any right to expect. Through the first ten starts of his major league career, which included a number of outings limited by pitch count, Chamberlain has pitched 54 2/3 innings with a 2.30 ERA, which would place him just .01 from the American League leader, Cliff Lee, if he had enough innings to qualify.

Missing a number-one starter has hurt the Yankees consistently in the postseason in recent years. Just last season, New York’s top starter was Chien-Ming Wang, who started both Game 1 and Game 4 of the American League Division Series against Cleveland—losing both.

But Friday night, against Boston’s big-game pitcher, Josh Beckett, Chamberlain matched him pitch-for-pitch. Beckett gave up one run in seven innings, walking just one and striking out six. Chamberlain was better, allowing no runs, one walk, and striking out nine.

It was the type of performance the Yankees have thirsted for in October for years—and not coincidentally, have rarely gotten during their seven seasons of postseason famine. The last New York starter to go seven innings in a postseason game was Jon Lieber, who did so in a losing cause back in 2004 against the Red Sox. No Yankee pitcher had struck out nine or more batters in the postseason since Andy Pettitte struck out ten in the 2003 ALDS.

But Chamberlain, who has 26 strikeouts against two walks in his last three starts, is an ace at his current level of performance—and who, with a learning process that seems to be accelerating, holds out the promise of being even better by October.

This still leaves New York with the task of finding four other starters to get him there. Mussina, against all odds, appears to be more than capable of taking the ball in a Game 2. A good control pitcher even in his difficult 2007, Mussina has taken a tiny walk rate—2.1 per nine innings last year—and virtually halved it, to 1.2 per nine. His strikeout rate has improved, and there is little indication that he will falter over the final two months of the regular season.

Pettitte, too, has been his reliable self—his ERA is ten percent better than league average in 2008, just as it was in 2007. His ERA has also come down in each of the past three months—in July, it was just 3.03.

But where do the Yankees turn for their final two spots in the rotation? Ironically, Chien-Ming Wang, who was New York’s ace only by default, would be an excellent, even overqualified a number-four starter. But Wang is injured, and the Yankees don’t expect him back until mid-September at least. Phil Hughes is also tentatively on the mend, but may yet be shut down for the season. Even if either return, it won’t be until the lion’s share of the regular season is played.

And the current occupants of the fourth and fifth rotation slots are simply not up to the task. Ponson has posted two good starts, a mediocre starts, and two terrible starts. But his peripheral numbers—12 walks and 12 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings as a Yankee, and a 6.08 ERA—indicate even these meager results may be as good as it gets for him.

Meanwhile, Darrell Rasner, whose 25 innings of 1.80 ERA pitching in May provided a fairy tale, has run out of magic beans—his ERA in June was 6.47, in July 6.32.

In another division, this weakness might be masked by New York’s offense and bullpen, each of which got a boost this weekend with the acquisitions of outfielder Xavier Nady and reliever Damaso Marte. But New York will need to beat out either Boston, which employs six starting pitchers with ERAs at least seven percent better than league average, or Tampa Bay, whose fifth starter, Andy Sonnanstine, is having a remarkably similar season to New York’s Mussina, and whose other four starters all have better ERAs than Sonnanstine. The Yankees currently trail Boston by two games, and Tampa Bay by three games.

The deadline for teams to make trades without exposing the players in a deal to waivers is July 31. The Yankees have long since missed their chance to add a number-one starter to pair with Chamberlain in the playoffs, and will need Mussina and Pettitte to pitch in October as they have in July. But without adding even some league-average innings, they may not get the chance.

Hot Streak or Not, the Yankees Still Need Starters