When you spend in excess of $200 million a year on your team's payroll, it would be reasonable to assume that if your club were to make baseball's postseason, you would have a clear idea of whom your starting rotation would be comprised of.
However, that's not the case for the 2011 New York Yankees, a strong, juggernaut of a squad that owns the best record in the AL, but has yet to whittle their 6-man rotation down to a regular quintet.
Clearly, there is CC Sabathia, standing tall at the head of the staff, leading by example and setting the tone for his fellow rotation-mates. His leadership is one of the primary reasons the Yankees have been able to survive a season rife with questions.
There is A.J Burnett, the erratic right-hander with the huge contract, who may or may not have been knocked out by his own pitching coach last year. His inconsistencies are a significant motivating factor behind all the uncertainty in the Bronx. If he were pitching like he is capable of, then he would obviously slot in behind CC as the No. 2 starter. Unfortunately, Burnett has been a mess for two seasons running, and may not even find himself on the playoff roster.
Phil Hughes, last season's 18-game winner, has been on a similarly disappointing downward trend, albeit not to the extent of Burnett. He has struggled with lost velocity, and a tendency to be far too predictable in his pitching patterns, leading to various struggles throughout the year. Hughes is trying to turn his year around with a late-season surge, but it remains to be seen if he has restored the Yankees' confidence in him.
Veteran right-handers, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, both seemingly plucked from oblivion prior to the season, have battled admirably, turning in performances far better than almost anyone predicted.
Garcia has survived on guile and an immense reserve of veteran savvy, rarely topping 85 MPH, but using his location and change of speeds to baffle hitters throughout the season. Despite lacking anything resembling a MLB fastball, Garcia has nonetheless gone 11-7 with an ERA+ of 118. His September starts have seen him get hard though, as he has allowed 12 runs in less than eight innings, casting doubt on his viability as a playoff starter.
Colon, who hadn't pitched the big leagues since 2009, has been astounding, throwing primarily fastballs, but looking like the Bartolo of old, the former Cy Young winner with the Angels. Despite his rotund physique and lack of secondary pitches, Colon has been a revelation for the Yankees, utilizing stellar command to pitch his way into contention for a playoff rotation spot. Only 8-9, Colon has pitched far better than his record indicates, In 152 innings, Colon has struck out 128 and only walked 36, owning a WHIP of 1.23 and an ERA of 3.55. His ERA+ of 128 is second on the staff, and his 6.1 innings per start also trails only CC. His consistent body of work over the course of the season has likely earned him a playoff starting spot.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the six men in consideration is rookie right-hander, Ivan Nova. The 24-year-old has impressed immensely, forcing his way into contention for a starting role, potentially even the No. 2 spot following Sabathia. At 15-4, the Yankee farm product has been on a significant role, having not tasted defeat since June 3. Even recently, he survived a beating in an August 16 no-decision at Kansas City, to go 3-0 with a 2.41 ERA in five starts since that day.
Just yesterday, he worked into the 8th inning at Seattle, subduing an offensively-challenged Mariners team in their home park. Of course, the opposition wasn't playoff caliber, but his efficiency and poise furthered the notion that he is capable of performing in the manner the Yankees need as they search for pitching behind CC.
His record may be the direct beneficiary of strong run support, but with an ERA of 3.81, less hits than innings pitched and a 3.2 walks per nine innings rate, Nova is demonstrating that he knows how to pitch, earning confidence from the Yankees. With a Roy Halladayesque 0.8 home runs allowed per nine innings, he is keeping the ball in the park and minimizing damage when required.
The confidence is apparent in Nova every time he takes the mound. His poise and presence have become a steadying factor for his team, as they have won 18 of the 25 games he has started. In the Bronx, we haven't seen a young pitcher with this kind of impact since a 24-year-old Andy Pettitte won 21 games in 1996 and helped lead the Yankees to their first World Series title since 1978.
Surprisingly, the Pettitte comparisons are rather fitting. In 1996, Pettitte's first full season as a big leaguer, he went 21-8 with 3.87 ERA and a 1.362 WHIP. He allowed only 2.9 walks per nine innings, and 0.9 home runs, eerily similar to Nova's 2011 campaign. Andy went on to win a few critical games for the 1996 World Champions, helping to forge his reputation as one of modern baseball's premier big game pitchers on the playoff stage.
Can Nova have a similar impact for the 2011 Yankees? We have just over two weeks of the season remaining for him to cement his spot in the organization's playoff plans. With the success he has experienced, it is clear that Nova will have an important role to play, it simply remains to be seen how much faith the team will place in their rookie right-hander.
With the streak he is currently on, I wouldn't be surprised to see the rising young star take on a significant role in October and reward the Yankees with continued dominance as they strive toward their 28th World Series title in franchise history.