Wednesday, October 6, 2010

CC Riders

Most Yankees fans are relieved that one-time No. 2 starting pitcher A.J. Burnett has been dropped from the pitching rotation for the division series against the Minnesota Twins because Burnett struggled mightily in the second half of 2010.

After a first half in which he was rarely better than mediocre and frequently less than adequate, the right-hander pitched to an unsightly 5.60 ERA in September, which wasn't what the brass in the Bronx had banked on when they'd inked him to long-term deal that paid him $16.5 million this year alone. Of course, they weren't nearly as upset in September as they were in August when he tallied a 7.80 ERA. In a world with no New York Metropolitans, A.J. is likely the biggest NYC baseball pariah in 2010. Hopefully he'll put Ollie Perez on his postseason comp ticket list.

With Burnett banished, Andy Pettitte untested after a long injury layoff, and 24-year-old Phil Hughes (whose performance this season should make him the No. 2 starter in Burnett-less Bronx) relegated to one start in the ALDS, there is a lot riding on CC Sabathia's performance in the opener.

Watching Tampa Bays race ace David Price go down against Texas today really crystallized that for me. Behind Price, Tampa has Garza, Shields and a bevy of other capable arms. Now, I don't know if they brought any bats with them into October, but that's another questions for another post. On the other hand, if CC doesn't earn the win tonight in Game 1 then this Yankees team, for all its offensive fireworks in 2010, could be dispatched by Minnesota without anything too extraordinary happening at Target Field. After CC, the Yankees' rotation is filled with question marks heading into the playoffs and the club has been dismal against left-handers lately (the Twins will send out southpaws in Games 1, 3 and 5). Obviously, any team that loses Game 1 is emminently beatable in a five-game affair, and I don't mean to imply that I've discovered that point. In other groundbreaking WWOD? discoveries, he who spends all his money on lunch will not have much for dinner. What I'm saying is that this Yankees club is especially vulnerable after Sabathia in a way that the other playoff teams are not. A Game 1 loss potentially hurts them more than Tampa, Texas, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Perhaps the only other club as dependent on a win in the opener is Minnesota, who would ask Carl Pavano to pitch Games 2 and 5. Which makes CC's Game 1 outing arguably the most important start in the any Division Series.

Despite tossing just 13.1 innings since the middle of July, Pettitte is scheduled to start Games 2 and 5. Granted, the veteran had posted an 11-2 record until he went on the shelf with a groin injury. And his resume is stocked with more postseason wins then I've had jobs with the word "assistant" in the title. Nevertheless, it's a lot to ask of a guy on a 20-month stroll to 40 years of age and just coming back from injury to pitch twice in a five-game series, including a potential winner-take-all game 5 on the road. Could anyone really be that surprised if he were to scuffle or pull up a little lame on a third-inning pitch in the cool Minneapolis air? I don't think so. And, no one could blame Pettitte.

If CC were to get edged by the Twins' Game 1 starter, Francisco Liriano, and Pettitte were to sputter then the secondary consequence of Burnett's ineptitude would become apparent. Had Burnett posted Hughes' 18-8 record or even his 4.19 ERA then there would be no doubt about who starts Game 2 in any postseason series. But without Burnett's track record or pay check, the inexperienced Hughes doesn't get that assignment. Which means that that the team's second best pitcher doesn't pitch twice in a best-of-five series. Which means Pettitte gets bumped up a spot due to his "experience" and despite his recent injury.

Again, the Yankees' offensive prowess can make these all moot points, but if CC can't deliver a Game 1 victory and the Yankees get dumped then it won't necessarily be the fault of Sabathia, Pettitte or even Hughes. It'll be the fault of a guy in the bullpen unlikely to even appear, whose poor performance led New York skipper Joe Girardi to ask too much his veteran workhorse and too little of his promising pitcher of the future.