Four and a half years ago the 2007 season ended in disappointment for the New York Yankees as, for the third year in a row, they got eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Like most Yankee teams during those years, their offense — led by Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui — was much better than their pitching, which other than another standout year from Mariano Rivera and strong years by Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang, was not very strong. Overall the Yankees led the league in runs scored while finishing 8th in ERA.
Following their defeat in 2007, the Yankees had some reason to believe their pitching would improve as three young pitchers, 21 year old Phil Hughes (58 Ks, 29 BBs and a 4.46 ERA in 72.2 innings), 21 year old Joba Chamberlain (34,6, 0.38, 24) and 22 year old Ian Kennedy (15,9, 1.89, 19) had rookie years that ranged from impressive to phenomenal. Following the 2007 season, much attention was lavished on these three pitchers who many believed held the key to the Yankees future. Kennedy has lived up to some of this hype, emerging as a Cy Young candidate last year for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Kennedy was sent to Arizona in a big three team trade that brought Curtis Granderson to the Yankees. Given how good Granderson has been, the Yankees cannot really be faulted for that trade. Hughes and Chamberlain, however, have seen their careers and potential disappear down a rabbit hole of injuries, misuse and uncertainty.
Two years later, in 2009, the Yankees won the World Series, but the trio of starting pitchers who got them through the post-season were all veterans. Two, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, had recently signed as free agents, while one, Pettitte, had come up through the Yankee system in the early and mid-1990s. The story of Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain is anecdotal, but it suggests that in recent years while the Yankees have done some things very well, such as develop relief pitchers like David Robertson or turn prospects who manage to draw only modest attention into valuable offensive contributors, such as Robinson Cano or Brett Gardner, developing starting pitchers is not something the Yankees do well.
The exception to this is obviously Ivan Nova, but Nova seems to have emerged as an important member of the Yankee rotation almost in spite of the Yankees treatment of him. Nova, interestingly, was also never as highly touted as any of the three pitchers from 2007. Michael Pineda’s experience with the Yankees over the last few months is further evidence of this problem. Pineda is injured, but preventing injuries while allowing for enough work is the main challenge involved in developing pitchers, a challenge the Yankees appear to be failing to meet once again. Pineda is a 23 year old former All Star who cost the Yankees their top hitting prospect. If he ends up in the Chamberlain and Hughes category of missed opportunities, nagging injuries and poor performance, it will be a big loss for the Yankees.
The Yankees inability to develop highly touted pitching prospects into quality major league starters is an organizational problem that probably involves scouts, minor league managers and coaches, big league managers and coaches and front office management. Solving this problem will not be easy and probably cannot be done simply by bringing in one pitching guru like the San Francisco Giants’ Dick Tidrow.
Although solving this problem will not be easy or fast, being aware of this problem can help the Yankees make better decisions, particularly as the Yankees have had some success with bringing in veteran starters for one or two year stints. Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia contributed last year. Hiroki Kuroda could be a key pitcher this year. In this light, Pettitte’s comeback is a good sign for the Yankees as they are much better at working with older pitchers than with younger pitchers.
If the Yankees truly know their own weaknesses and strengths and are aware of the problems they have with developing pitchers, they should probably see Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances as players who can be traded for veteran value, rather than future Yankee starters. This will be a tough call for the Yankees and for their fans who are looking forward to seeing Banuelos and Betances contribute to the big league club. However, Banuelos and Betances could easily become the new version of Hughes and Chamberlain unless the Yankees change their approach to pitchers. In baseball, as in many other things, self-awareness is not easy, but can be a very valuable asset.