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Keefe To The City: Handicapping The Yankees Playoff Rotation

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By Neil Keefe
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I have watched Billy Butler’s “home run” from Wednesday night a hundred times, and I don’t think I will ever understand how it is was ruled a home run or what exactly the umpires were watching on the replay screen under the Kauffman Stadium. (Maybe that painful NY Quit Smoking commercial or the infamous AT&T Flash Mob commercial?)

But a ball that didn’t clear the fence OR the smaller fence behind it was ruled a home run for reasons unknown despite all four umpires taking about five minutes to watch different angles of the play. Imagine if a puck that DIDN’T go in the net in an NHL game was called a goal and then confirmed as a goal after the guys upstairs and the officials in Toronto watched it over and over. Except that has happened zero times in the NHL. But a ball that DIDN’T go over the fence in MLB was reviewed and confirmed as a home run? Well, that has now happened one time in MLB. Someone tell Buster Olney we need more replay in baseball!

The Yankees lost on Wednesday night in Kansas City because balls don’t have to clear either fence at Kauffman Stadium to be considered a home run, and because the Yankees went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, and because Chad Fairchild’s strike zone moved more than Alan Embree did during his major league career. And the strike zone changed on every pitch to Jorge Posada during the final at-bat of the game as Joakim Soria, who needed 40 pitches to get three outs and threw 19 balls in the ninth was suddenly being given the benefit of the doubt despite not knowing where the ball was going when it left his right hand. OK, I’m over it.

The bigger story here is what happened on the mound the last few nights for the Yankees in Kansas City, which was hard to watch. The Yankees are trying to win a division and trying to figure out their postseason rotation all while trying to get a six-man rotation down to a normal five-man rotation. Every game in which A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova start is supposed to be an audition to make the five-man rotation at the end of next week. But if this happened to be a real competition (which it isn’t) like the Yankees say it is, then Burnett and Nova would be in serious trouble. But this isn’t a serious competition in the same way that no spring training competition in Tampa is ever serious. The Yankees already know what they are going to do next week when they go back to having a five-man rotation like the 29 other teams in the league.

It really comes down to Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova for the fifth spot because A.J. Burnett and his $82.5 million aren’t about to go sit in the bullpen. How do I know this? Do the following quotes from Brian Cashman sound like a man who is about to take his $82.5 million man out of the rotation?

“I encourage everybody to just break it down. Break it down. Compare him to other people. Look at his start-by-start. Look at his run support. If you smoke the objective pipe, I think the coverage on him would be a little smoother, more accurate.”

“We’ve got six guys who are capable of pitching in a rotation in a pennant race. That’s a good thing. Someone is going to have to go, and we’re going to make that decision. But this stuff about [whether] A.J. Burnett is worthy of being ripped from the rotation is a bunch of crap.”

So, no despite the idea that there is a competition for the rotation, there isn’t. It’s either going to be the 25-year-old Hughes or the 24-year-old Nova that goes to the bullpen. And that’s it.

But I don’t care what the Yankees decide to do with their fifth rotation spot or how they try to justify it when the media asks them how Burnett could possibly keep his rotation spot despite such horrible numbers. I care about what the Yankees do six weeks from now when they put together their postseason rotation for the ALDS.

As of right now, the postseason rotation seems to be:

Game 1: CC Sabathia
This is obvious. I have never been more sure of anything in my life. CC Sabathia will start Game 1 of the ALDS, and Game 4. And if the Yankees win, he will start Game of 1 of the ALCS, and Game 4, and Game 7 and so on. If for any reason (any reason at all) CC Sabathia is not starting Game 1 of the ALDS, I will take myself off the grid and live out of a sketchy motel room like Billy Walsh did when Entourage was still good.

Game 2: Bartolo Colon
I’m sure Bartolo Colon isn’t the unanimous choice to start Game 2 of the postseason, but I’m not really sure how anyone could be talked into anyone else. He is the only one that has consistently No. 2-type stuff this season, and I think Girardi and Cashman trust him enough to make him the Game 2 starter.

To think it was just under five months ago that I didn’t want him to make the team let alone the rotation and now he is going to take the ball in Game 2 of the playoffs unless he pitches absolutely terrible over the final month of the season.

This is what Colon has done against the other current AL playoff teams (Boston, Detroit and Texas) in six games and four starts: 30.1 IP, 35 H, 19 R, 17 ER, 7 BB, 27 K. That’s a 5.05 ERA and a 1.386 WHIP. That’s not exactly reassuring or convincing, but some of those numbers against Boston and Detroit were when he was still in the bullpen in the opening week of the season and I think he is still better than those numbers suggest.

Do I trust Colon? Yes, I do, which I never thought I would.

After Sabathia and Colon, the potential Game 3 starter is unknown. This is a problem. And it’s not a problem that no one knows who it will be. The problem is that no one knows who it should be, which is a completely different thing. But trying to decide who should start Game 3 will get a whole lot easier after next week when the six-man rotation becomes a five-man rotation, which will most likely eliminate one of these four pitches from a shot at pitching in the postseason.

So, in an effort to choose a Game 3 starter six weeks before the Yankees have to, I decided to create odds for the four starters and their chances at getting the ball for Game 3. The odds in parentheses are how I think the Yankees are thinking right now, and not how I’m thinking. The odds will obviously change over the next six weeks and we can revisit them and update them, but for now here they are:

A.J. Burnett (-300)
That’s right, the man I have written more words about (most of them negative) on WFAN.com in the last 18 months is the FAVORITE to get the ball in Game 3 of the ALDS. How do I know this? Because Brian Cashman just passed me his “objective pipe” three minutes ago and I took three monster hits.

The Yankees are going to do everything they can to let Burnett start Game 3. They WANT Burnett to start Game 3 to prove that he isn’t a complete waste of talent, and to prove that giving him $82.5 million isn’t the same as lighting 825,000 one hundred dollar bills on fire. The problem is that Burnett is doing nothing to help his cause.

I’m actually sick of writing about A.J. Burnett. I know that’s hard to believe because I keep doing it, but I am. I shouldn’t have to be handicapping the postseason rotation because the guy making $500,000 per start should be the No. 2 starter and the 18-game winner from last year should be the No. 3 starter. But life isn’t that easy. I wish it was, but it isn’t.

The last time A.J. Burnett allowed two earned runs or less in a start was June 29 against the Brewers. (It was also the last time he had a “quality” start which doesn’t mean much to me, but probably means a lot to the guy with the 4.60 ERA since giving up three earned runs in six innings is actually better than his season ERA suggest.) Since June 29 he has made eight starts and won one of them, which was the first time he won in August in three Augusts as a Yankee. Not one of those eight starts came against a team that will make the playoffs, and three of them came against last-place teams. A.J. Burnett is 32-33 with a 4.61 ERA as a Yankee. He is 1-2 with a 5.67 ERA in five career postseason starts (all as a Yankee). He is less deserving of a postseason start than any other pitcher on any other team that will make the playoffs this year. I feel like Adam Sandler’s dad telling the judge why Sandler’s character (Sonny Koufax) doesn’t deserve to keep Julian, his adopted son, in Big Daddy.

But like the twist at the end of the Big Daddy when Sonny’s dad comes around and changes his mind and thinks his son is deserving of raising a child, there is a twist here too. Actually this twist is crazier than that. It’s more like the twist at the end of The Usual Suspects when special agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) realizes that “Verbal” (Kevin Spacey) is Keyser Soze. (Sorry, if I just ruined the ending of Usual Suspects for you, but it did come out in 1995. You had a chance to see it.)

The crazy twist is that part of me thinks that A.J. Burnett can be the guy with mysterious “great stuff” in the postseason. I said PART OF ME. And that part is very, very, very small. I think Burnett could pitch the way he did against the Rangers for the first five innings of Game 4 of the ALCS last year before Joe Girardi went to his binder and handed out a walk to Hall of Fame fourth outfielder David Murphy. (Note: If Joe Girardi puts up four fingers at any time, turn off the game, walk out of the room and open the liquor cabinet.) If you are careful with Burnett and know when to pull the plug on him if he is going well, I for some reason believe he can be good in the postseason. (Whatever is in that objective pipe must be really strong.)

But here’s the catch (there’s always a catch): Joe Girardi doesn’t know when to pull him. Girardi is quick to pull any other starter in trouble (for the most part), but he always lets Burnett go a little longer. And then a little longer. And then even longer. And then there are runners on second and third with no one out and the two-run lead is in jeopardy in the seventh inning. I don’t expect Girardi to suddenly learn how to take the good Burnett has given him and turn to the bullpen, and that’s why even if Burnett is pitching well in a postseason start I will expect the worst from him because Girardi will let it get to that point.

Phil Hughes (Even odds)
Do you think Cashman wants to put Hughes in the bullpen AGAIN when this six-man rotation experiment is over? I don’t. I don’t think Cashman wants to hear about how he doesn’t know pitching (which history shows he doesn’t) and how he can’t build his own pitching (which he still hasn’t). Hughes was supposed be Cashman’s first homegrown talent that actually worked out and when he won 18 games last year it looked like it would. Then there was the ALCS performance against the Rangers (fatigue?), the loss in velocity (more fatigue?), the historically bad start to this season and the diagnosis of a dead arm. Hughes looks like he is finally back to being himself, and I really don’t think Cashman wants to stick him in the bullpen. But it wouldn’t surprise me. Nothing surprises me anymore.

Hughes has a shot to get into the postseason rotation, and a very good shot. If you take away his July 22 start against the A’s when he (a feat later duplicated just over a week later by A.J. Burnett), he’s been good since coming back from the DL. His line in five starts since returning from the DL without the start against Oakland is: 3-2, 29 IP, 26 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 6 BB, 20 K, 2.48 ERA, 1.103 WHIP. That’s solid. That’s the Phil Hughes that I remember from the first half of last year and Game 3 against the Twins in the ALDS. I love that Phil Hughes. The Phil Hughes from that start against Oakland (4.1 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 4 BB, 3 K) was the Phil Hughes from the second half of last year and the ALCS against the Rangers. I hate that Phil Hughes. If we can consistently see the first Phil Hughes, I think he will get the ball in the playoffs.

Freddy Garcia (+250)
Garcia is a strange case because he isn’t one of the starters in danger of losing his rotation spot, but at the same time he isn’t really in contention to get a postseason start.

Going just off regular season numbers, Freddy Garcia would be the Yankees’ No. 2 starter in the playoffs. But the Yankees don’t go off numbers. If they did, Garcia wouldn’t have been in the rotation to start the season and Colon would have been. The Yankees play favorites and by favorites I mean contracts, and even though they claim they only care about winning, at the end of the day if you have more zeroes and more years on your contract than the other guy, then you get to play or pitch.

Honestly I don’t see any scenario at all where Garcia gets a postseason start. Who cares that he has a 3.16 ERA that is the second to only CC Sabathia on the Yankees and good enough for 11th best in the AL? And who cares that he was going to be the first Yankees starter to record a win against the Red Sox in 12 games this season before Mariano Rivera gave up a leadoff double to Marco Scutaro? He doesn’t have the GREAT STUFF that A.J. Burnett has!

Freddy Garcia isn’t the Freddy Garcia who last pitched in the postseason in 2005 when he shut out the Astros for seven innings in the World Series. We all know that. And if you don’t, Michael Kay will be sure to remind you during Garcia’s next start that he isn’t the hard-throwing ace that once pitched for the Mariners a decade ago.

The media seems to have already counted out Garcia for a postseason start and you can just tell that Girardi and Cashman aren’t going to want him to start one either. He might not have the strikeout stuff and shut down repertoire he once had and he seems to always be working with men on, but he usually works himself out of trouble the way Andy Pettitte used to. The Yankees might not trust him enough to let him start a game in the postseason, but I trust him enough to.

Ivan Nova (+400)
Everyone wants Ivan Nova to continue to build his confidence in the majors, but everyone was also very to quick to start calling him the Yankees’ No. 2 starter and slotting him behind CC in the postseason rotation. On Tuesday the Royals made people remember that this is a kid without a full major league season to his name and a rookie that doesn’t know how to miss bats with consistency, and when he can’t locate his secondary pitches his sinker becomes Chien-Ming Wang’s in the 2007 ALDS. (For the record the Royals also hit him hard back on May 12 at the Stadium.)

Nova is an intriguing Game 3 option because he has shown the ability to induce a lot of ground balls and miss bats (10 strikeouts against the White Sox on Aug. 4). The problem is he was in jeopardy of losing his rotation spot earlier in the year, was sent back to Triple-A (though unjustly) just last month and the biggest game he has ever pitched is … I don’t know a big game he has ever pitched in. An April start at Fenway?

I don’t know that I trust Nova enough yet to put a team away if the Yankees are up 2-0 in the ALDS, keep the Yankees season alive if they’re down 0-2, or win a pivotal Game 3 if the series is tied. It’s hard for me to imagine Girardi and Cashman thinking Nova is their best option either. But he has a month and a half to prove them wrong if he can make the cut to the normal five-man rotation next week.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe