By Neil Keefe
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Up until last Friday, the Yankees were ready to run out the same rotation that wasn’t good enough to win in 2011. But then with one trade and one free-agent signing, the Yankees have gone from solid rotation to dominant rotation.

Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda join a rotation that now also boasts CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova and someone from the group of Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia and the legendary A.J. Burnett. Having two much starting pitching is always a good problem to have, and the Yankees currently have seven starters for five spots in their rotation.

While it’s a great problem, it also raises a lot to talk and debate about. And with spring training still a month away, and without real, meaningful baseball until April, that gives us a lot of time to talk about who should be in and who should be out of the rotation.

Sweeny Murti, WFAN Yankees beat reporter, joined me for another epic email discussion to talk about the state of the Yankees. I didn’t think I would have to turn to Sweeny so many times during the offseason, but with the trade for Pineda, the signing of Kuroda and the news that Sweeny broke recently of Jorge Posada’s decision to retire, I needed to hear from the Voice of Reason.

Keefe: Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda are Yankees! The Giants are in the NFC Championship game! It’s a great time to be a New York sports fan! (Unless you’re a New York sports fan whose teams are the Jets and Mets, then I guess life is just the usual for you).

Last Friday I was on Amtrak to Boston and I fell asleep and woke up to check Twitter on my phone and the first few tweets are about Jesus Montero. Then I see “Montero to Seattle” and my first thought is, “FELIX HERNANDEZ!” Luckily I had the seat to myself because if someone had been sitting next to me they would have thought I just hit the Powerball or that I just found out oil was found under one of my relative’s houses. A little more scrolling on Twitter and I found out that the Yankees had landed Michael Pineda and not Felix Hernandez, but I was still ecstatic. Starting pitching! Real starting pitching! STARTING PITCHING!

I think this is our 193rd email discussion (give or take) and in all of them I have brought up starting pitching. You have assured me that someday, somewhere down the road the Yankees would bolster their rotation and that I wouldn’t have to worry about seeing Sidney Ponson or Darrell Rasner ever again. Well on Jan. 19, 2012, I can honestly say that I am once again proud of the Yankees’ starting rotation.

Let’s start with how this deal went down. There weren’t any rumblings about a possible deal for Montero at all aside from the failed Cliff Lee deal in 2010. I know Brian Cashman is one to make stealthy moves in the past (A-Rod trade, Teixeira signing) and this was really no different.

How long was this deal talked about before it happened? And how badly do the Mariners wish they could take back their trade of Lee for Justin Smoak in 2010, so that they could have had Montero for all of last year and kept Pineda? Thanks, Texas!

Murti: Well Happy New Year to you! It seems like the only way your 2012 could get off to a better start would be if you had won Mega Millions. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

Brian Cashman has taken a lot of heat for his “inactivity” this winter, but people made it sound like he had taken the phone off the hook and had set up shop in Cancun for the winter. Cashman was waiting for the prices on available options to come down. The Mariners had been focused on Montero and Ivan Nova, but the Yanks were not going to budge on Nova. When the Mariners finally relented and dropped down to Hector Noesi, the deal was on its way.

The Yankees gave up somebody that might be a really good hitter, but they got somebody that might be a really good pitcher. And what have we learned about good hitting and good pitching time and time again?

Looking back now, I can see the Yankees were intent on selling high on Montero. They chalked it up to immaturity in 2010 when Montero was benched for not hustling and then showed up late for batting practice the next day. Last spring and summer, word started to get around on Montero and I documented that last July.

Still, when Montero came up in September he showed what that “special bat” was all about. His opposite field power in particular was impressive, reminiscent of the young Mike Piazza. We also saw flashes of why he’s also been compared to Manny Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera, but the Yankees needed pitching and the Mariners needed hitting, and both teams found it worth the risk of trading a rising star.

Time will tell who got the better of this trade, but I already don’t like hearing from Yankee fans who are worried Montero becomes a star. There is no rule that says the Yankees can only give up duds and must fleece other teams out of their All-Stars. It’s OK if the Yankees trade away some good players once in a while.

As for the Mariners, they’ve had great pitching and still weren’t able to win, so they’ve had to trade some of it away to get bats they covet, like Smoak and Montero. But they still have Felix Hernandez. And after seeing this trade and realizing the two sides were talking, but Hernandez still remains a Mariner, I’m convinced that this particular Seattle regime will not be trading King Felix at all.

There goes your Mega Millions ticket.

Keefe: Just a few days ago the Yankees rotation was CC Sabathia-Ivan Nova-Freddy Garcia-Phil Hughes-A.J. Burnett in some order (obviously I’m going to put Burnett last). Now today it’s some order of CC Sabathia-Michael Pineda-Ivan Nova-Hiroki Kuroda and then the fifth spot is between Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett.

We all know that one of the top four starters is going to miss a start or starts at some point (I’m knocking on wood just incase). It happens every year. As of right now, someone has to be the odd man out, and I guess that will be settled in spring training, but since we’re still weeks away from spring training, let’s play the hypothetical game since that’s the only game being played any time soon.

If the Yankees are going to preach winning and that they are going to field the best possible team to try and win a championship, then how can they justify giving a starting spot to A.J. Burnett? I guess if he goes out and dominates in the spring then he should earn it (not really), but if the Yankees were reportedly willing to eat around half of his contract to rid themselves of him, they might as well stick him in the bullpen if they’re that low on him.

Then again, you could put Phil Hughes in the bullpen where he has thrived in the past. With a strong rotation, and Hughes in the bullpen, the Yankees’ relief staff could consist of Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Phil Hughes, Boone Logan (unfortunately) and Cory Wade, and a healthy Joba Chamberlain. (I’m sure the Yankees will also try and add in another lefty no matter whether the lefty is worthy of a major league roster spot or not.) But the Yankees have put so much time and stock into Hughes and in 2010 he was so good before the “dead arm” in 2011 caused him to be inconsistent. I still believe that Phil Hughes should be a starting pitcher for the Yankees, and I think he is the best option.

But then there’s Freddy Garcia who was phenomenal for the Yankees when no one expected anything from him. I don’t think Freddy fits the role of a reliever or a long man, but two pitchers have to be odd men out here, so really I’m not sure what to do. You can never have enough starting pitching! Otherwise you end up having Chase Wright and Matt DeSalvo starting games for you while you chase a postseason berth.

So, Voice of Reason, I ask you on Jan. 19 what your rotation is and what you do with the other two guys? I know you have thought about it.

Murti: I guarantee when Joe Girardi (the man who’s opinion is the only one that matters) is asked that question about a month from now he won’t give us the answer we want. The Yankees have an excess of starting pitching and that’s a good problem. There will be seven weeks that follow to help sort out the answer. There are bound to be sore arms or legs or backs or something that helps to settle the issue. If not, again, that’s a good problem and there are a number of ways to deal with it.

I know that talk of Hughes to the bullpen will continue, but let’s remember that his All-Star year as a starter is worth much more than his year in the bullpen. Hughes is now entering his physical peak at age 25 and the shackles of innings limits are gone. And what’s more, with Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera anchoring the bullpen there’s not the same need there was in 2009 when Hughes was shifted there. I would like to see Hughes back in the rotation.

I know you personally would not care if Burnett was locked away in a storage closet or put to work as a peanut vendor, but the Yankees are not going to bury him just yet. True, the Yankees would be willing to eat as much as half the remaining $33 million on Burnett’s contract in a trade, but do you think there is any chance of that happening if he becomes the most expensive long reliever in history? The Yankees will at least give him a chance in the spring to win or lose a spot. Remember the lengths Girardi and Cashman have gone to protect and defend Burnett. If they want to have any chance of trading him at some point, they will have to keep running him out there. They will not be interested in taking on another bad contract as they did when Jeff Weaver was traded for Kevin Brown.

Garcia actually would be a good fit as a guy who can pitch innings in spot starting or long relief, but he’s also the guy who pitched consistently all year in 2011.

Bottom line for me is this: It doesn’t matter what we think in January. Lots of things will happen before April. And if I answered that question for you now, what in the world would we talk about for the next three months?

Keefe: What would we talk about? This, of course! I’m sure this isn’t the last time we will talk about the rotation and who belongs in which spot and what not. I can remember complaining about A.J. Burnett being the No. 2 over Phil Hughes last year to you. I can also remember complaining to you about Bartolo Colon making the team, let alone being in the rotation. (Hey, things happen!) So, whether it’s January or June, we will always talk about the rotation again.

We talked about the trading of Montero and the possible look of the rotation, but we haven’t even really delved into the newest Yankees of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda.

Pineda was an absolute 1-A ace to Felix Hernandez through the first half of last year when either fatigue or the league caught up to him. But for the first half he was about as dominant as a rookie can be and the thought of him and Felix leading the Mariners’ rotation into the future had to be a glorious thought for Mariners fans. Now I’m sure there is a Mariners fan somewhere asking a Mariners beat reporter why the team traded their young stud. Or maybe I’m just the only crazed fan with consuming offseason thoughts and you’re the only beat reporter willing to answer questions from someone like me.

Kuroda was viewed as a pitcher who didn’t want to leave the West Coast let alone go to the East Coast and change his lifestyle completely. It seemed like a longshot and near impossibility that he would move farther away from his native Japan, but in the end, the Yankees aggressive pursuing of him during the season last year and this offseason led to him changing his mind.

What do you think of Pineda after just one year in the league? The Yankees only saw him once in 2011 on May 27 in Seattle when he gave up three earned runs in five innings with five strikeouts and five walks. What are realistic expectations for the 23-year-old (it was his birthday on Wednesday) in his second season in the league, but first in New York? What kind of adjustments will he have to make knowing that even though he’s only 23 there will be a great deal of pressure on him since he was traded for Montero?

And for Kuroda … what made him change his mind and decide to pitch in New York? Was it just dollar signs or was it the Yankees’ constantly trying to get him to the Bronx? What kind of expectations are there for Kuroda in 2012?

Murti: “You’re the only beat reporter willing to answer questions from someone like me.”

DING! DING! DING! DING! Tell him what he’s won, Johnny!

I would have blocked you a long time ago if we didn’t actually work together. I’m still working on that in my next contract actually. In the meantime…

I’m not a big fan of breaking down Pineda’s 2011 to the point where we overanalyze his second half numbers and his performance against the AL East. They are small sample sizes first of all, and secondly, he lost five games in the second half in which he allowed two earned runs or less. That’s mostly because his team was dreadful offensively. Third, why do we expect that when a young pitcher has a few great starts that he has to be 1985 Dwight Gooden in order to be considered any good, and we all start to wonder if “the league started catching up to him?”

Pineda was 22, had thrown fewer than 500 minor league innings and never more than 140 in one season. He ended up throwing 171, which could mean a little fatigue had set in. He still managed to strike out 36 and walk 10 in his final 35 innings. He didn’t earn a win in August or September, yet only gave up more than three earned runs once in the final two months. You can make it appear any way you want, but this guy has serious stuff, has pitched well at the major league level and gives the Yankees fantastic potential for the next several years.

Let’s remember that the Yankees now have three starters 25 or younger (Hughes, Nova, Pineda). Hughes and Pineda have already had All-Star seasons and Nova’s 2011 was worthy as well. Realistic expectations? How about that all three stay healthy enough to give the Yankees close to 200 innings each? If that happens, I think you will be happy with the results.

Pressure? If Pineda had been traded for you, there would still be pressure on him to win. It’s New York and it’s the Yankees. That’s just the way it is.

Kuroda is another guy who comes in here with a reputation as an innings-eater. I know he has showed signs of wanting to stay in Los Angeles rather than come to New York, but I don’t read that as too much of a negative. He liked it where he was. Have you ever been to Southern California? You’d like it there too. Not sure yet why he changed his mind, but I’m sure that’s one of the first questions he will have to answer when he is formally introduced in the coming days.

I think the Yankees hope he continues to throw strikes and rack up innings. Remember, as it stands now the Yankees do have some reserves and back-up plans if any of the perceived 3-4-5 guys struggle for any length of time.

Keefe: I kind of wish I was traded for Pineda. I could go to Seattle and eat some innings in lopsided games like Luis Ayala, and then get used in Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS and be terrible.

But to move aside from the deals and the starting pitching since this will most likely be our last chat before you head to Tampa for spring training, let’s talk about Number 20 … Jorge Posada … Number 20.

You broke the news about Posada’s retirement (great job by the way), and now all that’s left is the press conference to put the finishing touch on what was a great Yankees career.

On Wednesday, I wrote my tribute piece to Posada and said farewell to a great Yankee, and summed up what Posada meant to me as a Yankees fan growing up from 8 years old to 25 years old with him being on the roster since I was in fourth grade, so it will be weird to not see No. 20 on the roster.

I know we have talked about Posada in the past and memories and stories and what’s he been for the Yankees during his long tenure with them. But now that’s he gone, and with you entering your 12th year covering the team, just how weird is it going to be to not see him at the Stadium every day or in the clubhouse? I know most teams are used to turnover and seeing new faces replace veteran faces, but between Jeter, Rivera and Posada, they seemed like they would always be Yankees, even though no one can beat Father Time.

What’s it like to be around the team when faces of the franchise for so long aren’t there anymore?

Murti: It’s actually not all that different. When I first started in 2001, Joe Torre was asked a lot questions about not having David Cone around anymore and what it was going to be like with Tino and O’Neill and Brosius perhaps playing their last year, and Torre would always talk about how much they would be missed, but that it’s just part of the game.

I wrote about Posada here last week and I still think of him by the comparison I made in that piece and many times before. To me, Jorge Posada will always be the Sonny to Derek Jeter’s Michael.

Posada might have hated losing more than anyone I’ve ever met. He took the emotions of the game with him as he left the clubhouse every night, and I think that’s what most fans loved about him. In an age when players can often times feel more like corporations who frequently move around and have little allegiance to their team and city, Posada was the guy who was literally down in the dirt for you every night. He was the one who didn’t even use batting gloves, let alone body armor at the plate, giving him an even greater gladiator image. And he was the one guy you thought was ticked off about losing the game as much as you were, and probably more.

I always knew that when I asked Posada a question after that game, I would get an honest answer. For that I will always admire him.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe

Follow Sweeny on Twitter @YankeesWFAN

Who should be in and who should be out of the Yankees’ rotation? Make your case below…