By Neil Keefe
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With a stacked rotation it looked like the return of Andy Pettitte to the rotation would be a great story and a chance for Yankees fan to return watching a career that seemed like it ended too early. With CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia and Michael Pineda, the Yankees had the luxury of paying A.J. Burnett to pitch for the Pirates, and could bring back Pettitte as a safety arm incase anything went wrong. And yes, things have gone horribly wrong.

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Hiroki Kuroda has been hot and cold, Phil Hughes has shown no signs of progress as a reliable starting pitcher, the second year of the Freddy Garcia experiment has been an absolute disaster and now Michael Pineda is out for the year and will undergo shoulder surgery.

I said prior to the season that I felt as good about this Yankees team as I have about maybe any Yankees team in the last decade because the one thing they have lacked has been quality starting pitching and starting pitching depth, and now once again they might not have it. What was supposed to Pettitte’s somewhat of a fairytale return to the Bronx as a backend-of-the-rotation guy has turned into him having to be great upon his arrival.

With the Yankees’ starting pitching situation taking a turn for the worse while still in April, an email discussion with WFAN Yankees beat reporter Sweeny Murti (the Voice of Reason) became urgent.

Keefe: So about that starting pitching depth…

The last time we talked the Yankees had a full rotation with Michael Pineda and Andy Pettitte in the reserve tank. Now they have three starting pitchers (CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova), a 4 2/3 innings starter (when we’re lucky) in Phil Hughes and whatever Freddy Garcia is at this point. I believe you told me on our Opening Day podcast that this thing would sort itself it out, and it certainly did.

As of now, Garcia is going to the bullpen when Pettitte is ready. There’s no doubt about it. Garcia has had three starts with each one worse than the previous one. He has looked a lot like John Smoltz did pitching in the AL East in 2009 and I can’t help but think that Bartolo Colon is dominating for the A’s making half of what Garcia is making. (Yes, that’s me longing for the days of Bartolo Colon.) There isn’t really a competition to me for who will leave the rotation and force Clay Rapada off the Major League roster even if the Yankees want to pretend like their 25-year-old starter with a future is in competition with their 35-year-old who’s on a one-year deal.

But the real topic surrounding the rotation is Michael Pineda, who will be out for this year and if all goes well we could see him in one calendar year on a mound. (Knock on wood. Seriously, do it. I’m going to knock on all the wood in my apartment right now.) Obviously there are questions about him being traded by the Mariners as damaged goods, but Brian Cashman has reiterated that is not the case since he had a clean MRI in January. So knowing that, there are a few questions.

Did Michael Pineda get injured overextending himself after not being able to start his offseason program on time because of the trade process? Was he trying to prove himself worthy of a rotation spot because Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi wouldn’t “guarantee” any rotation spots and he pushed himself too much too early? Did Pineda gear up too much in spring training because members of the media decided to focus on his lack of velocity and question it even though there was evidence of him gaining velocity last season as the season progressed?

I know no one knows the real answer, but I have a hard time believing that it happened on the last pitch of an extended spring outing considering it’s a shoulder problem and the reason he was on the disabled list to begin with was shoulder pain/weakness. So since we can’t say for sure what the cause of this is, what do you think it is?

Murti: I don’t think there is an easy answer to it, no one incident you can point to. I think fans want to jump to the conclusion that the Yankees doctors are stupid because they didn’t see this before they traded for him, or that the Yankees spring program is somehow flawed because they took a healthy pitcher and sent him to season-ending shoulder surgery. I think frustrated fans want an easy answer and someone to blame. Unfortunately I don’t think we are going to get either one.

Michael Pineda is a young pitcher who throws hard. He isn’t the first one of those guys to get hurt. It’s a risk you take when developing or acquiring young arms. Pineda never seemed to worry himself about his spring training velocity until the very last start when he tried to throw harder and couldn’t. All the other starts he insisted that it was spring training and he would throw harder when he had to.

For those who think that he was damaged before he got here, remember that he made every bullpen session and every start for six weeks in spring training and regularly threw 90 mph. Yes, it was below his normal velocity from the previous year. But is it even possible to have an injury so severe it needs major surgery and still be able to throw 90 mph every time out for a month and a half?

We all want to judge the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero trade right away. If you want to do that, then yes this is a complete failure. Pineda is out for the year and Montero is playing. But Montero is also hitting .254 with two home runs entering Wednesday. If he was doing that for the Yankees right now you’d be asking me if he is a legit major league hitter and if the Yankees would be better off trading him for a pitcher.

Pineda has a long road back. If he makes it back, we can grade the trade fairly. Right now, it’s a bust for the Yankees, but that’s also because the grade is incomplete

As for the depth in the rotation, Garcia needs to get out of the second inning and not depend on seven-run innings late in the game, but based on last year he should be serviceable as a fifth starter. If Andy Pettitte keeps going the way he is, of course Garcia will be out of the rotation. The Yankees have the arms 1 through 4 to win a lot of games, but some of them just need to start pitching like it.

Keefe: I never gave up hope in Derek Jeter over the last couple years because, well anyone that knows me knows that I have said maybe one negative thing about him during his entire career. Maybe. And that one thing was probably in the heat of the moment in the postseason if that one thing even exists. What No. 2 is doing right now is just insane.

With two more hits on Wednesday night, Jeter is now at to .420 on the year. .420! It’s pretty ridiculous. At this point last year he was having trouble getting the ball out of the infield and in the air, and now people are already talking about his chance to reach 4,000 hits or possibly even catch Pete Rose.

There’s a reason Jeter has accomplished what he has in his career and why he has the most hits in Yankees history and why at 37 years old he’s turning back the clock to 1999. I expected Jeter to continue to produce, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted this kind of offensive production and this kind of power to begin the season.

I realize it’s still April, but can you believe what Jeter is doing, especially when other players around the league his age are breaking down, relegated to limited playing time or out of the league altogether?

Murti: I don’t know how what Jeter will finish like this year, but his start is unbelievable. If he can put together one of his best offensive seasons this late in his career it will just be another remarkable achievement, right up there with late-career seasons by guys higher up the hits chart like Paul Molitor and yes, Pete Rose. Can he get to 4,000 and beyond? Let’s slow down. Jeter himself will tell you he’s only thinking about the next hit, but he has to be enjoying this. He doesn’t say it overtly, but I do think there’s a part of him that likes saying, “I told you so,” knowing that he is back at such a high offensive level.

Looking back, Jeter went through one of his worst slumps ever late in the 2010 season. Over a five-week period in August and September of that year Jeter hit .197, which dragged his season average to a career-low .270. The rest of the year he hit .289, down from his career average, but not as bad as the overall final number. Jeter took some steps late that season and into the next to see if a no-stride approach would work for him. Keep in mind this was not something forced on him. Jeter bought into it and worked hard to see if it was something he could do.

After a frustrating start, Jeter decided it wasn’t working for him. The calf injury that put him on the disabled list last June gave him time to tinker with his swing for several days without the added pressure of getting hits in a game the same night. Gary Denbo has told me that he thinks that was as big a key as anything, getting away from the nightly pressures of a game that counts. Denbo didn’t undo anything that Kevin Long did, and Kevin Long didn’t do anything wrong. The player was tinkering because he wasn’t confident in his swing and was looking for ways to improve.

We all know what happened on July 9, 2011 and the turnaround the milestone day created for Jeter. He is back to hitting like he was in 2009, 2006, 1999 or any other year you want to pull out of his bio. Who knows if he can keep it up all year, but it certainly is fun to watch.

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Keefe: Speaking of Jeter and his age, has Joe Girardi taken over-managing to a new level? I think you’re lucky that we didn’t do one of these email discussions after the first three games of the season (the Tragedy at the Trop) when Girardi made questionable decision after questionable decision that had me nearly thrown out of my family’s Easter Sunday.

How absurd is the amount of rest that Girardi is tossing around here just 18 games into the year? It’s one thing to give A-Rod or Jeter a day off now and then to keep them fresh, but to rest Jeter on the second day of the season after SIX MONTHS OFF (yes, I know he was playing baseball during spring training) is just nonsensical. I don’t care what kind of turf the Rays have or what’s under the turf. Jeter is a professional athlete and a Major League shortstop. He’s not out their with two knee replacements and a bum ankle.

But it doesn’t end there. Girardi has given A-Rod several half-days (somewhat understandable) and even Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher — two of the younger guys on the team. Sure, Swisher had a groin problem, but it can’t be that serious if he’s out there playing every other game.

I understand that Girardi is going to make questionable pitching changes and bunt when he shouldn’t and call for the occasional intentional walk that never works out, but come on, do we really need to give a different guy a day off nearly every game? And what is with the need to make Eduardo Nunez the 10th starter on the team? It reminds me of last year when the Yankees kept a six-man rotation despite not having six capable starting pitchers. I know you’re going to most likely tell me that the older guys need their days off, but I think even the Voice of Reason has to think some of these decisions are absurd.

Murti: I think we’d all like to see the same lineup out there every day, but I understand what Girardi is trying to do with his left side of the infield.

If A-Rod and Jeter get enough “half-days” at DH, it minimizes the need for the full day off. The idea is to keep them fresh, not get to the point where they have dragged for a couple of days. If they have gone 0-for-8 or 0-for-12 before Girardi decides they need a day off, then it’s essentially been two to three days off instead of one. I would understand your point more if these guys were out of the lineup completely, but they have been the DH when they aren’t in the field.

Nunez has a bat the Yankees want to get in the lineup, and I can see why, but I think he is better off in the outfield. Nunez can run and has a great arm, both assets in the outfield. I think the Yanks have missed an opportunity with Brett Gardner on the DL to try Nunez in the outfield for a few days to see how he responds. He could, after all, become a cost-effective replacement in right field next year if the Yanks let Nick Swisher walk via free agency. But if they aren’t giving him a chance to play out there now, I begin to doubt if they will ever look at him as a serious option out there.

Keefe: OK, so since we started this exchange, Phil Hughes has been pulled early again after yet another awful start. He has now lasted five innings just once this season and has been pulled in the second, third, and fourth innings once each.

I have been a big Phil Hughes supporter since Day 1 believing in what the Yankees have always told us about his front-of-the-rotation stuff and we even saw it in glimpses in 2007 and 2009 and for the first half of 2010. But since the second half of 2010 (aside from his ALDS Game 3 performance against the Twins) Hughes has been bad. Really, really, really, bad. Just an hour ago I told you that there was no way Hughes was fighting off Garcia to avoid being relegated to the bullpen, but if Garcia can string together a couple good starts I think Hughes is the odd man out. That’s how bad he’s been.

Yes, Hughes is still just 25 and he should be given every chance to be a starter, but at what point does he run out of these chances? Everyone keeps asking, “Well, what if Hughes can be the guy he was in the first half of 2010?” But what if he can’t? Since coming up in 2007 and battling through injuries on and off, there’s way more evidence that he won’t be the guy the Yankees projected as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter than there is that he will be. Maybe Hughes is meant for the bullpen after all?

Murti: If the Yankees had a need for an arm like that in the bullpen (like in 2009), then I could see that move making sense. I don’t know how many more chances he gets, as you put it, but clearly he needs to pitch better. Could a trip to the minors help? Maybe. All I know is there are plenty of other teams that would take Phil Hughes if the Yankees wanted to get rid of him. It’s disappointing that it’s taken this long to get him to his potential. This is a big year for Hughes, one in which he needs to prove he is what the Yankees hoped and prove he’s worthy of all these chances.

After watching the first two innings against Texas, I thought he was onto something. He had several hitters off balance and a solo homer by Adrian Beltre was of little concern. But in the third when a couple of bounces didn’t go his way he needed to make pitches to get out of the inning and he didn’t do so. I actually wonder if it was a quick hook — many pitchers have a long inning and then settle back down — but Girardi had clearly seen enough.

Hughes has been all about promise for a long time. The talent is there, but it’s hard to find right now. He has to be about more than promise very soon.

Keefe: Since this is our first email discussion during the 2012 season, I don’t really know how to end it. Usually we end it talking about why A.J. Burnett’s “great stuff” is anything but great, or I end up trying to get Boone Logan to Triple-A. The problem is Burnett is in Pittsburgh now and Logan has actually been good. (Did you see what Burnett did in his first start? Is it possible we can get him back? I’m obviously kidding … I think.)

So instead of ending it on a negative note, let’s end it on a positive one with Andy Pettitte.

Pettitte pitched in a Double-A game on Wednesday night as he inches closer to stabilizing a rotation that desperately needs it. It’s kind of funny, but not really funny at all how three weeks ago the Yankees’ pitching depth was a strength and now I’m hoping a guy who hasn’t pitched in the majors since the 2010 ALCS (which he did so while injured) can give the team a boost. What’s that line John Sterling has?

I don’t think Pettitte would unretire and go through all of this if he didn’t think he could be the guy he was from the first half of 2010 when he was an All-Star. After all these years I trust Pettitte and I believe that he still has the ability to be a No. 2 starter otherwise he would have stayed home with his $125 million rather than come back and go through the rigors of the season for $2.5 million.

Is it bad that I’m putting this much stake into Pettitte’s return? Please just tell me this isn’t going to be 2007 Roger Clemens all over again.

Murti: I wish I could, but you are setting yourself up for disappointment because anything less than All-Star Andy Pettitte just won’t do the way you’ve set this up.

Pettitte has thrown well at every stage so far, but there is still concern for me about how this will go once he returns. Can he win some games? Of course he can. Can he pitch as well as he did in 2010? I have no idea. It just seems awfully hard to take maybe the best half-season you’ve ever pitched, and repeat it two years later. His body was showing signs of aging in 2010 with the groin injury that cost him almost the entire second half of the season, and then the back spasms that might not have allowed him to pitch had the ALCS gone to a seventh game. I hope I’m wrong because watching Andy Pettitte come back is a great story and he’s a very easy guy to root for, but the reality is that what he’s trying to do is not easy. The last full season he pitched was 2009. If that seems like a long time ago, well, that was the last time the Yankees won the World Series, which as we all know was ages ago.

Speaking of the 2009 World Series, I DID see A.J. Burnett’s performance the other night. Seven scoreless innings. Wow. I’m not sure I’ve seen him dominate quite like that since…

Oh, you’re right, let’s end this on a positive note. I won’t say it. Just know I’m thinking about Game 2 of the 2009 World Series and leave it at that.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe

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Follow Sweeny on Twitter @YankeesWFAN