CC Sabathia | In short, the dude's a beast and I love watching him pitch. For those of you who love details, here are a few: CC is 8th in the AL in ERA, 15th in FIP, 9th in WAR (Fangraphs edition), and 2nd in innings pitched. All of those are great, but here's why I love him: Of all the pitchers who have pitched to a better ERA this season, only Felix Hernandez has tossed more innings. Ask yourselves this, would you rather have CC Sabathia for seven innings, or C.J. Wilson and his slightly better ERA for six innings, plus one inning of fun from the Rangers' 'pen? (And that's if Wilson gives you six innings, which is a post for another time.)
Andy Pettitte | In the past few seasons I can't recall a player -- nevermind a pitcher, but a player at any position -- whose successful return from the DL meant more to his team. If Pettitte comes back and pitches the way he has for his career, let alone the way he has this season, then the Yankees head into October with two of the best, playoff-tested pitchers in baseball. If Pettitte can't come back, or struggles in his return, then the Yankees are potentially a one-pitcher team. That could be a major liability against the Rays.
A.J. Burnett | My boss is also a Yankee fan. Last summer, earlier in the season than now, I sat down in his office and we talked about the team. We both agreed that A.J. would be the difference-maker in a playoff run. If the good A.J. would show up, the Bombers would be set.
Right now it seems difficult to remember that there is a good A.J. He represents a major question mark heading into October. How many lights-out starts would it take between now and the postseason for an average fan to regain confidence that he can win a big game? Five starts? Six? Burnett has consistently stepped up in big games. Hopefully Dave Eiland can explain to him that these are all big games.
Javier Vazquez | To my surprise, Joe Girardi has gone to Javy twice in long relief appearances since moving him to the bullpen. I would have sent him to the glue factory. Girardi clearly knows (many) things I don't, because Javy has responded to the move. He pitched 4.1 innings of two-hit, one-run ball in Toronto, and then followed that up with 4.2 innings of two-hit, one-run ball against the A's on Monday. If Javy hasn't already pitched his way back into the rotation, he will soon.
The problem is that the Yankees don't just need pitchers at this point. The team needs playoff pitchers. I say this anecdotally, but my impression is that Home Run Javy has fallen on his face in just about every tough start the Yankees have given him. If it would take A.J. six solid starts to restore my confidence, how many would it take Vazquez?
Phil Hughes | Here's what the Yankees would love: Pettitte returns as though he was never gone, and either A.J. or Javy steps it up, earning a postseason starter's job. This takes pressure off the team to move Hughes to the bullpen for the stretch run and October. Somehow, I doubt this will happen.
Instead, there will be real pressure in both directions. There will be arguments for keeping the Yankees' second best pitcher in the rotation. Those backing Phil-the-starter will point out that an innings limit is ludicrous, when the real measure of stress on a pitcher is how many pitches he throws. To that end, Phil should stay in the rotation, but on a strict pitch limit.
On the other side, there will be those who will argue that Hughes is the first starter the Yankees have developed since Andy Pettitte. He is a cost-saving, critical component to the next generation of the team, a generation that is rapidly becoming the team's present. The Yankees therefore cannot risk his arm. This argument will lose.
The Yankees can't afford to lose Hughes in any capacity. If the best-case scenario plays out, he will remain the team's third-best starter, at worst. It is hard to see a team with World Series potential putting its second- or third-best starter on ice for any length of time, especially if the team will then try to defrost him for the playoffs. Hughes may miss the occasional start, or get pulled early in a game because the Yankees are ahead or his pitch count is creeping up, but mark my words: The Yankees will not send him to the bullpen.
Dustin Moseley | Moseley has pitched to replacement level for the Yankees. This is harder to throw away than it at first seems. Neither A.J. Burnett nor Javier Vazquez has pitched to replacement level this season. Moseley won't start in the playoffs for the Yankees, but he's earned a spot on the team, especially since the playoff rotation will feature either Burnett or Vazquez, either of whom could implode in the early innings of a game.
Ivan Nova | Nova has been a pleasant surprise. No one knows if he's this good, if the scouting reports on him are too new, or if teams other than the Yankees also struggle to hit AAA pitchers they've never seen. Either way, he's making Girardi's job easy. The Yankees may have a lot of questions surrounding their rotation, but they have a lot of potential answers to those questions. The next best option to having five certain starters, as the Rays do, is to have seven possible starters, like the Yankees do (nine if you count Chad Gaudin or Sergio Mitre, but I haven't lost my mind).
Nova will keep his job so long as he pitches well. If the Yankees are lucky he'll pitch his way onto the postseason roster. This will require him to pitch to this level from here on out, because someone has to go down when Pettitte comes back, but the Yankees won't send Nova anywhere if he's pitching well.
The Yankees are in better shape than they've seemed of late. Their strong play has been obscured in part because until Tuesday the Rays had kept pace with the Bombers every step of the way. Beneath the surface, however, the Yankees are beginning to play better and better. The offense has been performing. The bullpen has rounded into form (a Joe Girardi and company late season specialty) and the rotation isn't as shaky as it seems. There is still an element of the rotation being CC and company, but Girardi has been able to use his long relief effectively. It is unlikely that Pettitte returns AND Javy or A.J. pitches to form, but I'd bet on one of those two happening, and Phil Hughes going the distance into October. That leaves the Yankees in excellent shape, which is why they're the best team in baseball.