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Position/Role Battles: The Yankees' Fifth Starter

With Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda now added to the fold, the Yankees' starting rotation has gone from being a weakness to a potential strength.  The two newcomers, Ivan Nova and staff ace C.C. Sabathia account for the first four spots in the rotation, and now New York suddenly has a surplus of pitching depth for the fifth spot.

With a powerful lineup and Mariano Rivera closing, any Yankee starter can help your fantasy team in the wins category, if nothing else.  Here's a look at the possibilities for the back end of the Yankees' rotation and how much value they could bring to your fantasy squad...

A.J. Burnett: The number most associated with Burnett is the $33MM he's still owed over the next two seasons, but let's look past the salary and at his advanced metrics.  Burnett posted a 5.15 ERA last season, but his xFIP was over a run lower at 3.86.  His other peripherals from 2011 (a 2.08 K/BB ratio, 8.2 K/9, 3.9 BB/9) are almost identical to his career averages in those categories, with the only major discrepancy being his 1.5 HR/9, well above his 0.9 H/9 career rate.  You would presume this was caused by pitching at Yankee Stadium, but Burnett has pitched significantly better at home than he had on the road over the last three seasons.

These stats should ease fears of both Yankee fans and fantasy owners that Burnett has totally fallen off a cliff, which is good since his paycheck makes him the most likely candidate to be the fifth starter.  You basically know what you're going to get with Burnett at this point --- strikeouts, double-digit wins and frustration.  If you draft Burnett at all, make sure he's no higher than the #5 man on your staff as well, and pay heed to his home/away splits by sitting him when he's starting outside of the Bronx.

Freddy Garcia: Signed to a minor-league deal last February, Garcia was a very nice bargain for the Yankees, delivering a 2.2 WAR performance for just $1.5MM.  The veteran re-signed with the Bombers for a one-year, $4MM contract in December and for that kind of money, Garcia no doubt expects to do more than just serve as a long reliever and spot starter. 

Garcia played with fire last year, doing a decent job of keeping the ball in the park (0.98 HR/9) despite a ground ball rate of just 36.4%, but overall he was a much more consistent performer than Burnett.  The Yankees now have the depth to keep Burnett on a short leash and if he struggles again, the club would have no problem slotting Garcia into the rotation and relegating Burnett to the pen.  There's no reason to think Garcia won't be solid in whatever role he fills, but given his middling peripherals, there isn't much to recommend Garcia for a roster spot on a mixed league fantasy team.

Phil Hughes: At this time last year, Hughes was coming off an All-Star season and looked to be on his way to becoming a fixture in New York's rotation.  After three brutal starts to begin the year, however, Hughes went to the disabled list with the dreaded "dead arm" and didn't return until July.  The right-hander posted a 4.48 ERA in 14 games after his return, getting roughed up in three starts, but allowing two or fewer runs in each of his other eight starts.  

Hughes needs a big spring to lay claim to the fifth starter's job, but if he's back to good health, he is a very intriguing under-the-radar fantasy option.  Hughes is still just 25 years old and showed tons of promise in 2010.  Even if he doesn't win the starter's job and is relegated to the bullpen, Hughes is still a good fantasy pickup because of his potential value out of the bullpen.  Hughes was a monster as Rivera's set-up man in 2009 and, while David Robertson and Rafael Soriano are ahead of Hughes on the bullpen depth start now, Hughes is a great choice if your league tracks holds.

Nova: Burnett, Garcia and Hughes could really be fighting for two rotation spots, should Nova have a tough Spring Training or regress once the season begins.  Nova doesn't record many strikeouts (a career 5.4 K/9), which doesn't mesh well with his 3.2 BB/9 career walk rate, though Joba Chamberlain was the only Yankee regular who recorded a higher ground ball rate than Nova's 52.7% mark.  There are more signs pointing to a regression than a breakout campaign for Nova, and since he provides little fantasy value in the strikeout and WHIP categories, I'd be hesitant to draft him as anything but final-round rotation depth.   On the other hand, Nova's strikeout rate did improve after a brief Triple-A stint in July, so if he can continue to develop his slider, Nova is worth a closer look.

Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos: With the Yankees now having several starting options available, it's unlikely that either of New York's two top starting prospects will get anything more than a token September start or two.  (Betances already received such a promotion last year, pitching his first two Major League games.)  Don't expect to hear much of either hurler at the MLB level in 2012....well, except at the trade deadline, when they'll be mentioned as trade bait for every superstar player in the game, but it's extremely doubtful the Yanks would part with such promising young arms.

Fantasy outlook: Burnett is the pitcher most likely to be in New York's rotation, but Hughes has the most fantasy upside due to his sleeper potential and value as a holds guy.  Garcia and Nova both have limited fantasy potential while Burnett can be relied upon to deliver his usual season.

The other factor in gauging the Yankee rotation is if Burnett or Garcia will still be on the roster by midseason.  It's safe to say the Yankees would love to get Burnett's salary off the books, but any trade involving the right-hander would involve New York eating the vast majority of his salary.  At that cost, the Yankees might just figure if they're going to pay Burnett anyway, he might as well be pitching for them out of the bullpen.  A change of scenery could work wonders for Burnett and he could conceivably gain sleeper potential if moved to the right situation in the National League.  It's unlikely the Yankees will be able to find a trade partner but if Burnett is dealt to the NL, he'd be worth a roster spot on your fantasy side.

Should Garcia replicate his 2011 performance through the first few months of this season, he could be an attractive trade candidate given his relatively low salary and ability to eat innings.  If the rest of the rotation avoids injury and Burnett/Hughes perform well as the fifth starter and spot man (in whatever order), Garcia could be deemed expendable.  I'm not sure a trade would significantly boost Garcia's fantasy value unless he's dealt to Petco Park, Dodger Stadium or another pitcher-friendly stadium. 

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