Arms aplenty: Rotation depth a strong point for Yankees

CC Sabathia, left, and Phil Hughes walking during

CC Sabathia, left, and Phil Hughes walking during Spring Training. (Feb. 22, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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TAMPA, Fla. - A year ago, general manager Brian Cashman earned some headlines -- and a few eye rolls -- by declaring the Red Sox the favorite in the American League East.

"I think we're the hunter," he said early in spring training 2011, adding that "no one's conceding anything."

The Red Sox, of course, had come off a monster offseason, netting Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. And they had more pitchers than they knew what to do with. Sound familiar?

As the 2012 season begins, the Yankees, at least as far as the AL East is concerned, resume their place as the prohibitive favorite.

And that's in large part because of the surplus of arms stockpiled in the offseason, a continual narrative of spring training. And that was the case even before the sport's all-time leader in postseason victories, Andy Pettitte, shocked just about everyone in the sport by coming out of retirement.

Cashman has acknowledged the glut of arms but repeatedly has said that what appears to be a strength doesn't always turn out that way.

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"Look at this time last year," he said earlier in spring training. "The Red Sox had more pitching depth than anyone, and by September, they couldn't find guys to start. That contributed to their collapse more than anything."

Cashman has been around long enough -- he started with the Yankees as an intern in 1986 -- to know of what he speaks when it comes to pitching depth. That's the reason he was disappointed but not surprised when one of the arms he picked up in the offseason, Michael Pineda, experienced right shoulder soreness March 30 and was put on the disabled list with tendinitis.

In the clubhouse after losing the ALDS to Detroit, Cashman declared "pitching, pitching, pitching" as his No. 1 priority. Then he patiently went about collecting it. First came the re-signing of Freddy Garcia, 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA last season, followed in January by the signing of Hiroki Kuroda and the megadeal with Seattle that brought in Pineda, 23, but cost them top prospect Jesus Montero. It created a six-for-five competition, pushed to seven-for-five when Pettitte unretired.

But even the addition of Pettitte, whom the Yankees hope will be ready by May 1, doesn't change a central fact from Cashman's perspective.

"Unfortunately, I've been around long enough to realize what appears to be a surplus can turn into a deficit rather quickly," he said. "We did what we did this winter for a reason, because we felt we needed more. Whether those decisions will bear out, it's a sport where you have to play it out, because baseball's always the great unknown."

And there are plenty of unknowns with the 2012 Yankees, starting with, you guessed it, the pitching staff.

Only CC Sabathia and the 37-year-old Kuroda, 41-46 but with a 3.45 ERA in four seasons with the Dodgers, were guaranteed rotation spots by Joe Girardi when spring training began. That prompted a four-pitchers-for-three-spots competition between Pineda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and Garcia.

Cashman received calls about Garcia's availability even before Pettitte's return but wasn't selling because of his you-just-never-know mantra, prescient given Pineda's injury. Garcia begins the season as the No. 5 starter.

The lineup doesn't appear to have many weak points, but age is a worry. Derek Jeter turns 38 in June and Alex Rodriguez, coming off a season in which he played only 99 games because of assorted injuries, turns 37 in July. Jeter, who spent time on the disabled list last year with a right calf injury, had issues with his left calf in spring training. The Yankees were expecting Joba Chamberlain's return at some point in June or July but appear unlikely to get the reliever at any point in 2012 after he suffered a severe ankle injury on a trampoline.

Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, David Robertson and Eduardo Nuñez also were among those with spring training nicks. Robertson appeared to avoid the worst-case scenario when he suffered a bone bruise in his right foot after a fall in his home in early March and again should be part of one of baseball's best bullpens.

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Will Robertson fall short of duplicating his 2011 season, in which he posted a 1.08 ERA? Will age start to affect Mariano Rivera, who looked as good as ever in spring training? If the answer to either of those is the affirmative, a strength quickly will become a question mark. Still, as one opposing scout said toward the end of spring training, "It's tough, right now, to find many weaknesses with the Yankees."

Which brings to mind another Cashman maxim: "I don't think you should ever be comfortable."

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