Rotation spots filled - for now

CC Sabathia throws a bullpen session on the

CC Sabathia throws a bullpen session on the first day of spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. (Feb. 15, 2011) (Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara)

TAMPA, Fla. - Before a March 4 night game against the Red Sox at Steinbrenner Field, Brian Cashman gestured toward the field where his team was warming up.

He was asked, for seemingly the 1,000th time in spring training, about the then-open Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the Yankees' rotation.

"We hopefully have the answers here in front of us,'' the general manager said. "We'll have to find out over time.''

The "open competition'' that manager Joe Girardi spoke of Feb. 14 during his kickoff news conference shook out with Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia beating out Bartolo Colon and Sergio Mitre for the spots, not a surprise in that they entered spring training as the prohibitive favorites. Mitre was traded and Colon went to the bullpen.

But the likelihood of the Yankees standing pat with Nova and Garcia at the back end of their rotation -- Garcia especially -- is slim at best. The industry expectation, and the team's as well, is that the Yankees will tread water the first two-plus months of the season and see how the trade market develops.

"Normally, anything of quality doesn't become available until after the June draft,'' Cashman said.

Until then, do the Yankees have enough to match, or at least keep up with, the Red Sox, who are favored to win the AL East?

"With that lineup and bullpen, absolutely,'' one opposition scout said of the Yankees.

Another scout agreed but added a qualifier: "Who do you trust in that rotation besides Sabathia?''

A fair question.

While a lot of attention went to the battle for the Nos. 4 and 5 spots, an irrefutable point is that CC Sabathia is the only sure thing in the rotation. There are no worries surrounding the slimmed-down Sabathia, who went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA last season despite pitching much of the year with a small meniscus tear in his right knee that required surgery. He dropped 25 pounds in the offseason and felt less fatigue this camp, he said, than in past ones.

Behind him, though, are questions.

Phil Hughes appears as if he's made the jump to top-line starter, but his 2010 was two distinct seasons; 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA in the first half, 7-6 with a 4.90 ERA in the second.

And there's A.J. Burnett, coming off a career-worst season in which he went 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA. It was a year he referred to in late 2010 as "garbage''; few argued with him.

But although concern swirls around the rotation, everything else looks pretty good.

There's no reason to think the lineup won't at least match what it did last year, when it led baseball with 859 runs although Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira had, for them, down seasons.

The bullpen, with the addition of Rays closer Rafael Soriano as Mariano Rivera's setup man, should be among baseball's best.

"On paper,'' one scout said early in spring training, "it's the best in baseball.''

And as if to show why the scout said "on paper,'' soon thereafter, lefthanders Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano and righthander Joba Chamberlain suffered injuries. Feliciano's status for Opening Day remains uncertain.

Cashman, meanwhile, made offseason headlines by saying the Red Sox should be considered the AL East favorite, something no objective observer would dispute.

He has defended that statement throughout spring training but has been just as quick to point out, "We're not conceding anything.''

The Yankees' ability to challenge the Red Sox and ultimately put themselves in position to win a 28th world championship will come down to -- as it always does -- pitching.

"Obviously, the talk this year has been our rotation's not deep right now, but things always tend to kind of work themselves out,'' Hughes said. "With the offense we have, you're going to win a lot of games. I think we'll be fine.''

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