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Plenty of candidates for Yanks' rotation

Phil Hughes, on the disabled list since April

Phil Hughes, on the disabled list since April 15, threw off a mound Friday. (Feb. 16, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Yankees' ability to stay on message early this offseason rivaled the most disciplined of political campaigns.

"Pitching, pitching, pitching," general manager Brian Cashman said, in some form, in virtually every interview after the season.

The Yankees had other needs coming off a season in which they had an American League-best 97-65 record before their bats went dead in the Division Series. But reinforcing the rotation was priority No. 1, starting with ensuring that CC Sabathia, who had an out clause in his contract, never reached free agency.

He didn't.

The other part of the message became as cliche as "Lin-sanity" has: patience.

Three months later, even as they continue working with the Pirates to jettison A.J. Burnett, the Yankees enter spring training with a starter surplus, in large part because Cashman practiced what he preached. His patience helped him land Michael Pineda, in a blockbuster deal that sent Jesus Montero to Seattle, and free agent Hiroki Kuroda.

Pineda and Kuroda comprise 50 percent of the Yankees' "first four" -- Sabathia and Ivan Nova are the other 50 percent -- which means, as the roster currently stands, a three-way competition for the fifth spot.

The competition includes Burnett -- though the prevalent feeling in the organization is that he will be gone by the time pitchers and catchers report Sunday -- Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia.

The Yankees' minor-league complex will be abuzz with activity this week, as it has been for the last month, as players get in some early work.

Hughes, Nova and David Robertson are among those throwing bullpen sessions under the eye of pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Derek Jeter, like Rothschild and Robertson an area resident, has been a regular at the complex since mid-January.

Other pitchers and position players, such as Curtis Granderson, are likely to trickle in this week. Many of the organization's top minor-league prospects, such as Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, have been at the complex for a couple of weeks.

There is no shortage of story lines with the Yankees this spring training -- there rarely is -- but especially with Burnett still in pinstripes, they all take a backseat to the fifth-starter competition.

There is organizational confidence that Hughes will bounce back this season, and word from Tampa is that the 25-year-old has shed the excess weight he reported with last February and is in top condition.

Hughes, after going 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA in 2010, fell to 5-5, 5.79, battling an inflamed right shoulder along the way. A team concern is the potential three-ring circus that could ensue in a fifth-starter competition with Burnett, rarely a standout in spring training.

The last thing the Yankees want to see is Burnett pitching poorly in Florida and Hughes pitching well, then dealing with the possible fallout of sticking Burnett in the bullpen or giving him a rotation spot anyway, with the perception that his contract is the sole reason.

If Burnett is dealt, the 35-year-old Garcia, 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA last season, provides insurance in case of an injury elsewhere in the rotation or poor performances by Hughes. Garcia, however, most certainly doesn't view himself merely as insurance, another layer of the intrigue that officially begins in a week.

New York Sports