It's odd when you stop to think about it: There are so many great, great players in the history of the New York Yankees, and so few of them are starting pitchers.
The best Yankee starter of all time is undoubtedly Whitey Ford, who spent the better part of two decades in pinstripes on his way to the 1961 Cy Young Award, six World Series rings, and the Hall of Fame. After that, it gets a bit muddled. Ron Guidry and Mel Stottlemyre both have decent cases -- they're almost certainly top five -- but played in an era when the Yankees were getting relatively little hardware. Guidry retired with only the two rings from 1977 and 1978, and Stottlemyre finished with none; he threw exactly 20 postseason innings in his entire career, all in the 1964 World Series at age 22, and then never went back. Roger Clemens forces his way above Stottlemyre and Guidry just by being Roger Clemens, and also winning two rings in New York despite only playing for the team for six years. (Worth noting: Babe Ruth did all his notable pitching in Boston. He threw only 31 career innings for New York, more than half of them coming after age 35.*)
The only starter whose career came particularly close to matching the impression that Whitey Ford made on the New York franchise, however, was Andy Pettitte, who pitched two years longer than Ford but one year fewer in pinstripes, and who never won a Cy Young Award but was a stalwart on five championship teams. And who checks in with an incomplete grade so far, but already a ring up on Stottlemyre? CC Sabathia, the team's current ace, in just five years as a Yankee. Heck, Mike Mussina is in the discussion for fifth or sixth on the list of great Yankee pitchers, and he spent half his career pitching in Baltimore.
So in the past half-decade, New York has bid farewell to two of the absolute best pitchers their team has ever seen (three, if you include Clemens) while watching another one age into his early thirties. This underlines a common theme in the Yankee rotation across at least the past twenty years: By and large, the Yankees try to get their starting pitchers from free agency at that exact moment when experience and talent intersect at their peaks, and they hope -- but don't necessarily expect -- they'll be wearing pinstripes five or six years down the road. David Wells and Cone, El Duque, the aforementioned Clemens and Mussina, and going back a bit further to Tommy John: Pitchers who came to New York and left a significant portion of themselves on the mound in the Bronx, but few of whom started doing so before the age of thirty. Sabathia bucks the trend in that he signed when he was 28, which is downright young for a marquee Yankee starting pitcher.
So it's no surprise that the Yankees are going into the season with the ace and number two spots in their rotation already handed to Sabathia (34 in July) and Hiroki Kuroda (39 this February), and it's also no surprise that, generally speaking, Yankees fans feel pretty good about that top pairing... with caveats. Sabathia is a workhorse starter on the right side of 35 ... so long as last season, and the decline in his fastball that led to it, was just a blip on his career radar. Kuroda's a dominant sinker-ball pitcher with a wealth of experience on the mound ... so long as his arm is willing to cooperate for a 17th season of professional baseball. It's not a new feeling for those who follow the team -- and in recent years the success stories like Kuroda have been tempered by the false starts (Kevin Brown; Randy Johnson; Javier Vazquez, the first time), the burnouts (Carl Pavano; Javier Vazquez, the second time) and whatever it was that happened to A.J. Burnett during his time in New York.
If it's a given that half or more of the rotation is going to be highly-paid older pitchers who are either approaching or defying their physical decline, then it's also a given that the back part of the rotation is going to be guys in their 20s just trying to stay afloat. In the bad part of the nineties this was your Sterling Hitchcocks and Melido Perezes, with Pettitte showing up in 1995 to demonstrate what true stability from a young arm looked like. In the most recent decade under Brian Cashman, it's been young trade acquisitions like Ted Lilly, Shawn Chacon and Jeff Weaver and developed prospects like Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. Worth mentioning as well is the Yankees' recent dabbling in the Asian pro market for starting pitching. At the top of this group is Taiwanese starter Chien-Ming Wang, who gave the Yankees five solid years before falling apart; at the bottom, Japanese starter Kei Igawa, who didn't even last 80 innings before being banished to Triple AAA; and somewhere in the middle, the immortal Hideki Irabu.
It's fitting, then, that the arms lined up for the Yankees behind Sabathia and Kuroda going into spring training will include a trade acquisition and an internally developed prospect, with a chance to add an established young Asian starter as well.
Michael Pineda has yet to take the mound for the New York Yankees in a major league ballgame. The right hander pitched 171 innings of promising 3.74 ERA ball for the Seattle Mariners in 2011, was dealt to New York as the centerpiece of the Jesus Montero deal and promptly tore his labrum. That particular injury can be a death knell to any pitcher, let alone one who works primarily fastball/slider like Pineda does -- and his setback last year during rehab in the minor leagues didn't inspire too much confidence.
Cashman has never shown much sentiment with guys he's traded for if they're unable to perform, and he's made it known that since Pineda still has minor-league options remaining, he'll have to impress the Yankees if he's going to make next year's rotation over other internal options like Vidal Nuno, David Phelps (who will either be in the pen or the rotation) or the rest of the field. That said, Pineda just turned 25 over the weekend and has already proven -- one shoulder surgery prior -- that he can put up a more than adequate season for a back of the rotation guy. If the labrum tear hasn't completely destroyed his velocity and stuff, and the Yankees don't make too many more pitching signings between now and camp, Pineda has a good shot of making the cut.
But fair's fair: There's a lot more enthusiasm around Ivan Nova, and the possibility that in 2014 he could establish himself as the first standout homegrown Yankee starter in almost two decades. That assumes that the spike in his strikeout rate over the last two years is a real thing -- and that the declining hits, home runs and walks allowed per nine in 2013 is evidence that Nova has finally combined his great stuff with improved command. The Yankee defense behind him was a patchwork affair last year and likely won't be much better this year, since what it gains in adding Jacoby Ellsbury in center it probably gives back up by losing Robinson Cano's glove up the middle. But no one will really know until the playing time rotations sort themselves out. That said, Nova's the likely No.3 starter behind Kuroda going into camp, and it'll likely take an injury or a big signing to change that before Opening Day.
Which brings us to the wild card: Masahiro Tanaka. The Yankees are reportedly one of six teams with a "nine digit" offer on the table, with the alleged frontrunners being the Chicago Cubs, who are said to have a deal on the table worth $25 million a year for six to eight years -- this for a pitcher who, while young and phenomenally talented, has never played an inning of big league ball. Tanaka was the ace of the Japan Series-winning Rakuten Golden Eagles last season and is seen as a legitimate MLB ace out of the box by just about every talent evaluator in the business. Commodities like that don't go on the market very often -- plus, remember, the changes to the posting system made this offseason mean that instead of a blind bidding process for the rights to negotiate exclusively with Tanaka, there's just an effective $20 million hard floor on what it'll cost to sign him -- and teams with money to spend have the advantage. If the Yankees do land Tanaka, he'll slot in as the presumptive No. 3, but he may very well become the highest paid starter in that rotation in terms of his annual salary.
If the Yankees lose out on Tanaka, it's possible they take that money -- which essentially represents the salary of their suspended third baseman, Alex Rodrgiuez -- and spend some large portion of it on Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez or Matt Garza. New York is under no small amount of pressure to bounce back quickly from what was viewed as a lost season in 2013, and has shown it still believes the way to do that is to buy the best toys the market has to offer.
But regardless of exactly which five pitchers emerge to form the New York rotation this spring, this winter has already reassured us that, for better or worse, and regardless of plans or budgets, the Yankees are who they've always been.
* Edited to add: There's certainly a conversation to be had about guys like Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, but that conversation doesn't involve directly comparing them to pitchers who played most or all of their career post-integration -- as far as I'm concerned it can't really be done. The MLB of the 1920s and 30s and the MLB of the 1950s and 1960s might as well be two completely different leagues.