We are now less than a week away from Opening Day, and the final decisions are being made. The critical ones revolve around the starting rotation, specifically about who will start on Opening Day and who will be the 5th starter. It's made for a sports radio host's bonanza, with everyone sounding off on their opinion. Personally, I think it's making mountains out of molehills, and a month from now it will all be settled anyway. But it's interesting to me how the personalities are coming out.
Over the course of a 162-game baseball season, the success of a baseball player looks more like a marathon than a sprint. So I don't make too much of the stats in the four weeks of practice leading up to the start of the season. I do pay attention to the mindset of the players, and see how they react to adversity. I look at a guy like Ivan Nova, who is still trying to regain the form he had before surgery. He had a great start to spring training until his last two starts. That last one especially hurt, giving up 3 home runs in a game where he knew the 5th slot was on the line. A sullen "I didn't help myself today" was his reaction to that latest start. I respect the fact that he understands what the impact is to his chances and to his team's success this season, and that he's not making excuses.
CC Sabathia, on the other hand, entered spring training with a question mark over his head for the first time in his Yankee career. He has gone from being the ace to now fighting for the #5 slot. This cannot be fun for him. Yet I see his reaction to his shaky starts against Philadelphia and Baltimore, and I am not sure how ready he is. He points out that he has never been a good spring training pitcher. I think that statement might carry more weight if he had been able to demonstrate the kind of success he was having earlier in his career, and then there might be nothing to worry about. The fact is, we haven't seen Sabathia's brilliance in the last couple of years, except for a few 2-3 week stretches here and there. If his spring performance is good enough for a #5 slot, he may not be able to hold on to that slot far into the regular season.
I don't envy Joe Girardi. This is a Catch-22 if I've ever seen one. If he gives the #5 to CC and he tanks, he'll be slammed for putting a pitcher out there that he knows hasn't performed well in a long time. If he puts Nova out there and he tanks, he'll be slammed for benching a former ace in Sabathia, and all kinds of questions about his judgment will be the popular line on the back page of all New York papers. For Joe to avoid the flames of public opinion, Mr. #5 has to look great at least until mid-May. That may be a tall order for either pitcher.
I have to give Girardi credit for his handling of the Opening Day starter. I don't believe in pushing athletes past common-sense physical limitations. Still, the handling of Masahiro Tanaka and his fragile pitching arm is starting to get a little ridiculous. I was very happy to see Joe pushing him. "We need to see something." I agree. "We have enough people who could pitch [Opening Day]". There's no veil on that threat, and I love it. I always believe that the best pitchers should be on the mound, not the ones who are the highest paid. So if the #1 and #2 from 2014 are now the 2016 "maybe extended spring training" and "maybe in the bullpen", so be it. It's gut-check time.
--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Senior Staff Writer
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