(Long Island, N.Y.) When you’re a veteran pitcher and know that you’re a habitually slow starter, the first few outings of a Spring Training game may not seem that important. But when you are also competing for a job, the innings begin to count and are more than just getting you’re armed stretched out for the games that count in the standings. You have to make the squad that goes up north first.
Such is the case for Freddy Garcia, who was in a similar position last year and not only made the team, but had a productive season with 25 starts, a 12-8 record and a 3.62 ERA. The biggest difference is that in 2011, the 35-year-old right-hander was a non-roster invitee and now he has a guaranteed $5 million coming to him, if he is wearing pinstripes or not. Even for a free spending organization like the Bronx Bombers, dropping that much money into the ocean will sting.
So it behooves them and Garcia himself to make manager Joe Girardi’s decision an easy one, but history is seeming to repeat itself judging by Garcia’s exhibition season debut on Sunday. In two innings, he allowed four hits, including a two-run home run to Hunter Pence.
Right now, Garcia is battling Phil Hughes for the fifth and final starter’s spot and even the trading of the disappointing A.J. Burnett does not fit six into five. CC Sabathia is the ace, who is followed by Ivan Nova. Newcomers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda are also assured of being in the rotation.
Hughes, 25, was not as effective last summer as he had been prior to that (5-5, 5.79 ERA) while Garcia was able to remain healthy – something that has been a major issue for the former Seattle Mariner. If it comes down to who would be more suited as a long man out of the bullpen and spot starter, it would probably be the former 18-game winner Hughes. But that would stunt his development some and perhaps be a mistake at this point in his career. It may even be a psychological hit against the young righty.
Garcia would take to a relief role better upstairs but throwing more – even warming up as much as a middle man has to – may affect his surgically repaired right shoulder negatively.
So do Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman think short or long term here, if neither pitcher distinguishes himself from the other? It’s an interesting question and one that has many valid points either way. The Yankees are always a win-now team but have retooled lately to get younger. With Nova and Pineda, they have two solid arms who can carry them the next decade, and Hughes was a highly touted prospect that has delivered in the past. Just because he had one off season shouldn’t cause the team to sour on him.
But if he struggles out of the gate, Garcia can certainly step in. The veteran has been around long enough to know that 162 games is a marathon campaign and starts are made by more than the first five guys named in April.
So while the Yankees may have a good problem with too many starters, the decision is not an easy one to make. The best case scenario would be for Hughes to begin the season as the fifth starter and Garcia to get some spot starts to keep him ready. Too much bullpen work will not help him at this point in his career.