Position Battle: Yankees' No. 5 Starter

Joe Girardi says that only two of his pitchers have locked up spots in the five-man rotation, but really there's just a two-man battle for the last slot.

Actually, if you believe Joe Girardi there's a battle for the No. 5 slot in the rotation ... and the No. 4 slot, and the No. 3 slot, too.

Do you believe Joe Girardi? I usually believe Joe Girardi. But not this time:

The Yankees rotation competition has been seen as two guys for one spot, a head-to-head competition between Freddy García and Phil Hughes. Joe Girardi said this afternoon that he’s looking at it as four guys for three spots, with only CC Sabathi and Hiroki Kuroda locked into rotation jobs.

Those (supposed) four guys: Garcia, Hughes, Iván Nova, and Michael Pineda.

Of course, last season Nova went 16-4 and Pineda struck out 173 batters in league play; they finished fourth and fifth in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Which I suppose is the point: They were rookies, and managers don't trust rookies, or near-rookies. And despite that lovely record, Nova might actually not be quite as good as Freddy García and/or Phil Hughes.

Hughes was hurt last year. But Nova's and Garcia's fundamental performances last season were practically identical. And Nova's was better than his minor-league track record would have suggested. Still, it's hard to demote a guy who just went 16-4. Especially if you think his youth means he's likely to improve.

I think Girardi's just trying to keep his youngest starters motivated. Plus, if one of them just gets hammered all spring, it won't look as weird if they send him to the minors for a stretch.

They would have to get hammered, though.

Of course, the weird thing about these spring battles -- and this will be a recurring theme for the next few weeks -- is that it's really hard to learn something new about a baseball player in five or six weeks. Did Joe Girardi not see enough of Freddy García during the eight months they were together in 2011 to get a good read on him? Does anyone expect García to magically become a better pitcher this spring? He hasn't been a better pitcher -- if you consider durability, anyway -- in a long time.

Phil Hughes is a different animal entirely. In 2010, Phil Hughes was an All-Star and won 18 games. In 2011, Phil Hughes won five games and his right arm stopped telling him how pretty he is.

If you could find an All-Star for the No. 5 slot in your rotation, wouldn't that be a good thing?

Freddy García is an insurance policy. As a No. 5 starter, he should do quite nicely. But if Phil Hughes and his right arm are getting along again, García is the Yankees' No. 6 starter. This spring isn't about Pineda or Nova or even García. It's all about Phil Hughes, and finding out which was the blip, 2010 or 2011.

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