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Spring Training 2011 Question Of The Day: New York Yankees

This year's edition of the New York Yankees are supposed to wind up in the playoffs (if not the World Series), as usual. But first they have to figure out who's going to fill not one, but two slots in their starting rotation. And even then, the questions will continue.

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There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at New York Yankees.

Presenting, for your enjoyment from April through some unknown date in October ... the American League Wild Card-winning New York Yankees!

That's what all the numbers say, anyway.

All the numbers say the Red Sox are the best team in the American League, and the Yankees are the second best. All the numbers say the Red Sox will win (roughly) 95 games, the Yankees (roughly) 90, with the Yankees acing one team or another by a game or three for the Wild Card. After that ... well, who knows? Maybe a first-round flameout, maybe World's Championship Number Eleventy-Seven.

It's a little early to start printing postseason tickets, though.

Because the error bar for the Yankees' projected record might be as large as anyone's. Among the contenders, anyway. Because just about anything might happen to the Yankees' starting rotation this spring, and summer.

Even leaving aside A.J. Burnett -- whose mechanical adjustments this winter seem to be working -- there's probably more uncertainty regarding the Yankees' rotation than that of any other seriously contending club. 

At this moment, there's a four-man battle for the fourth and fifth slots in the Yankee rotation. The candidates (with ages and rudimentary 2010 stats):

Ivan Nova (24)      1-2, 4.50 (42 innings)   
Sergio Mitre (30)   0-3, 3.33 (54)
Freddy Carcia (35) 12-6, 4.64 (157)
Bartolo Colon (38)      

No numbers for Colon because he didn't actually pitch in the majors last season. Instead, he spent 2010 working on rehabilitating his tender right elbow. Previously, Colon won the Cy Young Award in 2005 ... and has gone 14-21 with a 5.18 ERA since. At his best, Colon has been a replacement-level pitcher since '05.

Freddy Garcia's recent history is a little more encouraging, as he did manage to win a dozen games and throw 157 innings last season. Of course, in the previous three seasons he won only five games, and averaged just 43 innings per season.

Sergio Mitre has made a nice place himself with the Yankees, but he's started 64 games in the major leagues and posted a 5.48 ERA. For that matter, his career ERA as a reliever is 4.34 with unimpressive peripherals. There simply isn't any reason to think his 54 solid innings with New York last season tell us more about his abilities than all the innings that came before.

Ivan Nova's obviously the baby in the bunch, and obviously more upside than any of those veterans. Nova didn't fare particularly well last September in his five starts with the big club, he throws a low-90s sinker and went 12-3 with a 2.86 ERA in Triple-A last season. This winter, John Sickels wrote, "Nova could be a good third or fourth starter for many teams, or he could be a very impressive power reliever. I'd still still like to see sharper command out of him, but you can't have everything." John gave Nova a B- grade, which isn't awful but doesn't seem the grade you'd like from a prospect who's supposed to help you win 90(plus) games.*

* I will note in passing that John gave Chien-Ming Wang a B- the winter before Wang graduated to the majors and posted a highly respectable ERA in 17 starts with the big club. Maybe the Yankees just know more than us about their sinkerball pitchers.

Mitre has started just once this spring, throwing only five innings total, and seems like a longshot. Nova and Colon have both pitched well, Garcia not as much. Whoever wins those two jobs in the rotation, we can probably assume they'll both be on short leashes. And so there's only so much damage they can do. But if (for example) Colon and Nova win those jobs this month, and then one or both of them falter, what's next? Is Garcia in the wings (i.e. Moosic, PA, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees)? Is Mitre able to shift easily from reliefing to starting? Or do the Yankees trade two or three of their many prospects for an established major league starter in June or July?

We can't really answer any of those questions, nor can we know if Bartolo Colon really can pitch significantly better in 2011 than he's pitched in any season since 2005.

What we can know -- or know, almost -- is that the Yankees will be a real good baseball team. They've just so much talent on their roster, it would take a terrible rash of injuries to keep the Yankees from winning more games than they lose. But with only two-and-a-half dependable starting pitchers entering the season, there's real potential here for their second third-place finish (and playoff miss) in four seasons. There's also real potential for a stirring -- well, as stirring as possible considering both clubs would probably qualify for the playoffs -- pennant race with the Red Sox.

With the Yankees, the question really isn't really about who's in the rotation three weeks from now; it's about who's in the rotation three months from now. And your guess is probably as good as anyone's.