Friday, April 10, 2009

Yanks' pitching depth starting to show

Don't you hate when you see someone you're sure you know but can't match the face with the name? Isn't that the worst? I had the same feeling on Friday during the Yankees' opener against the Royals.

There was this guy on the mound for Kansas City, a husky fellow with the face of a drinker. His stuff and performance was the exact definition of average. In fact, if a list of 10,000 Major League pitchers were randomly generated and you were asked to rank them, this guy would rated at No. 5,000 -- right smack in the middle.

Still, as familiar as his beer gut looked, I couldn't figure it out. When every Google search of "chunky + Major League pitcher" led back to the kidnapping of Rich Garces, I nearly gave up. That's when I realized the mute button was on, so I turned up the volume to discover we were dealing with the immortal Sidney Ponson.

You remember Sidney, right? If not, I'll help you out. He was the portly right-hander who came to represent all that was wrong with the depth in the Yankees' starting rotation last season, a rotation that Ponson slotted in at the No. 3 spot for the better part of the second half.

Last season was fun, wasn't it?

What a difference an offseason makes. The Yanks' No. 3 starter is now 2008 AL strikeout king A.J. Burnett, who got the Yanks in the win column on Thursday. A 215-game winner in Andy Pettitte took the hill Friday, manning the No. 4 rotation spot once held by Darrell Rasner, who at last check was serving up those delicious meatballs to the grateful hitters of Japan.

Pettitte may be the Yanks' fourth starter, but he pitched nothing like it against the Royals on Friday, firing seven innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts. The bullpen then extended its scoreless streak to 10 innings to wrap up a relatively easy 4-1 win.

Pettitte was a bit of a mystery last season, mixing stretches of dominance with periods where you wondered just how badly he needed those HGH shots. Much of the riddle was uncovered when he admitted he was pitching through considerable shoulder pain down the stretch. If nothing else, we'll always know AP's a gamer.

Pettitte as a No. 4 tells you everything you need to know about how well this team has been constructed. In the past couple of seasons, if Wang, Mussina or Pettitte had bad starts, you knew the team would have to steal a win by the time it got back to the considerably weaker back end of the rotation. That isn't the case anymore, not with Pettitte and Chamberlain bringing up the rear. Sidney Ponson couldn't shine shoes for this version of the Yankees rotation.

This is a very different Yankees team than last season. Health permitting, the depth of the rotation will give Joe Girardi a huge advantage nearly every night out. You have to go back to 1999 to find a better collection of New York starters, a group that featured El Duque, Cone, Clemens and Pettitte. Sabathia, Wang, Burnett and Pettitte are certainly a group in that class, and that's before you factor in the Tyson-McNeeley showdown of Joba vs. Irabu in the No. 5 hole.

I saw one other really familiar face at Kauffman Stadium on Friday. There was this hulking relief pitcher for the Royals who looked exactly like Kyle Farnsworth, a former Yanks reliever who specialized in dousing flames with gasoline. This guy had the same face, same build, same delivery, same cheesy arm band tatoo, everything. But then this dude struck out the side on 16 pitches and I knew it couldn't be Farnsworth. Literally, it's not possible.

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