New York Yankees season preview: Prepare for an arms race

Uncharacteristically, the Yankees made more back pages this winter due to their departures than big-name acquisitions.

All-Stars like Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson never got much more than a tire kicking from GM Brian Cashman, though only Wilson would have fit on the Yankee roster anyway.

In fact, Cashman and principal owner Hal Steinbrenner have made it public that they seek to reduce the team payroll to $189 million by 2014 to avoid a luxury tax spike. Essentially, the Yanks appeared dedicated to reshaping their starting rotation through the trade market and on Jan. 13, they did just that.

The Yankees’ biggest off-season addition was Michael Pineda, the rookie sensation of the Seattle Mariners. Pineda finished the year with a 9-10 record and a 3.74 ERA, neither of which are representative of his second-half, where he posted a 5.12 ERA in 10 starts. Still a developing pitcher who threw 170 innings in his first season and struck out 173, Pineda is one of baseball’s top arms and will finally have the run support and bullpen security he lacked in Seattle.

Andy Pettitte announced his return from retirement in mid-March to add to the rotation logjam. He said he hopes to be ready to pitch by early May. Should Pettitte be of starting caliber by then, coupled with the departure of A.J. Burnett, the Yankees will have three starters fighting for one remaining spot. Pineda likely lands third in the rotation, following the newly re-signed CC Sabathia, coming off a 19-win season where he finished fourth in Cy Young voting, and new-comer Hiroki Kuroda who signed a one-year deal after posting 13 wins and a 3.07 ERA with the LA Dodgers.

Iván Nova’s brilliant 16-win rookie season should earn him a rotation spot as well. Phil Hughes, whose 2011 season was injury-riddled and disappointing, and Freddy Garcia, a pleasant surprise last season who ran out of steam down the stretch, may land either in the bullpen, especially after Joba Chamberlain dislocated his ankle. Hughes’ experience in the bullpen in 2009 makes him attractive in that sense, while Garcia may be the odd man out on the trading block. A strong spring will likely land Hughes in the rotation, at least until Pettite is ready to return.

Mariano Rivera enters possibly his last season, backed by David Robertson, who has established himself as the Yanks’ second-in-command and heir to the closer role. The rest of the bullpen is pretty much the same, with higher expectations for Rafael Soriano and the addition of David Aardsma to spring training. The Yankees will hope to have Chamberlain back from injury by August.

Questions for the upcoming season concern the health and production of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, as always, not to mention a more consistent season needed from Mark Teixeira (.248). The Yankees seem to expect big seasons from Robinson Canó and Curtis Granderson once again, but different from last year, this rotation may be the club’s biggest strength. The Yankees are primed in the AL East.