I’m clearly on the Phil Hughes bandwagon when it comes to the possible starters in 2012. Much of the blogosphere, us included, has dubbed this year’s pitching “competition” rigged. When Joe Girardi says only CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are guaranteed a spot, it’s hard to take the manager seriously. While Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda will undoubtedly make the rotation as well, Phil Hughes appears to have the lead over Freddy Garcia for that final spot. While the competition might not be real, a lot can happen between now and opening day.
Manny Banuelos has done nothing but impress so far. The Yankee’s top prospect, who turns 21 tomorrow, faced a mediocre season last year fueled by poor command. In his two innings of work last Friday, the southpaw gave up two hits and struck out three, while looking like a top of the rotation pitcher. His fastball sat 93-95 mph and topped out at 96 mph, impressive velocity for the beginning of March, but most importantly, the command on his fastball and curveball was spot on. In fact, when Joe Girardi joined the booth during one inning, you could hear his excitement as Banuelos dropped curveballs on the inside corners. After the Game, Joe Girardi spoke about the lefties command issues last year, blaming them on “nibbling a little too much.”
“I don’t think he’s real concerned about them hitting the ball hard, I just think he’s a young kid and it’s learning your body, how to repeat that delivery and attack the zone.”
Indeed, when you look at Banuelos’ numbers over his minor league career, you would never think a command problem existed. Before last season, he held a 2.76 BB/9 rate through 215.2 IP, but in 2011 he nearly doubled the rate, posting a 4.9 BB/9. Some scouts and fans attributed his bump in walks to his increase in velocity and/or facing a higher level of competition in AA. If Girardi’s theory of nibbling is correct, the pitcher’s biggest flaw could be an easy solution, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Banuelos with the club by the end 2012.
“I think he battled some nerves his first time out,” Russell Martin said, “He looked like he was a little erratic. This time out, was just pitching. Powering his fastball, downward plane, and he looked like he just had more control of all his pitches. So I think as we progress here, he’s just going to sharpen up.”
Thus far, Banuelos has surprised me the most among starters, if he sharpens up any more he could easily best Hughes and Garcia this month. While the chances of anyone other than these two landing the 5th rotation spot is likely close to zero, in a real competition, Banuelos would be considered.
“If you look at his numbers last year, he had some high walk totals against right-handed hitters,” Girardi said. “That’s something that he has to correct, because you don’t want walks beating you. I think his command can improve, and when that improves I think he’s a major league pitcher. Obviously we love the talent and what he can become.”
While I realistically expect him to be pitching for the Empire State Yankees at the beginning of the year, what happens if he continues to show improved command? What happens if we see a couple starting pitchers injured? What happens if Banuelos is major league ready now?
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