Once Andy Pettitte made it known that he was hanging up his cleats, Thursday became a day for looking back.
Game Five of the 1996 World Series. Game Six of the 2009 World Series. Hundreds of outings in between. The best damn pickoff move in baseball. The steady lefty with the hat pulled down low who always seemed to find a way to get the job done when the team's backs were against the wall.
We're turning the page on Friday, though, and starting to think about the future. Specifically, we're thinking about the future of the Yankees rotation. The failure to land Lee or convince Pettitte to come back has left the Yankees with a very soft back end of the rotation with pitchers and catchers reporting in less than two weeks.
When the season starts, it will likely be some combination of Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova holding down the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. All three could be on the team, with Nova pitching out of relief as insurance if/when one of the veterans goes down to injury or ineffectiveness. There's no real way to polish those names into anything other than what they are, which is why you'll likely still hear about Kevin Millwood in the days to come, but, outside of Nova, they are merely placeholders anyway.
Come July, the Yankees rotation will either feature a fast-rising prospect like Adam Warren, Manuel Banuelos or Dellin Betances or some of them will have been dealt for a veteran to solidify things on the mound. Remember, the Yankees still have a good bit of the money set aside for Lee and Pettitte to spend so you could actually see both a neophyte and a sure thing in the rotation for the stretch run.
Those names and those spots will have a lot of people losing sleep, but they are far less significant to the team's hopes than the guys in the second and third slots. The Yankees need Phil Hughes to take a step forward this season and have a full year that resembles the first half of 2010. That seems like a plausible evolution for a young pitcher.
A.J. Burnett's resurrection seems less plausible. At his best, Burnett was still capable of some of the most hideous outings you'd ever hope to see. By the end of last year, though, an inning without multiple runs scoring felt like he'd thrown a no-hitter.
Getting Burnett right is going to be Larry Rothschild's biggest job in his first year as pitching coach. If he pulls it off, the Yankee offseason will go from a loser to at least a push because the return of good A.J. would be like signing a new starter.
The important thing to keep in perspective when chicken littles begin screaming about the falling sky is that the Yankees aren't totally up the creek. The lineup and bullpen are very strong, while Burnett and Hughes can make the rotation good enough to keep the team in the thick of the race.
Can is the key word there, because the absence of Pettitte has moved everything from certainty into the realm of the possible for the Yankees in 2011.