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Friday night, the New York Yankees, quiet players in the offseason to this point, made two moves to improve their chances in the AL East. GM Brian Cashman shipped top prospect Jesus Montero, a possible catcher and probable DH, to the Seattle Mariners for breakout star Michael Pineda. Later that night, he let the second shoe drop – signing free agent starter Hiroki Kuroda.
The past few seasons have not been kind to baseball’s perennial powerhouses. Both New York and Boston have found that their ability to roll over most of the league in the regular season is not necessarily a precursor to playoff success or, in the Red Sox case, even guaranteed entry to the post season. Through the mid-2000s, sought after players were often fought over in bidding wars between these titans, and the American League Wild Card was the consolation prize that allowed both teams to play into October.
After the emergence of the Tampa Bay Rays, however, the road to the World Series became more complicated. Major League Baseball has seen the Rays, Blue Jays, Rangers, and even the lowly Kansas City Royals build strong organizations despite less financial might than Boston and New York. As much as Yankees GM Brian Cashman is a product of having the largest wallet in sports history, his work Friday created a truly horrific Friday the 13th for Red Sox Nation.
In Michael Pineda, the Yankees have acquired one of the most prized commodities in baseball: young pitching. At just 22 years old (he turns 23 on January 18th), Pineda dominated the AL as a rookie while winning nine games for the offensively inept Mariners. His first season in the big leagues also brought his first appearance in the All-Star Game and earned him fifth place in Rookie of the Year voting. Standing at 6’7” and capable of bringing upper 90s heat, the righthander is likely a star in the making. His rookie success wasn’t just small sample sizes either as Pineda tossed 171 innings while racking up just over a strikeout per frame. Combined with a walk rate of just 2.9 per nine innings, he brought swing-and-miss stuff as well as command. As a bit of extra sweetener in the deal, Pineda came bundled with five full years of team control.
At 36 years old, Hiroki Kuroda is no spring chicken, but he remains a fierce competitor. The Japanese righty arrived relatively unheralded from Japan and has quietly put together a nice major league resume. In three of his four years in America, Kuroda has tossed between 183 and 202 innings, only in his injury-shortened 2009 did he not start at least 31 games per season. Unlike some older pitchers who enter MLB to succeed their first year because teams have not yet built up a scouting profile of their arsenal, Kuroda has actually improved as he becomes more familiar with American baseball. His strikeout rate has inceased from 5.7 per 9 in 2008 to 7.2 per 9 in 2011 and his strikeout to walk ratio was at least 3.29 since 2009.
A one-year deal for just $10 or $11 million dollars is a bargain for the veteran. The Yankees are able to limit their risk on an older pitcher moving to the toughest division in the harder league. With research showing that strikeout rates for pitchers peaks at age 25, acquiring both a young up and comer and a veteran who has so far bucked this trend, the Yankees have had a very good 24 hours of preparing their team for the 2012 season. A rotation lead by C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Hiroki Kuroda takes pressure off of the unpredictable A.J. Burnett and the still developing Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.
These acquisitions have made the Red Sox rotation, their major strength over the Yankees, weaker in comparison. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz are a good match for the Yankees top three and with Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard transitioning to the rotation, the back end of the Boston rotation has quite a bit of upside. With the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays in the division as well, the Red Sox have almost 60 games against tough division rivals.