PP Report: 2004 Yankee Starters

It isn't the easiest thing in the world to replace a six-time Cy Young award winner, a two-time 20-game winner and a man that once threw a perfect game, but the Yankees gave it their best effort during this offseason - and they may have managed to put together a rotation even better than last year's.

Projected 2004 Rotation:
1. Mike Mussina, RHP
2. Javier Vazquez, RHP
3. Kevin Brown, RHP
4. Jose Contreras, RHP
5. Jon Lieber, RHP

Sure, the 2004 rotation may have only two 20-win seasons between them (one each for Brown and Lieber), but here's what they do have: nine 18-win seasons, ten 200-strikeout seasons and 26 200-inning seasons.  Now, onto the nitty gritty:

Mike Mussina, Age: 35
Mussina may not be the most talented pitcher on the staff anymore (that might just be Vazquez), he's still unquestionably the leader.  He's also the only guy on the staff that's been a Yankee for more than one season.  The Moose hasn't had an ERA lower than league average since 1993 and he's been one of the most durable pitchers on the planet throughout his career.  The one thing he's never done is win 20 games, or a Cy Young award, could this finally be his year?

Vazquez Is Only 27 Years Old

Javier Vazquez, Age: 27
A-Rod or not, Vazquez was probably the single most important piece to the Yankees' offseason puzzle this winter.  He fills a gaping hole left by Andy Pettitte and he has the shoes big enough to handle the task.  People may question whether or not Vazquez, who has spent the first six seasons of his career in quiet Montreal, will be able to perform under the bright lights of New York City.  From everything I've heard, this guy is the perfect type of player for New York (unlike a certain other young gun the Yankees tried out, hello Jeff Weaver).  

Vazquez features an extensive repertoire of pitches that includes a 93-mph fastball with excellent movement, a slider, curveball and a changeup.  He's one of the best young pitchers in the major leagues, and the Yankees are going to need a guy like him for the next four years.

Brown Is A Bulldog

Kevin Brown, Age: 39
Let's get this out of the way:  Brown is injury-prone, and that's putting it nicely.  Back injuries are never good news for pitchers (just ask David Wells), but facing Kevin Brown is never good news for opposing batters.  I honestly don't care if his back makes him a risk throughout the season, this is a heck of a pitcher and a heck of a competitor that the Yankees traded for.  

Brown will fill the Roger Clemens role on the team, and he's probably a better pitcher than Clemens at this stage in their careers.  Like the Rocket, Brown is uber-competitive and just as tough.  Yankee catcher John Flaherty was recently quoted by ESPN.com saying that "As a hitter, you almost feel like you're being attacked by Kevin."  Strong words, indeed.  As long as Brown stays healthy, the Yankees are going to have a near-unbeatable front three in their rotation.

Jose Contreras, Age: 32
Contreras flourished as a starter last season, posting fun numbers like a .184 opponent's batting average, 57 strikeouts in 57.2 innings, a 2.34 ERA and a 6-1 record.  What those numbers don't tell you is that seven of his nine starts came against lousy competition (Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati). 

The Cuban defector is immensely talented, featuring a knuckle-splitter that nobody in their right mind would want to see coming in the batter's box.  This pitch has more movement on it than just about anything this side of Francisco Rodriguez' slider.  Contreras is highly unproven in the majors however, something that could come back to haunt him.  Let's hope he can give the Yankees a good amount of innings without getting hurt or running out of gas.

How Will Lieber Return From Surgery?

Jon Lieber, Age: 33
Lieber is probably going to be the fulcrum of the Yankees' season.  If he performs and gives the Yankees even close to 200 quality innings, it will be amazing.  The only problem is that Lieber is just coming off of Tommy John surgery that caused him to most virtually all of 2003 and then end of 2002.  Most pitchers that undergo TJ surgery come back better than ever (see Chicago's Kerry Wood), but the road back from any major operation is bound to be perilous. 

Lieber won 20 games for the Cubs in 2001, and specializes in not walking a lot of batters (like Wells, or Curt Schilling, but not that good).  Another cause for concern is his high opponent's batting average.  Opposing batters hit .277 off of Lieber in 2002, and are hitting at a .271 clip throughout his career.  Lieber features a very good slider and an average fastball and changeup.  His excellent control is what makes him effective.  With it, he'll be just like the Lieber of old, without it, he might struggle.

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