By Sean McAdam
TAMPA -- For most contending teams -- and especially ones with payrolls in the 200 million neighborhood -- spring training usually isn't a time for much competition.
Clubs with designs on a championship might have battles for a backup outfield spot or the final slot in the bullpen.
Yet here are the New York Yankees, with two spots available for the taking in their starting rotation. CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes have the first two, and by virtue of his salary -- but not how he pitched last year -- A.J. Burnett will be the team's No. 3.
After that? Well, this year, that's what spring training is for.
A starting rotation that's 40 percent undecided? You'd expect that with Kansas City or Pittsburgh. But the Yankees?
"It is what it is,'' shrugged Yankee GM Brian Cashman, seemingly without worry. "We hopefully have the answers here in front of us. We'll have to find out over time. But there's some competition and that's not a bad thing. We do believe we have a lot people who are capable and we hope that they're up for the challenge.''
The list of candidates is long, but mostly undistinguished: Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Segio Mitre.
Nova, according to some officials, is virtually guaranteed one of the spots. He's already thrown five scoreless innings in Grapefruit League play. Garcia is the other likely starter, based on his 12-win season with the Chicago White Sox.
Mitre could make the staff as a swing man, while Colon, who last pitched in the big leagues in 2009 and has won just 14 games since 2005, could provide some depth at Triple A.
This is not, of course, how Cashman envisioned things. The Yankees focused much of their attention and resources on Cliff Lee, only to have Lee slip between their fingers for the second time in five months. They had a tentative deal in place to get Lee from the Seattle Mariners last July, only to have the Mariners change their minds and ship Lee to Texas.
Then, in December, Lee took less money to go to Philadelphia, and with little else available either by trade or free agency, the Yankees had to scramble. And they'll have to make good with their in-house candidates for a while.
"Normally,'' noted Cashman, "anything of quality doesn't become available until after the June draft. That's why you try to get as much accomplished as you can in the winter, because typically things don't evolve until after the draft and their seasons are more defined.''
While choosing from the arms in camp has its risks, Cashman believes that approach is preferable to panicking last December after Lee went with the Phils.
"That was a time when it was ripe to make a big mistake,'' said Cashman," by reacting and overpaying a starter you're not really excited about. Instead, we did some low-risk moves (Garcia, Colon) that wouldn't cost us much. And we do have a system we can rely on.''
Cashman has "publicly preached patience,'' with the rotation, admittedly not the easiest sell in his market.
"I know New York doesn't handle patience very well,'' said Cashman, "but I'm from Kentucky, so it's a little easier for me to deal with.''
The Yankees had an interest in retaining Alfredo Aceves, but wouldn't go beyond a minor league deal because of lingering concerns about his health in general and back in particular. Aceves got a major league deal with the Red Sox last month and has impressed them to date.
Of the Yankees' scramble to find enough starting pitching, Terry Francona said: "They're probably not going to get a lot of sympathy. We're not rooting for them.''
And the Red Sox expect that the Yankees will do something of note before Aug. 1. By then, a quality starter should be on the market, and the Yanks have a deep farm system from which to deal.
Until then, they'll hope a couple of pitchers emerge from their mix of young (Nova), versatile (Mitre) and experienced (Colon, Garcia), and figure a way to remain in contention until then.
That's not how it usually works in New York, where ordinarily, the jobs are spoken for and spring is for getting game-ready, not identifying 40 percent of the starting rotation.