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Clippard, Yanks looking forward to Opening Day04/04/2007 5:49 PM ET
By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com
MOOSIC, Pa. -- The similarities between the home clubhouse at PNC Field and Yankee Stadium were designed to be noticeable. The familiar blue-and-white paint job as well as the famous façade that's been replicated above every player's locker are meant to serve as a reminder that the Bronx isn't too far away.
Exactly when some of the players in that clubhouse ultimately make the two-hour trip to New York, however, is one of the big questions surrounding Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on the eve of its season opener with Norfolk. The Yankees are expected to sport one of the finest starting staffs in all of the Minor Leagues this season, perhaps rivaled only by Rochester at the Triple-A level.
How long this staff stays intact should determine how far Scranton/Wilkes-Barre goes this season in its quest to end Toledo's recent stranglehold on the International League. Former first-round pick Phil Hughes (2004) will garner much of the attention when this group is mentioned, and rightfully so. He was rated as the fourth best prospect in MiLB.com's latest top-50 ranking and was tabbed as its Double-A pitcher of the season for 2006.
But the depth of the staff is made obvious by the fact that Hughes, who combined to go 15-6 with a 2.16 ERA in 26 starts at Class A Advanced Tampa and Double-A Trenton, isn't even starting on Opening Day. That honor will go to right-hander Tyler Clippard, who went 12-10 with a 3.35 ERA last season at Trenton while leading the Eastern League with 175 strikeouts.
Ross Ohlendorf, whom the Yankees pried from Arizona in the Randy Johnson trade, currently slots into the third spot in the rotation after spending last season in the Double-A Southern League. Matt DeSalvo and Steven Jackson are currently fourth and fifth, but one of them figures to lose his spot when Humberto Sanchez (elbow) comes off the disabled list sometime this month.
Sanchez, a key piece of the deal that sent Gary Sheffield to Detroit, was 10-6 with a 2.63 ERA in 20 starts at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo before a tender elbow ended his season prematurely. If he returns healthy -- a question that has followed him for the better part of two seasons -- he will make a formidable addition to this group.
"I was around Phil last year and I've seen him throw a lot," said Clippard, whose only other Opening Day start came in 2005 when he threw six shutout innings and earned a victory for Tampa in the Florida State League. "And I've heard great things about Humberto, Ross and Steven. I'm excited about the possibility of what we can do. We just have to stay even keeled with our mind-set. We don't want to overhype ourselves."
Clippard was diplomatic when asked which starting pitcher has the best stuff on the staff. "That's real tough," he said. "We leave that kind of stuff up to the critics. Mostly because the starting staff you have at the beginning of the year is not going to be the staff you have at the end of the year. You just need to know there's a lot of talent on this team."
Some of that talent is expected to contribute in a big way in New York before too long. The future of much of the starting rotation in the Bronx after this season remains a question mark, whether because of age or contract status. The idea that Hughes and Clippard will one day form a solid foundation with Chien-Ming Wang has been bandied about for the better part of a year now in most baseball circles. And if Ohlendorf and Sanchez play to their potential, they'll either be part of that future as well or used as trade bait to enhance another part of the parent club.
Despite being so close in proximity to New York, neither Hughes nor Clippard wants to look that far ahead. There's still the matter of playing this season, and for now that means worrying about Norfolk this weekend and then going from there.
"I try not to think too much about the future," Hughes said. "So many things can change. We talk about the stuff that affects us now. I have to do what got me here. I don't look too much at the other stuff because I'm not the one making the decisions.
"Right now, the staff looks good on paper. It's all about coming out and putting together a string of good starts and getting on a roll. If we can string together a few good starts, we'll be fine. It should be fun, though, because if you get a couple of guys who are pitching well, we all feed off that."
The similarities in the home clubhouse at PNC Park and Yankee Stadium are evident. Beginning Thursday, both levels of Yankees will get to see if the same can be said for the starting staffs.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.