Bartolo Colon set to start spring opener

TAMPA, Fla. -- The first pitch of the New York Yankees' exhibition season will be thrown by a somewhat hefty ex-Cleveland Indian and former Cy Young Award winner.

CC Sabathia will be there, too.

Bartolo Colon, all 267 pounds of him, will make his Yankees debut against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday when the Grapefruit League season gets underway at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

Colon will work two innings or 35 pitches and then head for the buffet, to be followed by Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson and the kiddies: David Phelps, Hector Noesi and Eric Wordekemper. Plus, other assorted role players and fill-ins as the circumstances dictate.

According to manager Joe Girardi, all his regulars -- minus new catcher Russell Martin, still nursing a surgically-repaired knee -- will start the game.

And while Girardi wouldn't say what his first-day batting order will be, he was quick to point out what it will not be. "Don't think that that's the lineup I'm going to be putting out there on Opening Day,'' he said "We'll look at some guys, you know. We might play with some different things over the course of spring training just to see how it works. Any of these lineups the first three weeks, I'm not saying that would be my Opening Day lineup.''

Which might mean Brett Gardner could replace Derek Jeter as the leadoff hitter in the first game. Or, it might not. Either way, Girardi says don't read too much into a spring batting order.

Because the real issue with the Yankees this spring is not the lineup, which scored the most runs of any team in baseball in 2010. It is with the rotation, which lost Andy Pettitte to retirement and Cliff Lee to those pesky Phillies, who now have four starting pitchers to rival the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s at their pitching-rich best.

Now Colon steps up as the first candidate for one of the two remaining starting spots, the other three having already been assigned to Sabathia, a 21-game winner last year, Phil Hughes, an 18-game winner, and A.J. Burnett, a season-long case of agita.

Colon, Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre, Ivan Nova and perhaps one of the kiddies, such as Noesi or Andrew Brackman, are all in the mix for the final two spots, and so far, judging by the words of the manager and the pitching coach, Colon -- who won 21 games and the Cy Young for the L.A. Angels in 2005 -- might be slightly ahead in the drive to be No. 5.

"I'm curious to see him, I am, because I remember what he was like, when he was with Cleveland and the Angels,'' Girardi said. "You remember how he threw the baseball, and how good he was. So yeah, I'm very curious.''

"He played winter ball so he comes in throwing the ball pretty well,'' said new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "We'll see in the game where the stuff is. Up to now he's located pitches pretty well, he's had good movement and I'm sure the velocity will jump a little in a game.''

Colon, for his part, has looked good in throwing live batting practice, which is nowhere near game intensity, and terrible in the clubhouse, where his admitted 267 pounds don't sit all that well on his 5-foot-10 frame.

And since that terrific 2005 season, Colon has won just 14 games and lost 21 for three different teams, and hasn't faced a hitter in a major league game since July 24, 2009. One rotator cuff tear (suffered against the Yankees in the 2005 ALDS), one elbow surgery to remove bone chips, and about 80 pounds later, he is here as a non-roster invitee on a minor league contract that will pay him $900,000 if he makes the big club.

"I'm not throwing hard like I used to, but I'm throwing strikes,'' said Colon, 37, who impressed Yankee scouts while compiling a 2-1 record and 1.93 ERA while pitching for Aguilas Cibaenas, managed by Yankees bench coach Tony Pena, in the Dominican League this winter.

Colon will be followed on Sunday by Nova, who will pitch against the Phillies in Clearwater. The regular pitching rotation -- Sabathia on Monday against the Tigers in Lakeland, Hughes on Tuesday against the Pirates in Bradenton, and Burnett on Wednesday against the Astros back here at The Boss -- will follow before candidate No. 2, Garcia, gets his turn to start against the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte next Thursday.

Finally, there will begin to be some concrete evidence for Girardi and his staff to base the decisions upon which the fate of his team may rest this season.

"You've seen enough bullpens, you've seen enough live batting practice,'' Girardi said. "You start to look forward to the games. I think it's unfair to really go off a lot of what you see early on. But obviously, you're going to start to watch now though.''

Let the games begin. At last.


Girardi said Francisco Cervelli will catch Colon on Saturday, and rookie Jesus Montero will "probably'' catch Nova on Sunday. Martin, who had surgery to repair a torn meniscus as well as an MCL injury in mid-December, still has not taken part in any lateral-movement blocking drills and is not expected to catch in a game until sometime next week. ... Girardi said that while all his regulars will start on Saturday, most will get no more than two at-bats and that some will also travel to Clearwater to play Sunday, as per MLB rules requiring a team to send a certain number of regulars to road games in the spring. ... Because of the slightly abbreviated spring training this season, Girardi did not take the team out for an organized group experience, as he has in the past. But it was a much shorter work day and most of the players were gone from the clubhouse by noon. ... There will be a pre-game ceremony at 1 p.m., including the official unveiling of a bronze statue of George Steinbrenner outside the entrance to the ballpark, with the first pitch scheduled for 1:15 p.m. YES will televise and WCBS-AM (880) will broadcast.