Joe Girardi says rotation again priority

NEW YORK -- New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi believes the franchise's biggest need this offseason is starting pitching.

With CC Sabathia potentially opting out of his contract, Girardi doesn't know exactly what he will have when the Yankees go to spring training in February. Besides Sabathia, free agents Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon may not return.

"The one need we are going to have to address again is our rotation," Girardi said. "There is no doubt about it. We have two guys who are free agents. We have another guy who can opt out. It is similar to what we had to do for this year. It all starts with CC and then you go from there."

If Sabathia remains a Yankee, Girardi said he thinks his rotation right now would be rounded out by Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett.

Girardi said that aside from making a deal, the Yankees' young pitchers, led by Hector Noesi, also could compete for a spot.

"I think the kids could start to challenge," Girardi said. "I think Noesi is a guy who could start to challenge."

Noesi was 2-2 with a 4.47 ERA this year for the Yankees. Girardi also mentioned prospects David Phelps, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell. The Yankees' two minor league pitchers with the most potential, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, likely will begin next season in Triple-A.

The Yankees also could go hard after Texas Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson, who is a free agent.

Whatever happens with Sabathia, free agency and trades, the improvement -- or return to previous form -- of Burnett and Hughes will be big issues going into spring training. Girardi said he believes he can count on the soon-to-be 35-year-old Burnett, despite becoming the first Yankees starter in team history with back-to-back seasons with a plus-5.00 ERA in more than 150 innings.

"He is a work in progress because he is having to change as he gets older," Girardi said. "He has lost a mile or two so that changes some of the pitches you are going to get away with. The adjustments that he made from August to September really helped him and I hope they continue to help him as we move forward."

Hughes went to spring training without his fastball, and he and the team played catch-up all season, trying to keep him healthy as he was diagnosed with various ailments. Girardi said he "would assume" Hughes will be in the rotation next season.

"We consider him a starter," Girardi said of Hughes, who finished 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA after being an All-Star in 2010. "We do, but he has to get back to the form he had in 2010 to continue to stay in our rotation. That is something he'll work at very hard at this winter. He has to stay healthy. Whenever you have health issues, it is hard to get on a roll."

Andrew Marchand covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com.