TAMPA, Fla. -- The deceptively simple question posed to Joe Girardi was how he'd decide on a fifth starter if more than one candidate was pitching well. And the Yankees manager's answer was deceptively simple as well.
"What makes us the best," he said.
On the dry erase board in Girardi's office Thursday morning, he wrote in the initials of his starters up until next weekend. After MT (Masahiro Tanaka) on Sunday and HK (Hiroki Kuroda) next Monday, he scribbled in MP (Michael Pineda) on Tuesday, IN (Ivan Nova) on Wednesday, DP (David Phelps) on Thursday and CC (Sabathia) on Friday.
Not so fast. Consider Pineda, who started Thursday's Grapefruit League split-squad game against the Orioles at George M. Steinbrenner Field and pitched 2 2/3 shutout innings, striking out five. He's believed to be vying with right-handers Phelps and Adam Warren and left-hander Vidal Nuno for the vacancy.
Pineda was regarded as one of the best pitching prospects in baseball when the Yankees acquired him from the Mariners in the Jesus Montero trade. That was before he missed the entire 2012 season with shoulder problems. Pineda's rehabilitation from surgery lingered into last season, when he made just eight starts, all at Triple-A or below.
"He's taking steps in the right direction, and I want to see him continue to take steps in the right direction. But he would be important for us, I can tell you that," Girardi said after the Yankees' 6-0 Grapefruit League win over the Orioles.
The manager is clearly intrigued by the 25-year-old's potential upside, but must also balance that against this calculation: If Pineda's the guy, he knows the right-hander won't give him 200 innings.
"Let's just say, hypothetically, he was a starter at some point," Girardi said. "You're going to have to adjust. Because you're not getting 200 innings from him."
Then there's the fact that Pineda has no relief experience, while the other three pitchers do. Girardi noted that this could increase their odds of making the team if not of being in the rotation.
"I guess you could say it works against them, but I think it works for them, in a sense, because it gives them two options to be a big part of our team," he explained.
There's the fact that of the first four starters who have been penciled in -- Tanaka, Sabathia, Kuroda and Nova -- only Sabathia is left-handed. Going with Nuno, then, would add some variety to the rotation. But it's not just the starters. It's how all the pitchers fit into the big picture that will be taken into consideration.
"How you basically arrange the 12 guys to make your team the best will be the deciding factor," Girardi said.
Pineda's Thursday outing was encouraging, even though his command wasn't as sharp as Girardi might have hoped.
"You think about when a guy is struggling with command and missing. He missed down all the time. And you don't get in as much trouble when you miss down," Girardi explained. "I don't make too much of it. It's only his second appearance. That's what you want to see. You want to see that command get better, the breaking ball continue to improve. I thought his slider and changeup were pretty good today, and that's what helped him. He got outs when he had to."
The Yankees' radar gun had Pineda hitting 93 mph, with the expectation that he'll throw harder as he builds arm strength.
Said Pineda: "The best thing is my shoulder is feeling good, and I can pitch and compete in the game. I'm happy with that."
Told that Girardi doubted he could make 30 starts this season, Pineda shrugged.
"I have no control over that," he said. "If I'm feeling great, I feel ready to go every five days, just let it go. That's why I'm here. I love pitching. I want to be ready to pitch every five days. If it's my day, Michael Pineda, I want to be ready.
"But he's the manager. Whatever decision they make with me, I'll be happy, because they want to take care of me. I want to do my job. That's my focus, be ready every five days."
All Pineda's strikeouts were on swings-and-misses Thursday.
"That means he's got deception and he's locating the ball. He's hard to pick up," Girardi said.
So the Yankees' baseball people will twist the possibilities like a Rubik's Cube, considering all angles, doing their due diligence. If Pineda is the choice, would they let him take a regular turn knowing they might have to shut him down at some point later in the season? Would they try to space his starts and nurse him through the whole year? Would they start him off pitching sporadically at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and try to have him ready for the stretch run?
"I'm sure we'll talk about every possibility and what makes the most sense for us, and then we'll go from there," Girardi said.
There are two factors that won't be an issue. The first is options, as all four candidates have at least one remaining. The other is the transition of Tanaka from pitching once a week in Japan to the five-man rotation used in the Major Leagues after signing a seven-year, $155 million deal to come to the United States.
"He's going to be on a five-man schedule," Girardi said. "During the season, he's going to have to pitch very fifth day. Unless they add a man to the roster. Last I checked, it was 25."
Tanaka will get an extra day between starts this time through the rotation, but the manager said that was because the Yankees are in the process of stretching him out. And Tanaka said that, so far, he's making the adjustment well.
"Gradually, I think I'm getting used to it. But it's actually hard to say," he said. "I shouldn't be comparing anything to Japan right now. At this point, the number of pitches I'm throwing is very limited. So I think I'll get a better idea once I throw in games with a lot more pitches, and then see how I feel about the five days."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.