Pitching wins championships, and the Yankees are about to learn this the hard way, for better or for worse.

Recent rumblings about C.C. Sabathia’s opt-out clause got me thinking about the future of the Yankees’ starting rotation. To be blunt, it has been brighter. Indeed, a lot of doomsdayers have projected that the Yankees pitching woes will handicap them for years to come. However, I think this view doesn’t do justice to the upside present in the rotation and farm system. If anything, the point of this article is to highlight the fact that the Yankees starting rotation is not marked by pessimism but rather by uncertainty. What really strikes me is the cloud of question marks hovering over the staff. Because starting pitching is so essential to deep playoff runs, this uncertainty is going to determine whether Derek Jeter retires with a few more rings on his fingers (perhaps some for his left hand?). The franchise is at a critical juncture.

Let’s start with the dream scenario. To begin with, C.C. does NOT opt out of his contract after 2011. This is absolutely critical. The hefty lefty is the anchor of the staff, and in some ways the heart and soul of the team. The man has led the league in wins in every year he has been a Yankee. Rolling along with our fantasy, Phil Hughes continues his ascendency and finally fulfills the lofty promise of his stellar minor league career. He follows up his 18-win 2010 campaign with equally impressive 2011 numbers, this time dropping his ERA below 4.00. To do this, he puts the finishing touches on that changeup he’s been promising, giving him four high-quality pitches with which to confound hitters. Perhaps more importantly, A.J. Burnett finds whatever he is looking for. He learns to be a pitcher, not a thrower. He improves his secondary pitches so that he has options when his killer curve is failing him. He is finally able to display his flashes of brilliance with consistency, turning into a dominant number two pitcher and a strikeout machine. At the back of the rotation, one of the Yankees’ promising upper-level starting prospects (Hector Noesi, anyone?) makes the quantum leap to the Bigs and really finds his groove. Finally, Freddy Garcia proves that he can still perform at an elite level, eating up quality innings at the back of the Yankees’ staff as he was able to do at times in 2010.

But that’s the dream scenario. Now let’s examine the nightmare. Channeling his inner A-Rod, C.C. ceremoniously opts out after 2011. Constrained by budget or anger (more likely the latter), Brian Cashman lets him walk to another team and the Bombers lose their ace. Hughes regresses to his pre-2010 form, bringing his win total more in line with his ERA. A.J. continues to be A.J., an absolute basketcase who, for $18M a year, isn’t reliable enough to make a playoff start. The Yankees’ prospects turn out to be just that: prospects. Meanwhile, the wily veterans (Garcia, Colon, Prior) act their age. In desperate need of help, the Yankees turn to the free agent market after 2011, only to find one of the weakest starting pitching classes in memory, headlined by the less-than-stellar Jon Garland.

Obviously, the truth lies somewhere in between these two visions. It’s important to note, however, how considerable the downside is. In the nightmare scenario, the Yankees find themselves without a single top-shelf starter after 2011 — a dangerous prospect considering the stellar staffs employed by the Red Sox and Rays. True, a lot has to go wrong, but the problem is that there is a lot that realistically can go wrong. Pitching is inherently a much riskier market than hitting, which is why it’s so important to enter a season with as few question marks as possible. The Yankees have surrounded themselves with far too many.

There are a few caveats to this worry, however. The first is that Brian Cashman is not to blame. Cashman has repeatedly stated that he’s ready to “rock and roll” should the appropriate deal come along — but it hasn’t. Cliff Lee didn’t want to be a Yankee, and all the money in the world wasn’t going to pry him from the new “Fab Four.” The free agent market beyond Cliff Lee was incredibly thin, and Cashman appropriately didn’t overpay for a mediocre talent. At the same time, the trading price for star hurlers like Zach Greinke was simply too high. It doesn’t make sense to give up on an incredible long-term talent like Jesus Montero in order to roll the dice on a veteran for a few years. I’m impressed that Cashman hasn’t done anything stupid out of desperation. If the right deal pops up, he’ll be the first one in line, and the right deal may not exist until the July trading deadline.

The second caveat is that the Yankees are incredibly fortunate to be able to afford the insurance policy that is their lineup. Hitting is indeed less risky than pitching, and with the likes of Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees will make their usual run at the 900-run plateau. With that kind of offense, the team will always find themselves in the playoff hunt, regardless of the garbage they throw on the mound. Because of the money they can throw at hitters, the Yankees will never find themselves in rebuilding mode. That said, to take the next steps—surpassing the Red Sox and Rays and then advancing through the playoffs — the Yankees will need to piece together a strong staff.

The third caveat is that strong relief pitching does NOT compensate for weak starting pitching. It just doesn’t. There are a lot of reasons I’m not thrilled with the signing of Rafeal Soriano, but I’m particularly disgusted with the premise that he will “make up” for a weak rotation. If the Yankees don’t have late leads, Soriano and Rivera won’t be pitching. To get those leads, the team needs strong starters. Simply put, Soriano and Rivera’s value are predicated on the quality of the starting pitching.

Long story short, there are a ton of question marks surrounding the pitching staff. There’s no reason to issue doomsday proclamations, but a lot of things would have to go right for the staff to be as strong as it was in 2009. In a game where pitching is everything, it is better to avoid such question marks. I guess us Yankees fans will just have to keep our fingers crossed.

John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.