TAMPA, Fla. -- If there ever was a truly fair competition for the only job still up for grabs in this camp, Bartolo Colon would have been named the winner as soon as he walked off the mound Monday night in Port Charlotte, having shut down the Tampa Bay Rays for six innings on two hits.
But the fact that the Yankees are still hemming and hawing and hedging their bets leads you to only one conclusion: They are afraid.
Afraid to believe the number, afraid to believe their own eyes, afraid to do the right thing here, to hand the ball to the pitcher who has clearly won this fight.
In fact, it sometimes appears as if they already know whom they want the job to go to, as it did Thursday when they sent Freddy Garcia across the street to throw to a Triple-A team in a game manager Joe Girardi didn't even bother to go to.
Meanwhile, Colon might have to make the 2½-hour bus trip to Ft. Myers on Sunday to show the Yankees one more time what he has already shown them all spring.
And even then, he might not get the job.
Here are the numbers put up this spring by the three candidates for the last spot in the Yankees' starting rotation:
Even in a small sample like this, the numbers jump off the page. So, too, do the numbers on the radar gun, 93-94 mph on Colon's fastball. Clearly, Colon has had by far the best spring of the three. It's not even close.
And clearly, in his prime he was a much better pitcher than any starter on the Yankees' staff not named CC Sabathia. He is the only other Yankees pitcher to have won a Cy Young Award. And he comes at a price the ballplayers consider ashtray money, $900,000 if he remains on the roster beyond March 29.
In fact, there is only one number working against Bartolo Colon at this point, and it is not his weight, or his waist size.
It is the big, fat zero alongside his record for the 2010 season.
As in zero pitches thrown in the major leagues last year, and zero innings pitched.
So what this has come down to is a choice between the safe bet, Garcia, and the wild card, Colon.
The Yankees act as if this decision requires the equivalent of the SALT II talks in terms of discussion, deliberation and careful decision-making.
But really, it sometimes appears as if their minds were already made up before anyone came to camp.
Time and again, they have told us they know what Garcia brings to the table: guts and guile and an uncanny way of working his way out of the trouble his stuff inevitably gets him into.
And time and again they have reminded us of what an unknown quantity Colon is, considering his injury history, his age (37) and his inactivity.
And yet, one of the reasons they brought him into camp was because he had shown them, and in particular, bench coach Tony Pena, enough in the Dominican Winter League that they felt he was worth a look.
And what he has shown them has, by all admissions, vastly exceeded expectations.
Still, you can hear the reservations in the statements of Girardi and Brian Cashman.
"Well, Bart didn't pitch all last year, so will there be a point where innings catch up to him during the season?" Girardi said on Wednesday. "I mean, that's somewhat of a concern when you have a guy coming off injuries who hasn't thrown a lot in the last few years. You gotta kind of in your mind project how many innings they can give you."
"We're just going to have to make a bet," Cashman has said, "and hope we bet on the right one."
Watching Colon pitch against the Rays on Monday and Garcia pitch against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs on Thursday, it really didn't look like much of a gamble.
Against the professional-hitting lineup of the team that beat out the Yankees for the AL East title last year, Colon was consistently ahead of the hitters, needing just 64 pitches to get through six innings, overpowering some Rays with his still potent fastball, baffling others with his array of changeups, sliders and cutters.
Against the free-swinging Iron Pigs, Garcia was almost equally economical, thanks to a lineup that jumped on almost every first pitch. His fastball topped out at 87 and his assortment of curves and changes might have kept the Pigs off-balance, but just wait until he tries it against, say, the Red Sox on the second weekend of the regular season, the first time the Yankees will need a fifth starter.
Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was cautious in his praise of Garcia Thursday -- "He did what Freddy does" -- but effusive when speaking of Colon.
"It's been a nice surprise the stuff that he's had," Rothschild said. "Really, the mix of pitches I didn't expect, and the velocity is back to being where he can really compete well with it. If he can stay healthy and maintain his stamina, he's gonna help us."
But even Rothschild saw fit to hedge his bets. "The question is, does he maintain the stuff? Right now, it can't be answered."
The difference is, at least Colon has stuff. And the same questions the Yankees have regarding it, and Colon's health, can be just as easily asked of any pitcher on their staff, or in baseball.
No one can really predict the future or accurately project what any human being is going to do from one week to the next. Whether it's Bartolo Colon or CC Sabathia, it is all just guesswork. Any one of us, or them, can break down on any day.
But on this day in this spring, there is no doubt about who the best candidate for the Yankees' No. 5 starter's job is. The guy with the big gut and the bigger fastball.
And if Bartolo Colon doesn't get it, the Yankees will be gutless, in more ways than one.