A couple of hours before the Yanks and Orioles squared off last night, the Yankees announced a setback for Chien-Ming Wang. Their erstwhile ace, on the DL since July 4 with a strained right shoulder, had experienced some bicep pain during a throwing session, and the Yanks no longer sound certain they will get any contribution from Wang this season.
“It’s not exactly the news that I wanted,” Joe Girardi said to reporters. “We were hoping two weeks’ rest would be enough for him to get on a throwing program. Does it mean he won’t pitch this year? No, I’m not saying that. But obviously, it’s not going to be as soon as we thought.”
During the pre-game news conference, Girardi hinted that Wang’s rotator cuff may be suffering as part of this amorphous shoulder strain. “I think anytime you’re dealing with cuff issues or shoulder tendinitis or whatever you want to describe it as, there is concern,” Girardi said. “Whatever he is able to do, we would love to have. But I think anytime someone is injured and you’re not sure when they’re exactly going to be back, you can’t count on them.”
For the Yankees, these apparent injuries justify what had been a controversial off-season tactic. For the last few seasons, the Yankees have opted not to sign Wang to a long-term contract. Rather, they have gone year-to-year with the arbitration-eligible pitcher. They did so because Wang’s peripherals did not necessarily predict future success and because the pitcher, as we’ve seen, is volatile. If Wang is out for the rest of the year, he will have gone 1-6 with a 9.34 ERA over just 42 innings since June 15, 2008.
Meanwhile, the Yanks have some other pitching questions to resolve. In writing about Wang today in The Times, Tyler Kepner explores how the Yanks’ rotation depth is suffering with Wang out:
Wang had pitched decently in his last few starts, and Girardi acknowledged that the latest setback was another reason to be concerned about rotation depth. After Mitre, the Yankees’ next option in the minors is Kei Igawa, who has repeatedly failed in the majors.
Relievers Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves are natural starters, but Hughes has become so entrenched in short relief that Girardi said he could throw no more than 40 pitches now. Adding 15 pitches an outing, it would take Hughes four appearances before he could throw 100 pitches.
That is not an easy or appealing option, especially because Hughes has been invaluable in the bullpen. Entering Monday, he had a streak of 19 scoreless innings, the longest by a Yankee since Mariano Rivera’s 23-inning streak in 2005, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
It’s far too early to write off Sergio Mitre. He hasn’t even thrown a pitch as a member of the New York Yankees, but my expectations aren’t high. Beyond Mitre, Kepner’s mention of Igawa is enough to make me want to curl up in a corner in the fetal position.
The answer though is staring the Yanks in the face. Sure, Phil Hughes’ 19 scoreless innings of the pen is an impressive number, but good pitchers make for great relievers. If the Yanks truly expect nothing from Chien-Ming Wang right now, the team would be far better off moving Hughes into the rotation. He may be on a pitch count, but it’s easy to stretch him.
First, the Yanks can have him duplicate what he did on Friday. That evening, he threw 40 pitches out of the pen. The Yanks could then have him make a 65-pitch start as they were willing to do with Alfredo Aceves prior to the All Star break. The 80-pitch outing leaves the bullpen in limbo, but with Brett Tomko still on the active roster and Mark Melancon ready to hop on the Scranton shuttle, the Yankees have some flexibility. That would do it.
As for the late-inning relief efforts, the Yankees still have Phil Coke and Alfredo Aceves ready, willing, and able to get the job done. It’s very tempting to keep Hughes in the late innings as a band-aid, but the Yankees need starters. Maybe Sergio Mitre can cut it, but Phil Hughes is the future while Mitre is a place-holder for Wang.
If Wang is out, if the Yanks are truly short in the rotation, it’s time to stretch out Hughes. He has the experience and the confidence. Now, all he needs is the work and the innings.