Poll: Fitting Masahiro Tanaka back onto the roster

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon the Yankees will welcome arguably their best pitcher and inarguably one of their most important players back from the DL, as Masahiro Tanaka returns to the rotation after missing a month with wrist tendinitis and a minor forearm strain. Tanaka will be limited to 80 pitches after making just two Triple-A rehab starts, but, at this point, 80 pitches from Tanaka is preferable to none. That goes without saying.

Joe Girardi has already said Chris Capuano will move into the bullpen to make room for Tanaka in the rotation, which isn’t surprising. Adam Warren has been too good his last four starts to remove him from the rotation. They owe it to themselves to see if he can be a cheap, reliable starter going forward. The Yankees do still have to fit Tanaka on the 25-man roster, and there are several ways they can do that. They have two candidates to bump down to Triple-A and three candidates they could drop from the roster all together. Here’s a quick overview of said options.

Option No. 1: Demote Lindgren

These are presented in no particular order, but this seems like a natural place to start since Jacob Lindgren is the low man on the pitching staff totem pole. He’s been in the big leagues for about a week now and has allowed six of 15 batters faced to reach base (.400 OBP). Lindgren may be the team’s top bullpen prospect, but bullpen prospects usually have to wow in order to stick around. Had Lindgren dominated those first 15 batters, the decision to send him around would be much tougher. For now, he’s the low man in terms of service time and that guy tends to get demoted whenever a spot is needed.

Option No. 2: Demote Shreve

Shreve has arguably been the team’s third best reliever this season, pitching to a 2.49 ERA (3.14 FIP) in 21.2 innings. He’s struck out 23 of 84 batters faced (27.4%), and heading into last night’s game he’d held right-handed batters to a .162/.212/.286 batting line thanks to his splitter. Shreve is no lefty specialist. The Yankees would be crazy to send him down, except they did it once already this year, when they needed a fresh arm in April. (Of course Shreve had not yet shown he was a bullpen weapon at that point.) Shreve is too valuable to send to Triple-A, even temporarily, but he has options and doesn’t have the prospect pedigree of Lindgren, which could work against him.

Option No. 3: Designate Carpenter

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

We’re now almost one-third of the way through the 2015 season, and thus far David Carpenter has a 4.91 ERA (5.33 FIP) in 18.1 innings. Girardi has been using Carpenter often in an effort to get him back on track — he’s appeared in eight of the team’s last 16 games — but it just hasn’t happened. On one hand, Carpenter has been the team’s least effective middle reliever. On the other, he was pretty damn good with the Braves the last two years (2.63 ERA and 2.88 FIP) and is under team control through 2017 as an arbitration-eligible player, and you’d hate to give that up after only 18.1 bad innings. Then again, what good are those years of control if he stinks? This is a player who’s in his sixth organization already. If nothing else, Carpenter has pitched his way into fringe roster territory and any discussion about designating him for assignment isn’t undeserved. (Carpenter is out of minor league options and can’t go to Triple-A without passing through waivers, and even though he’s been bad this year, he’d get claimed in a heartbeat.)

Option No. 4: Designate Rogers

The Yankees very clearly like something about his Esmil Rogers — to his credit, he does have good stuff and his arm seems resilient — and he started the season well, allowing just four earned runs in his first 16.1 innings. He’s since allowed 13 earned runs in his last 14.2 innings, so his ERA (4.94) and FIP (4.77) suddenly resemble his 2012-14 marks (4.91 and 4.35, respectively). Every team needs a long man and Esmil usually isn’t deciding games, he’s just mopping them up, but the Yankees have some other long man options who could be better, include Capuano.

Option No. 5: Designate Capuano

Capuano has pitched to a 6.39 ERA (4.20 FIP) in three starts since coming back from his quad injury and he does have experience in a relief role, but cutting ties with Capuano all together is possible if the Yankees think he’s done. They already have four lefties in the bullpen and might not want to add another. Then again, Capuano can start, and rotation depth probably isn’t something the Yankees should be giving away at this point. Plus his $5M salary could be factor. Everyone else in this post is making peanuts. Money has a way of buying extra time on the roster.

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It goes without saying that Warren, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances are locked into their roster spots, and I think the Justin Wilson is more safe than not as well. Those other five pitching staff slots are not as safe and any one of the five could wind up going to make room for Tanaka. Lindgren or Shreve could find themselves in Triple-A or one of Rogers, Carpenter, or Capuano could find themselves out of the organization entirely. What’s the best way to get Tanaka back onto the roster?

How should the Yankees clear a roster spot for Tanaka?

Tanaka joining Yankees out west, expected to return to rotation next week

(Scranton Times-Tribune)
(Scranton Times-Tribune)

Earlier today, Joe Girardi told reporters Masahiro Tanaka is flying west today to meet the Yankees in California, and he is expected to return to the rotation early next week. “In a perfect world he would start sometime in Seattle,” said Girardi, referring to the team’s three-game series with the Mariners from Monday through Wednesday.

Tanaka, 26, has been out exactly one month now with wrist tendinitis and a minor forearm strain. He’s made two Triple-A rehab starts — one good, one not so good — and was able to get his pitch count up to 62 yesterday, in his second start. Girardi said Tanaka will be limited to 80 pitches in his return next week.

First off all, hooray Tanaka! The Yankees have played it very safe with their ace and they’ve insisted the injury was minor the entire time. Tanaka was reportedly upset at being placed on the DL too. There’s no reason to think they’re rushing him back or that they’re being too aggressive. He’s healthy. He’s just not stretched out.

Secondly, I’m interested to see how they get Tanaka on the roster. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia will start Monday and Tuesday, and they’re not coming out of the rotation, but Chris Capuano is starting Wednesday and the Yankees are off Thursday. Will Tanaka replace Capuano in the rotation? Or just push him back?

As far as the 25-man roster spot, the easy move would be sending Jacob Lindgren back to Triple-A, but I hope that doesn’t happen. Chasen Shreve could (undeservingly) get sent out, or Esmil Rogers or David Carpenter could be cut loose with Capuano or Adam Warren sliding into the bullpen. Intrigue! We’ll find out soon enough.

Can Michael Pineda rebound against the Royals?

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Michael Pineda was the model of consistency for the first 20 games of his pinstriped career. He never gave up more than three runs in consecutive outings, and he’d never had a “disaster” start where he allowed more runs than innings pitched (except for his pine tar-shortend game last year).

Until May 15 (5 1/3 IP, 5 R, 10 H, 1 K) and May 22 (6 IP, 7 R, 8 H, 4 K) happened.

It’s definitely not time to press the panic button after just two poor starts, but this (extremely) mini-slump is somewhat noteworthy because it’s the first time Pineda has struggled in back-to-back outings since joining the Yankees.

With Pineda facing the Royals again this afternoon — the same lineup that clobbered him less than two weeks ago — let’s take a look inside the numbers to see what’s gone wrong for the right-hander in his last two turns, and how he can get back on track against the best team in baseball on Wednesday.

*******

Here’s a quick overview of his first seven starts this season compared to his last two:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR
Last 2 11 1/3 7.15 4.82 9.3% 1.9% 2
First 7 46 1/3 2.72 1.91 29.5% 1.6% 3

The most shocking number in the table above is the huge drop in his strikeout rate. Sure, that 30 percent figure is skewed a bit by the 16-strikeout game. But the fact that he’s had his two lowest strikeout totals of the season in his last two games is really hard to ignore.

Predictably, batters are making more contact against Pineda in his past two games (83 percent) compared to his first seven (77 percent), but that doesn’t completely explain the lack of whiffs. Almost all of the increase in that contact rate is on pitches outside the zone — the pitches that he normally uses to get strikeouts.

Contact % O-Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact %
Last 2 82.9% 34.8% 71.0% 87.5%
First 7 76.5% 32.3% 56.9% 86.5%

So while Pineda is still generating above-average swing rates on those out-of-zone offerings, hitters haven’t been fooled by his stuff and he’s not missing as many bats with those pitches.

Over his last two games, his signature slider has hardly been the wipeout pitch that made Pineda such a dominant force on the mound to start the season. He’s lost about an inch of horizontal movement on his slider, making it easier for hitters to square up on the pitch. After getting batters to whiff on 19 percent of his sliders in his first seven games, that rate has plummeted to just nine percent since then.

pineda whiffs animate

Another concern related to this lack of strikeouts is his inability to finish off hitters when ahead. Pineda is actually getting into more favorable counts now, but he hasn’t been able to execute those put-away pitches.

Opponents are 5-for-8 against him in pitchers’ counts over the last two games, a situation that the Royals really took advantage of when they crushed Pineda on May 15. The game was decided in the sixth inning as Pineda allowed two doubles and a triple to three of the first four batters he faced — unsurprisingly, each of those extra-base hits came on a 1-2 pitch from the right-hander.

The other obvious problem for Pineda recently is that he’s simply been more hittable, and he’s given up nearly as many runs in his last two outings (12) as in his first seven (14). Let’s break it down, good-bad-ugly style:

• The good: he’s still generating ground balls at the exact same rate (53 percent);
• The bad: he’s traded a few fly balls for line drives;
• The ugly: he’s really struggled when pitching from stretch:

After limiting batters to a .230 average with runners on base in his first seven starts, they are 8-for-20 (.400) over the last two games. Even worse, Pineda has stranded just 43 percent of baserunners during this mini-slump, a drop of more than 30 percentage points from the first month of the season (78 percent). Not being able to get that big strikeout in those key scoring situations has really hurt him recently.

******

While there are some reasons to be optimistic that Pineda will be able to rebound today against the Royals — he’s still getting a ton of grounders, showing excellent control and limiting walks — he will definitely be challenged by Kansas City’s high-contact lineup and powerful lefty bats.

Pineda, who held opposite-handed batters to a .200 average in his first seven outings, has been hit hard by lefties in his last two starts. They are a combined 10-for-24, and he’s allowed identical 5-for-12 lines against both the Royals (May 15) and Rangers (May 22).

If Pineda can’t contain the Royals’ quartet of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Kendrys Morales — three lefties and a switch-hitter — it could be another long afternoon for the Yankees and their budding staff ace.

First inning dominance driving Yankees’ success early in 2015

Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)
Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)

Last night the Yankees did something for the ninth time in 13 games this month: they scored in the first inning. Nine times in 13 games! They’ve now scored in the first inning in 16 of their 35 games this year, with last night’s game breaking a tie with the Padres for the most in MLB. New York has scored 36 runs in the first inning in 2015, eight more than any other team.

On the other side of the coin, the Yankees allowed a run in the first inning last night for only the third time in 13 games this month. They’ve allowed a run in the first inning eleven times in 36 games this season, which ranks middle of the pack — 16th fewest in MLB and seventh fewest in the AL. Their 16 first inning runs allowed are the tenth fewest in baseball, so when they do allow the other team to score in the first, it’s usually just one run.

Between their first inning offensive dominance and their average first inning run prevention, the Yankees have the best first inning run differential in baseball at +20. The Orioles have the next best at +11. The Athletics and Pirates are the only other teams in double-digits. More often than not, the Yankees are getting off to a great start and playing from ahead. They’re forcing the other club to play catch-up right from the start.

Usually individual innings splits are pretty meaningless. No one says “this guy is a good fourth inning hitter.” That doesn’t exist. If anything, we’d look at performance the second and third time facing a pitcher. The individual innings mean very little. Now, that said, there’s a pretty obvious explanation for the Yankees’ first inning offensive excellence: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.

The first inning is the only inning in which Ellsbury and Gardner are guaranteed to bat. And not just bat either, they’re guaranteed to lead off. They aren’t coming up with two outs and the bases empty or something like that. They’re starting the inning and setting the table for everyone else. Ellsbury and Gardner have been dominant atop the lineup this year, total game-changers, and they’re always going to bat in the first inning.

The run prevention angle is a little different. As a whole, the Yankees have a league average rotation this year. The group has a 3.93 ERA (3.63 FIP) overall, a touch better than the 4.13 ERA (4.04 FIP) league average thanks mostly to Michael Pineda. Hitters have a 118 OPS+ the first time facing a Yankees starter this year, which applies to the first inning. The team’s average rotation is facing the other team’s best hitters (in theory) in the first inning, and the result is basically middle of the pack run prevention.

Last season the Yankees had -12 first inning run differential and the year before that it was a staggering -33 first inning run differential. The 2013-14 Yankees were constantly playing from behind, it seemed. This year’s squad is the exact opposite — they’re scoring in the first inning on the regular and taking the lead. They’re taking control of the game right from the start and that changes everything. Teams play a little differently when they’re behind. We see it every night.

With Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup, I don’t think the Yankees’ first inning offensive success is any sort of fluke. If they’re not the best one-two lineup punch in baseball, they’re on the very short list. It’s either them or Kole Calhoun and Mike Trout in Anaheim. Either way, those two generate so much offense for the Yankees, and it starts right in the first inning. The pitching has been solid as a whole, not great but not terrible, but average pitching plus Ellsbury and Gardner equals a major first inning advantage for the Yankees, and it’s a big reason why they’re off to such a strong start in 2015.

Poll: Chris Capuano’s imminent return gives Yankees lots of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In his third minor league rehab start last night, left-hander Chris Capuano allowed two runs on seven hits and no walks in six innings with Triple-A Scranton. He stretched out to 76 pitches, which is the most important thing, not the results. Capuano is basically going through Spring Training right now, working to gain a feel for his pitches and delivery. Outs aren’t the priority.

Joe Girardi told reporters earlier this week the Yankees “shouldn’t really need to see much more than that,” referring to Capuano throwing six innings in his third rehab starter. “It’s possible (he could be activated for his next start), yeah,” added Girardi. By no means is Capuano some kind of rotation savior, but he’s a perfectly serviceable big league pitcher, and pitching depth is never a bad thing. His return may not have a big impact but it is welcome.

When the time comes the Yankees will have to decide how exactly to use Capuano and where to slot him into the pitching staff. I suspect they’ll use his first outing back as a way to give everyone else in the rotation an extra day. One of spot sixth starter things the Yankees have been talking about since before Spring Training. After that though, Capuano’s return gives the team plenty of options.

Option No. 1: Capuano to the rotation, Whitley to the bullpen, Pinder to Triple-A

Branden Pinder came up when Chris Martin hit the DL a few days ago and he feels like nothing more than a placeholder. He could go back to Triple-A pretty easily to clear a spot for Capuano. Chase Whitley has made three starts for the Yankees this year — one good, one bad, one great — but is a reliever by trade, and his long-term future likely lies in the bullpen. Plus his ability to go multiple innings could help lighten the load on the team’s other bullpeners. This would be the simple and straightforward “Whitley and Pinder are lower than Capuano on the pitching totem pole, so they get bumped down a notch” move.

Option No. 2: Capuano to the rotation, Pinder in the bullpen, Whitley to Triple-A

A few weeks ago Girardi kinda sorta admitted the plan all along was to stash Whitley in Triple-A early this season so he could come up every so often to make spot starts, giving the rest of the rotation rest. Masahiro Tanaka‘s injury then forced Whitley into the rotation full-time. With Capuano set the return, the Yankees could simply go right back to that original plan and send Whitley down so they can bring him up periodically when the other starters could use an extra day. Pinder would stick around as the last reliever in the bullpen in that case.

Option No. 3: Capuano to the rotation, Warren to the bullpen, Pinder to Triple-A

Through six starts, Adam Warren has looked very much like a reliever miscast as a starter. He hasn’t been bad per se — a 4.65 ERA and 4.31 FIP from your sixth starter is fine in moderation — but his effectiveness drops off considerably once the lineup turns over and his velocity isn’t close to what it was last year. He also seems to tire out around the 80-pitch mark. Warren went from 23.5 K% and 7.4 BB% as a reliever last year to 12.0 K% and 9.8 BB% as a starter this year. See what I mean? It all points to reliever.

With Capuano coming back, the Yankees have the option of sticking Warren back in the bullpen and leaving Whitley in the rotation until either Tanaka or Ivan Nova comes back in a few weeks. Warren would be able to step right back into that “trusted third reliever” role behind Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, giving Girardi a third option for high-leverage spots. The role Warren filled last year, basically. And since he’s stretched out, he could go two or three innings at a time if necessary. That’s valuable.

Option No. 4: Capuano to the bullpen, Pinder to Triple-A

This option seems unlikely, especially since Brian Cashman just told Lou DiPietro that “when I signed (Capuano), I signed him to be part of the rotation” the other day. Capuano does have bullpen experience though, including just last year with the Red Sox, when he had a 4.55 ERA (4.05 FIP) in 31.2 innings before being released. Rather than rearrange the rotation, the Yankees could simply stick Capuano in the bullpen and use him … somehow. I’m not sure what role he would fill (long man? lefty specialist? one-inning reliever?) but that would sort itself out in time. Always does. Option No. 4 is the most unlikely option. I don’t think it’s completely off the table though.

* * *

The Yankees are going to have to make a decision once Capuano is ready to be added to the roster, which figures to be just a few days away now. This won’t be a particularly impactful decision — whatever option they choose could be reversed pretty easily — but it is a decision nonetheless. I think the Yankees will go with Option No. 2 and send Whitley down so he can again serve as the sixth starter. Whether that is a best option is another matter. What do you think the Yankees should do when Capuano returns?

What should the Yankees do when Capuano returns?

Yankees have rotation help on the way with Nova not far behind Capuano on rehab trail

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, left-hander Chris Capuano threw 72 pitches across 4.2 innings for Triple-A Scranton in his second minor league rehab start as he works his way back from a spring quad injury. Earlier this week Joe Girardi told George King they “would like to get (Capuano) to 90 pitches and see where we are at” before activating him off the DL, so Capuano figures to make at least one more rehab start before joining the Yankees.

Ivan Nova also continued his rehab from Tommy John surgery yesterday, throwing two innings in an Extended Spring Training game. Girardi told reporters everything went fine and Nova remains on track to join the team sometime in June. He could throw in another ExST game or two before beginning an official 30-day minor league rehab stint. Nova’s rehab has gone extremely well to date. No issues whatsoever.

Between Capuano and Nova, the Yankees have a pair of starting pitchers on the rehab trail and not too far from factoring into the MLB pitching staff. That doesn’t even include Masahiro Tanaka, who resumed throwing yesterday. It seems like Capuano will return first with Nova and Tanaka returning around the same time in a few weeks. Obviously lots can go wrong between now and then, but at least things are going well now.

Fitting them back onto the staff is a classic “worry about it when the time comes” situation. Chase Whitley has pitched well in his two starts yet we saw last year how quickly that can unravel. Adam Warren has pitched well enough in his first stint as a full-time starter but the numbers confirm what our eyes seem to be telling us — going through the lineup the second and third time has been a bit of a problem. Who knows what the rotation will look like in a week or two.

“It just gives us a lot more depth, which I think is really important during the course of a long season,” said Girardi to Vince Mercogliano yesterday, referring to Capuano and Nova moving closer to a return. The rotation has been fine overall, with the non-Michael Pineda starters typically doing just enough to keep the Yankees in the game. Capuano and Nova may or may not improve things, but at least they’ll give the Yankees options, something they’re running short on at the moment.

Chase Whitley to be called up to make spot start Tuesday

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Right-hander Chase Whitley will be called up to make a spot start this coming Tuesday, Joe Girardi told reporters this afternoon. The Yankees have been talking about using an occasional sixth starter to give the rotation extra rest whenever possible for weeks now, and this will be the first time they actually do it.

Nathan Eovaldi is starting tonight and Adam Warren will start tomorrow, in the series opener against the Rays. With Whitley going Tuesday, it means Masahiro Tanaka will pitch Wednesday and Michael Pineda will start the series opener at Fenway Park on Friday. Thanks to Whitley and Thursday’s off-day, Pineda will have two extra days of rest.

Whitley, 25, has a 2.12 ERA (2.85 FIP) in three starts and 17 innings for Triple-A Scranton this year. He’s thrown as many as 89 pitches in a game this year and will be on one extra day of rest Tuesday. Whitley had a 4.60 ERA (3.69 FIP) in 12 big league starts last year, but the first seven were great (2.56 ERA and 2.74 FIP) and the last five were awful (8.18 ERA and 5.36 FIP).

It’ll be interesting to see how the Yankees get Whitley onto the roster. Send down Chase Shreve then call up, say, Branden Pinder or Matt Tracy after the spot start? The Yankees have no shortage of bullpen call-up options. It could simply come down to who is rested and ready to pitch Wednesday, assuming Whitley does go back down after the spot start.