Six-man rotation would actually make sense for the Yankees in September

(Greg Fiume/Getty)
(Greg Fiume/Getty)

The Yankees have struggled to piece together a decent rotation for much of the season. At one point arguably the five best starting pitchers in the organization were on the disabled list, and for a big chunk of the summer they were without CC Sabathia (knee), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and Ivan Nova (elbow). Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) went down right before the All-Star break. Pineda has since returned but the other guys are all still on shelf and only Tanaka has a chance of returning before the end of the season.

Finding five quality starters has been a struggle at times, though the Yankees have a decent group right now. Pineda joins young Shane Greene and veterans Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, and Chris Capuano in the rotation, which isn’t the most intimidating fivesome in the league, but they’ve been no worse than solid these last few weeks. It would be nice if they pitched a little deeper in the game once in a while — Greene is the workhorse at this point, no? — but what can you do? Take what you can get. Those guys done more than any of us could have reasonable expected, really.

Rosters expand in only ten days now, at which point the Yankees will surely call up some extra players to help out in the final month of the season. Extra arms like Bryan Mitchell, Matt Daley, and (if healthy) Preston Claiborne will be back, and they may be joined by Manny Banuelos as well. Jacob Lindgren or Tyler Webb could replace Rich Hill, though that’s not adding another pitcher to the roster. Once rosters expand and the Yankees have extra bodies lying around, it actually makes sense to implement a six-man rotation for the final month of the regular season. Here are some reasons.

Control Workloads
Fatigue is always a concern this late in the season, especially for young pitchers and older pitchers. Kuroda has faded late in each of the last few seasons — he’s again showing signs of fading this year — and scaling back on his workload these last five weeks wouldn’t be a bad idea. I know Kuroda is likely in his final few weeks with the team, but he’s been a damn good Yankee these last three years and you take care of your people. He gave the club everything he had and they should reciprocate by taking it easy on him in September even if he won’t wear their uniform in 2014.

The 25-year-old Greene is actually in great shape with his innings total. In fact, he might not throw enough innings this season. He is at 109.2 innings total right now (MLB and Triple-A) after throwing 154.1 innings last season, the most in the farm system. The final weeks of the season probably get him up to 150 or so for the year. Ideally you’d like to see him get up to 170-180 innings this year, but still, we’re talking about a guy who was in High-A and Double-A last year. Major League innings are a different animal. They’re more intense and take more out of you. The raw innings total only tells you so much. Easing Greene towards those 150-ish innings is in no way a bad idea.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Injury Concerns
Needless to say, the rotation is still loaded with injury concerns. Pineda has made two starts after missing more than three months with a back/shoulder issue, and he didn’t even get stretched all the way during his rehab assignment. Given his injury history, taking it easy on him these last few weeks makes an awful lot of sense. Same goes for McCarthy, who has been healthy this year but has a long history of shoulder problems. If the Yankees intend to try to re-sign him after the season — and they should absolutely try to bring him back — then they have every reason to do whatever they can to keep him healthy in September.

And then there’s Tanaka, who threw his second bullpen session yesterday as he works his way back from a partially torn elbow ligament. Everything is going well so far — he even threw some breaking balls and splitters yesterday — so much so that he might face hitters in live batting practice for his next throwing session. The hope is Tanaka will return in September to make a few starts, and if he does, using a six-man rotation would be a fine way to take it easy on that elbow. They were trying to get him extra rest whenever they could before he got hurt. There’s no reason that should change once he returns, right?

Busy Schedule
The Yankees will play their final 38 games of the season in only 39 days. They do have two off-days (September 1st and 8th) but also one doubleheader (September 12th). They close the season out with 21 games in 20 days. There will be no opportunity to give the rotation an extra day of rest here or there the last three weeks of the season — at least not without more rainouts, which would only lead to more doubleheaders — so playing it safe with guys like Greene and Tanaka and Pineda will be tough. The six-man rotation would give everyone an extra day of rest each time through the rotation automatically. They won’t have the opportunity to give them that otherwise.

* * *

Though the Yankees are bringing David Phelps back from his elbow injury as a reliever, they’ll still have Mitchell and Esmil Rogers as sixth starter candidates until Tanaka returns. Maybe even Banuelos, if he’s physically up to it after missing close to two full seasons. That would be fun. Expanded rosters in September ensure there will be plenty of extra arms available in case someone gets knocked out early or anything like that. There’s no worry about overworking the bullpen.

Let’s face it, the team’s postseason odds are tiny — 4.3% according to FanGraphs and 3.1% according to Baseball Prospectus — so it really doesn’t matter who they run out there as the sixth starter. The important thing is getting guys like Tanaka and Pineda extra rest down the stretch, not winning every last ballgame. A six-man rotation isn’t all that practical before September, but it’s plenty easy to implement once rosters expand and winning is a secondary concern. It makes a lot of sense for the Yankees to use six starters in the season’s final month given the injury and workload issues on the roster.

Greene’s success a product of recent player development changes

(Scott Iskowitz/Getty)
(Scott Iskowitz/Getty)

Since joining the rotation a little more than a month ago, Shane Greene has been arguably the Yankees’ best starting pitcher. The rookie right-hander has a 2.93 ERA (3.25 FIP) with good strikeout (21.4%) and excellent ground ball (55.3%) rates in seven starts and 43 innings, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down either. He’s made it very easy to forget his ugly five batter, three walk MLB debut out of the bullpen back in April.

The Yankees called on Greene last month because they really had no other choice. CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda were all hurt and Chase Whitley was crashing back to Earth. That was before Masahiro Tanaka went down too. Greene had mediocre Triple-A numbers overall (4.61 ERA and 3.41 FIP) but he had strung together a few strong starts, which was enough to get him a shot given the state of the rotation. He’s obviously taken advantage of the opportunity.

Greene’s path to the big leagues and pro ball in general was a rather unique, which makes his story and success that much more interesting and amazing. I’m going to save some time and quote myself from last winter’s prospect profile:

Greene was a mop-up man [at the University of West Florida] as a freshman … He blew out his elbow late in the season and had Tommy John surgery in May 2008 … The Argos took his scholarship away following the injury, so Greene transferred to Daytona Beach Community College. He didn’t pitch as a sophomore and wasn’t on the draft radar at all. Greene was throwing a bullpen session at his high school when he asked a Yankees scout (who was there to see someone else) to watch him throw and put in a good word with the University of Central Florida. The team ended up bringing him to Tampa for a workout three weeks before the 2009 draft … The Yankees liked what they saw during the workout enough to select him in the 15th round (465th overall) even though he had not pitched in an actual game in over a year.

Even if he crashes back to Earth in his next start or never throws another MLB pitch for whatever reason, the Yankees have already gotten a huge return on their investment in Greene. We’re talking about a late round pick who signed for only $100k, a relative pittance. Just getting a guy like that to the show — especially after drafting him even though he hadn’t pitched in a real game in a year due to injury — is a huge success.

Greene’s climb up the minor league ladder was not fast. He spent parts of two seasons with both Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa, and it wasn’t until his sixth pro season that he reached Triple-A despite being a college draftee. Greene’s stuff improved as he got further away from elbow reconstruction but a general lack of control held him back. He had a 4.4 BB/9 (10.4 BB%) across two Single-A levels in 2011, then a 5.1 BB/9 (12.5 BB%) at High-A in 2012. Greene looked like a classic big arm, small command guy.

Then, last season, the now 25-year old Greene broke out with a 1.7 BB/9 (4.5 BB%) split between High-A and Double-A. Forget about cutting his walk rate in half, he cut it by almost two-thirds in an offseason. This year Greene has a 3.5 BB/9 (8.8 BB%) in Triple-A and a 2.9 BB/9 (7.7 BB%) in MLB. (The AL average is 2.9 BB/9 and 7.7 BB% this year, coincidentally.) That’s not as good as last year but it’s a major improvement from two or three years ago. That ability to harness his stuff and throw consistent strikes has taken Greene from interesting prospect to bonafide MLB rotation member.

There is no “the light bulb just came on” story here. Greene didn’t magically wake up one day with the ability to throw strikes with his mid-90s sinker and upper-80s slider. He cut his walk rate so much last year thanks to mechanical tweaks implemented by some of the Yankees’ minor league pitching gurus. George King (subs. req’d) explained last September:

Greene, 24, is armed with a 90-94 mph fastball, but it was an adjustment he made working with pitching coordinator Gil Patterson and Greg Pavlick, a senior pitching instructor, that helped him turn the corner.

“He was helped with the delivery where he kept his head more in line with the plate,” (VP of Baseball Ops Mark) Newman said. “He made a commitment to throw strikes and not throw the ball to the edge and nibble.”

Pavlick has been with the Yankees for more than a decade now, but Patterson is a relatively new hire. Well, a new old hire. He coached in the team’s minor league system from 2005-07 before leaving in 2008 for a similar position with the Athletics. The Yankees brought the very highly-regarded Patterson back and hired him away from Oakland in November 2012.

The club has gotten a lot of heat for their unproductive farm system over the last year or so, so much so that they essentially audited their staff and policies and implemented some procedural changes over the winter. In reality, the changes started both with the re-hiring of Patterson as well as the firing of long-time pitching honcho Billy Connors in September 2012. No personnel changes were made last winter, but two pretty big ones were made the year before.

There is no possible way of knowing how Greene would have developed without the help of Patterson (and Pavlick) — would he have made those same mechanical adjustments and improved his command anyway? Would he have never figured it out? Would he have done something else entirely and become even better than he is right now? We’ll never know. The timeline fits so wonderfully though. The Yankees bring back Patterson, he tinkers with the live-armed Greene, and suddenly he throws strikes and is awesome. It’s a great story, especially if it’s actually true.

Many fans, myself included, were underwhelmed and unhappy when the Yankees announced they were only making procedural changes to their player development system over the winter. After all, we don’t know what those changes are and we can’t actually see him at work, so they don’t really exist to us. The Patterson move flew mostly under the radar for the same reason: we don’t actually see him at work. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an impact though. He helped Greene clean up his delivery and get over some serious control problems, which has turned him into an important member of the MLB rotation. Every time he takes the mound, it is the organization’s recent player development changes at work.

Pineda’s return is more important for 2015 than 2014

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The silver lining to last night’s loss to the Orioles was the return of Michael Pineda, who looked like the April version of himself in his first start off the disabled list. At least until he ran out of gas in the fifth inning, though that had more to do with making only two rehab starts and not getting full stretched out than anything. Pineda was nails in the first four innings, locating his fastball to both sides of his plate and throwing his slider for both called strikes and off the plate for swings and misses.

The Yankees are still kinda sorta in the race for the postseason spot — a wildcard spot, to be specific — and the Pineda we saw last night will be a huge help the rest of the way, assuming he gets fully stretched out in time. The patchwork rotation really has done an admirable job of keeping the team alive, but the Yankees have not had a starter who can go out and shut another team down every fifth day since Masahiro Tanaka got hurt. Pineda is that type of pitcher.

Getting Pineda back will help improve their slim postseason chances (7.6% according to Baseball Prospectus), but, more importantly, it gives the Yankees a chance to evaluate the right-hander heading into next season. The 2015 rotation is completely up in the air at this point thanks to the Tanaka and CC Sabathia injuries. Even if those two get healthy in time for Spring Training, there really is no way of knowing what they can provide next year. Ivan Nova will also be out until at least late-April/early-May following Tommy John surgery, if not longer.

That all makes Pineda ian integral part of the Yankees going forward despite his lack of health these last few years. In a perfect world someone like Pineda, a super talented reclamation project/lottery ticket pitcher with injury problems, would be a guy you want to fill out the back of the rotation. Not someone you have to count on. But, unless the Yankees are planning to spend huge in free agency (Jon Lester and/or Max Scherzer?) or making some big trades (Cole Hamels and/or Ian Kennedy?), that’s exactly what Pineda will be.

These next six weeks or so will finally give the Yankees a chance to see what Pineda can do as a member of their rotation making a regular start. At least hopefully. We have no real reason to expect him to stay healthy other than blind faith at this point. Hopefully he stays healthy, takes the ball every fifth day, impresses, and leaves everyone feeling good going into 2015. If Pineda can help the Yankees get into the postseason along the way, even better. Falling short of Octboer would not be unexpected though.

On a personal level, I feel Pineda Fatigue™ starting to set in. I’m getting tired of waiting for this guy to get healthy and contribute. This is his third year in pinstripes already, and he’s made five starts. I understand that pitchers get hurt and he had major shoulder surgery, but at some point you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, and we still don’t know where Pineda falls. He’s looked great when he’s actually on the mound, no doubt about it. But he’s no good to the team if he continues to get hurt constantly. Seeing him stay on the field the rest of the season would be a refreshing change.

Outside of getting Tanaka back in September, the best thing for the future of the Yankees would be Pineda staying healthy and showing he can be an effective starter these next few weeks. He’s a potential impact player, something the team lacks at the upper levels of the minors. They just don’t know if he can stay healthy over the course of a full season yet. Well, no, they know he can’t. Nevermind. These next few weeks will show if Pineda can stay healthy for even six weeks at a time, and whether there is any reason to be optimistic about him being a member of the 2015 rotation.

Michael Pineda to return to rotation on Wednesday

Michael Pineda will be activated off the disabled list and return to the rotation on Wednesday, the Yankees announced. That’s what I was hoping for. Esmil Rogers will presumably move back into the bullpen after making a spot start last Friday.

Pineda, who has only made four starts this year, has been out since late-April with a muscle problem in his back/shoulder. If he pitches anything like he did earlier in the year (1.83 ERA and 2.73 FIP), he’ll be an enormous shot in the arm for the rotation and team in general.

Stretched out or not, time for the Yankees to bring back Pineda

Trolley Frogs! (Scranton Times-Tribune)
Trolley Frogs! (Scranton Times-Tribune)

At some point in the next day or two, the Yankees will officially announce whether Esmil Rogers or Michael Pineda will start Wednesday’s series finale against the Orioles. Rogers pitched very well in a spot start on Friday, giving the team five innings of one-run ball on a limited pitch count, but it’s obvious he’s just keeping the spot warm for Pineda, who made his second minor league rehab start that same night. He threw 72 pitches in that rehab game.

“We haven’t made a decision. A lot depends on what happens the next few days,” said Joe Girardi to Dan Martin when asked about Pineda possibly rejoining the rotation this week. “Ideally you’d like to get him to 90 pitches … We’ll talk to the people who saw him and decide what’s next. You have to make sure the player is ready.”

Naturally, Pineda feels ready to come off the disabled list because just about every player thinks they’re healthy and ready to return to the team after a rehab outing or two. “Everything is there. The velocity is there. I’m feeling good. I’m happy with that,” he said to Brian Heyman the other day. Pineda has allowed one run on nine hits and one walk in 7.2 rehab innings, striking out eleven, so statistically the rehab assignment has gone well.

Girardi indicated the decision to bring Pineda back could depend as much on the shape of the bullpen as it does how he feels. The Yankees aren’t getting much length out of their starters in general and Rogers could be used in long relief as soon as Tuesday, according to the skipper. “The bullpen has been used a lot. Sometimes plans change,” said Girardi to Martin. If Rogers is needed to bail out Shane Greene tomorrow, Pineda would start Wednesday by default.

At this point though, I think it’s time for the Yankees to bring Pineda back regardless of his pitch count in his most recent rehab start. If the team doesn’t feel he is where he needs to be with his pitches, that his fastball command isn’t all the way back or he doesn’t have feel for his slider yet, that’s different. Pineda can’t be effective without fastball command or feel of his slider. If he needs another rehab start to get that stuff back, so be it. Then he’ll have to make another start with Triple-A Scranton.

But, if we’re talking only about a matter of pitch count, being stretched out to throw 85 pitches vs. 100 pitches, then I don’t think there’s much to consider here. In that case the Yankees should absolutely bring Pineda back this week, upgrade their rotation, and simply keep an eye on his pitch count until he is fully stretched out. Rogers did very well in his spot start but nothing in his track record suggests we should expect more of the same going forward. Pineda limited to 85 pitches or whatever is still better than maybe any other pitcher on the staff at this point. It’s not like he threw 45 pitches last time out. He’s stretched out enough to give the team the same five innings as Rogers.

The Yankees head into this series with the Orioles six games back in the AL East, though they are only 2.5 games back of the second wildcard spot. The division isn’t completely off the table at this point but it sure does seem like a long shot. The wildcard is still very much up for grabs though, there’s just a ton of competition. The Blue Jays, Royals, and Mariners are all right there with the Yankees, so every little upgrade is huge. Brian Cashman‘s been talking about incremental upgrades these last few weeks, and, well, Pineda is an upgrade over Rogers, even if he’s only out there for 85 pitches on Wednesday.

Update: Esmil Rogers to start Friday, Bryan Mitchell being called up

6:02pm: Ken Rosenthal says Bryan Mitchell has been scratched from tonight’s scheduled start for Triple-A Scranton and will join the big league team tomorrow. I wonder why aren’t just starting him instead of Rogers. Whatever. I assume Matt Daley will go down in a corresponding move.

5:48pm: As expected, the Yankees will start right-hander Esmil Rogers against the Indians tomorrow night, the team announced. That is David Phelps‘ spot. The Yankees were waiting to see how much they would need their bullpen these last two days before announcing a starter. Rogers has made two scoreless relief appearances for the Bombers since being claimed off waivers last week. He was working as a starter in Triple-A for the Blue Jays and is stretched out.