Game 90: CC’s Back

(REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

The Yankees have had awful lot of injuries to high-profile pitchers this season, including long-term injuries to Michael Pineda, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte. CC Sabathia‘s groin strain was, thankfully, not as severe and he’ll return to the rotation tonight after missing just two starts. The timing worked out well for the team because the All-Star break probably saved them like two starts from a non-Sabathia guy. With a chance to push the division lead to double-digits (!), here is your lineup…

SS Derek Jeter
CF Curtis Granderson
1B Mark Teixeira
DH Alex Rodriguez
2B Robinson Cano
RF Nick Swisher
LF Andruw Jones
3B Jayson Nix
C Chris Stewart

LHP CC Sabathia

Tonight’s game is scheduled to start a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on My9. Enjoy.

Yankees monitoring bullpen market

This shouldn’t be a surprise, but George King reports that the Yankees are in fact monitoring the bullpen market as we approach the trade deadline. There’s a clear need for another quality late-inning arm, someone Joe Girardi could run out there against both lefties and righties.

Joba Chamberlain‘s rehab from Tommy John and ankle surgery seems to be going extremely well so far, but the team can’t count on him to contribute down the stretch until they actually see him on a big league mound. Those were two major injuries and the rehab isn’t always a slam dunk, just ask David Aardsma. If you’re wondering about potentially available relievers, just search the roster of every non-contender for a veteran bullpen arm due to become a free agent after the season.

Yanks designate Darnell McDonald for assignment, activate CC Sabathia

As expected, the Yankees have designated outfielder Darnell McDonald for assignment to clear room on the roster for CC Sabathia. Sabathia has been activated off the 15-day DL and will start tonight.

McDonald was claimed off waivers from the Red Sox a little less than two weeks ago with the idea that he might help against Boston’s left-handed starters in the series prior to the All-Star break. That didn’t work out — he made outs in all four plate appearances in pinstripes — and his time with the club will probably be best remembered for contributing to Curtis Granderson‘s dropped fly ball in last Saturday’s game. Anyway, welcome back CC.

Joba strikes out two in latest minor league rehab appearance

4:07pm: Via Erik Boland, Joba apparently hit 98 this morning. He’ll throw two innings for High-A Tampa on Friday.

1:30pm: In his third minor league rehab game, right-hander Joba Chamberlain struck out two batters in a perfect inning. The other out came on a ground ball and for once there was no error made behind him. Joba has not allowed a hit or a walk in four rehab innings so far. No word on the pitch count or velocity, but I suspect we’ll hear about it at some point today. There’s a decent chance Chamberlain will be make his next appearance at a higher level, perhaps High-A Tampa.

In other news, Eduardo Nunez played shortstop in the same game, his first game action since going down with a thumb injury back in May. He played three innings in the field, handled one ground ball without incident, and grounded out to first in his only at-bat. He probably won’t need much more than a week of rehab games before rejoining Triple-A Empire State.

Pirela returns to prospect relevance

(MiLB.com)

After signing for a $300,000 bonus as a 16 year-old out of Venezuela, it feels like Jose Pirela has been in the Yankees system forever.  At the time of his signing, Pirela was considered to be a player with a good chance of sticking at shortstop, his natural position, and projected to be at least average in all five tools (speed, hitting, power, arm, defense).  He made his debut at age 17 in the Dominican Summer League, and put together an impressive season.  Pirela posted a .746 OPS, flashing impressive plate discipline (34 walks against 36 strikeouts), a little power (4 homers), and decent basestealing ability (15 steals vs. 5 CS).  While these were not eye-popping numbers, that kind of production from a 6-figure bonus baby with a chance to stick at shortstop was nothing to sneeze at, and put Pirela on the radar as a prospect to watch.

The next few seasons were up and down for Pirela, as he made his stateside debut at 18 in the Gulf Coast League.  However, he struggled offensively, managing an OPS above .700 just once across his next 4 minor league seasons.  Despite the weak offensive performance, the Yankees continued to advance Pirela one level every season, leading him to Trenton in 2011, at the age of 21.  The 2011 season was an erratic one for Pirela on both sides of the ball.  On defense, he committed a league-high 39 errors (37 of them came while playing shortstop), and on offense he posted an anemic .239/.292/.353 line.  This was certainly a low point for Pirela’s prospect status, as neither his offense nor his defense looked capable of becoming major league quality.

This season, Pirela is back with Trenton at age 22, and his season got off to an inauspicious start.  On April 11, Pirela was beaned by a fastball from Chris Martin of the Portland Seadogs, causing Pirela to miss six weeks due to concussion symptoms.  As The Trentonian‘s Josh Norris described in a June 10 story, when Pirela came back from the injury, he was a different player.  According to manager Tony Franklin, Norris wrote, Pirela began making adjustments in the second half of 2011, and carried over the positive momentum into 2012.  After struggling mightily at shortstop last season, Pirela was given the opportunity to play more of a utility role, getting playing time at 2nd base, 3rd base, and left field.  While he has seven errors in 11 games at 3rd base, he has only one in 23 games at 2nd base and none in 19 games in the outfield.  This might indicate that his defensive problems were primarily related to throwing, and switching to 2nd base (and outfield) alleviated some of those issues.

The move from shortstop may also have helped Pirela’s offense, perhaps by letting him play positions where he is more comfortable.  After weak offensive production throughout his career throughout his career, Pirela began hitting the ball with more authority in 2012.  On the season, he is hitting .322/.390/.503 with seven homers (one short of his career high for a season).  He has also cut his strikeout rate and improved his walk rate, both encouraging trends.  Yes he is repeating the league, and yes at 22 he is not that young for the level, but an .893 OPS from a middle infielder in a pitcher-friendly park and league is impressive any way you slice it.

Prior to this season, Pirela had pretty much fallen off the prospect radar.  He was not on Mike’s top 30 prospects list (or any other organizational list, to my knowledge).  If Pirela continues to hit like he has so far in 2012 (and sustains this production whenever he hits AAA), we will probably have to start thinking of him as a prospect again.  Definitely not as a top-tier guy, but as a back-end prospect who has a shot at making the major leagues at some point.  It will be interesting to see how the Yankees handle Pirela going forward.  His value would be greatest if he could stick at shortstop full-time, but his usage this season may indicate that this ship may have sailed.

Pirela may be most valuable as an everyday second baseman, but that is a pretty stacked position for the Yankees at the upper levels, with Robinson Cano in the majors, Corban Joseph in AAA, and David Adams in AA.  Nonetheless, like Ronnier Mustelier in AAA, Pirela could still have substantial value in a utility role, playing 2nd, 3rd, and the outfield (and probably handling shortstop in an emergency if necessary).  Unlike the 27 year-old Mustelier, Pirela likely still has some room for development and improvement.   He could also have some value as a trade chip for a complementary piece (like the inclusion of Jimmy Paredes in the Lance Berkman trade in 2010), or as a throw-in with some upside in a deal for a possible outfield starter.  Even though Pirela is never going to be a star and unlikely to be a starter for the Yankees, he may still have some value in the right scenario.  The improvements that Pirela has made this season will definitely increase that value.

Welcoming back CC Sabathia

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Other than Robinson Cano, left-hander CC Sabathia is pretty much the last guy on the roster you would expect to visit the disabled list. A left groin strain sent him to the sidelines for the first time in six years, but the Yankees will welcome their ace back this evening after a brief little two-week hiatus. He’s thrown a handful of bullpen sessions and one simulated game during the time off, and everything has checked out a-okay. No need for a minor league rehab start or anything like that.

“Hopefully I just don’t come back and mess it up,” joked Sabathia yesterday. “I’m going to throw until they tell me to stop. I feel good. My arm feels good. I haven’t felt (the groin strain) since the first week of the injury … I think the rest was good for my arm, even more so than my legs. I don’t think I’ll have any limitations on pitches. I’ll be ready to go.”

Joe Girardi indicated that he won’t run Sabathia out there for a typical Sabathia-length outing tonight even though he supposedly has no restrictions, so expect something like 100 pitches instead of 120. No reason not to play it safe at this point, especially with a big nine-game lead in the division. Command is the primary concern after a layoff like this and frankly CC has been battling his command all season anyway. Maybe the rest will do him some good in that department, that would be nice.

Sabathia only missed two starts thanks to the All-Star break and the Yankees split the two games — the Adam Warren disaster and a win behind David Phelps in Tampa — which is pretty much all you could realistically ask. In fact the Yankees went 12-6 while Sabathia was out and they stretched the division lead from three games to nine games because the rest of the team really clicked. Almost all of those games were played against division rivals too. Hooray for that.

There’s no good time to lose a pitcher like CC, but losing him for two starts sandwiched around the All-Star break with a big division lead is about as good as it gets. Brett Gardner and Andy Pettitte aren’t coming back anytime soon, but at least Sabathia will return tonight and that makes this team even more dangerous. Hopefully there’s no rust and if there is, he can shake it off in short order. The Yankees have the best record in baseball, and they’re about to get one of the best pitchers in the game back into their rotation.

The Implication of Gardner’s Latest Setback

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Brett Gardner has played in just nine of 89 games this season, though he took a step closer to returning when he came to the plate four times in a simulated game on Sunday. Unfortunately, Brett woke up yesterday with the same familiar soreness in his right (non-throwing) elbow and has again been shutdown. What was originally diagnosed as a bone bruise and an elbow strain in April has now resulted in three (three!) setbacks. He will head for yet another MRI today.

The Yankees have the best record in baseball and have more than survived the loss of Gardner, but that doesn’t mean this setback is insignificant. Raul Ibanez has played far more left field than expected and the Yankees are concerned about the 40-year-old wearing down as the season progresses, particularly in the scorching hot months of July and August. The team also lacks speed on offense and the outfield defense went from a strength to a weakness in one fell swoop. Gardner’s glovework is that good.

There’s a chance today’s MRI will bring good news and Brett will just need another day or two of rest, but at this point the Yankees can’t count on that. Whatever this thing is, it’s just not healing for some reason. Ibanez has filled in capably and Dewayne Wise has had his moments, but the club is going to have to go out and find an outfield upgrade at some point before the deadline. They haven’t gotten a shred of good news about Gardner’s elbow since we found out it wasn’t broken back in April and there’s little reason to expect any in the near future.

The tricky thing is that just any old outfielder won’t work. Since Wise will presumably get the axe to clear the eventual roster spot, they need to make sure any player they acquire can play center field. You don’t want Nick Swisher or Andruw Jones out there in anything other than an emergency. That’s not just a preference when looking for a replacement outfielder, it’s a requirement. Center field skills are a must. Speed and ability to work the count would be preferred, but they aren’t necessary. Essentially the Yankees should be looking for someone similar to Gardner but better than Wise, who admittedly has played well in his limited action.

So who is that player? Beats me. I haven’t really looked but I’m sure we could dig up a name or two after a while. Some of them may even belong to players who are actually available. The Yankees do have Chris Dickerson stashed in Triple-A and I’ve been beating that drum for a few weeks now, but it’s clear they prefer Wise at this point. Either way, the outfield situation became both murkier and clearer with news of Gardner’s latest setback. We don’t really know which way the team will go now but at least they do know that something has to be done about their outfield situation. Waiting around for Brett was reasonable for the first half of the season, but doing the same down the stretch isn’t advisable.