For Nova, a start most crucial

Over the past few years, the Yankees have not shown much patience when it comes to developing their young pitching arms. At various points since 2008, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy have been bounced around in various roles, moved from one level to the other with a short leash or flat-out traded away. If that, as we have seen, is how the Yanks treat their top prospects, imagine how the club, always in win-now mode and without the luxury of a large cushion in the American League East, might feel about its less heralded arms.

Ivan Nova, tonight’s starter, is one of those less heralded arms. Never ranked among the Yanks’ top prospects — Baseball America hasn’t included him in the top ten while our own Mike Axisa ranked him eighth — the Yanks like his fastball and poise, but his breaking pitches haven’t matured into Major League out-pitches yet. Furthermore, he has struggled getting through the lineup multiple times, and in fact, lately, he’s just flat-out struggled to get through the lineup period.

On the season, Nova is 1-2 with a 7.63 ERA. In 15.1 innings, he’s given up 19 hits and nine walks on nine strike outs, and while no one has left the yard against him yet, opponents are hitting a robust .306/.411/.452 against him. With a line drive rate of 15.1 percent, the walks along with some seeing-eye grounders have gotten him in trouble. His FIP is only 4.02 and his xFIP is 5.31. Essentially, he’s not pitching well, but because he’s keeping the ball in the park, he’s not pitching as badly as his numbers might indicate.

Yet, Nova could very well be pitching for his job tonight. The Yankees have Kevin Millwood waiting in the wings, and while the 36-year-old hasn’t been lighting up the gun in the minors, he has gotten 14 innings’ worth of outs in two starts. He also holds a May 1 opt-out, and after his AAA start this Thursday, the Yankees are more than likely going to activate him.

Tonight, thus, isn’t Nova’s last start. Because the Yanks don’t have any off-days and Millwood wouldn’t be able to take the mound until next Tuesday at the earliest, the 24-year-old will pitch this weekend as well. This evening’s outing though is an audition. Nova has to give the Yankees innings and get outs without pitching them into a big hole. He couldn’t have drawn an easier opponent.

As a team, the White Sox are hitting .241/.306/.370. They have the fourth fewest walks in the AL and love to swing at everything. They’ve managed to plate just one run in one of their last 28 innings, and against right-handers, they’re hitting an even-worse .235/.296/.373. This is the perfect team for a struggling pitcher to face, and if Nova can’t keep things close, he is not an ideal fifth starter right now for the Yankees.

Perhaps it’s not fair for the team and the fans to put so much pressure on Nova to perform. We try not to judge players based on how they do over the first few weeks of the season, and we know the Yanks are high enough on Nova to have entrusted him with a rotation spot. But we also know that Nova is under team control for half a decade longer while Kevin Millwood could leave in five days. We know that Nova has made it out of the 5th just once this year, and we know the Yanks need their innings and Ws. For a young starter in late April, Nova faces a key test tonight. How he does will determine what the Yanks do over the next few turns through the rotation.

Salvaging The Sheffield Trade

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s been a long time since the Yankees traded Gary Sheffield to the Tigers for three pitching prospects, so long in fact that Sheff added 299 hits and 54 homers to his resume after the trade despite (essentially) retiring two seasons ago. New York simply had too many high-priced outfielders and not enough spots, with both Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui just completing year one of identical four-year, $52M contracts while Bobby Abreu (plus the two years and $31M left on his contract, counting the option) came on board in a midseason trade. Sheff was the odd man out.

In return, the Yankees acquired three promising young arms. The best of the bunch was Humberto Sanchez, who was rated as the 57th best prospect in the game by Baseball America just weeks after the trade. A few weeks after that, he blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery. He came back the next year and managed to earn a September call-up, leading to his only two big league appearances. The Yankees released Hungry Hungry Humberto after the 2009 season, and he’s since bounced to the Taiwanese and Mexican Leagues. The least interesting piece in the trade was Anthony Claggett, who sat in the minors until making two disastrous appearances for the Yankees in 2009. He was lost on waivers that September and hasn’t been back to the majors since.

The third player in the trade wasn’t a headliner like Sanchez or a throw-in like Claggett, just a solid secondary piece in the form of a decent relief pitching prospect. That man is Kevin Whelan, the only player in the trade yet to reach the big leagues and the only player in the trade still with the Yankees. A catcher that the Tigers Texas A&M turned into a pitcher, Whelan was a classic hard-thrower with command issues. He struck out 110 batters in 78.1 IP in Detroit’s farm system before the trade, allowing just 39 hits. The problem was the 37 walks and seven wild pitches. Whelan lived up to the billing in his first year in the Yankees’ organization, striking out 96 batters and walking 54 in 82.1 IP (45 hits). He’s battled various injuries and the same control issues in the four full years since the trade, essentially removing him from the prospect map and relegating him to the organization arm bin.

Scheduled to become a minor league free agent after the season, Whelan is doing his best to raise his stock. The table on the right shows his game log from this season, and you can see that he’s done a swell job of throwing strikes and avoiding the free pass so far. The lone run he’s surrendered came on a solo homer in his first game of the season. It’s not just those eight appearances either, Whelan’s last two months in 2010 were excellent as well (19 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 26 K). It’s not much, but it’s the 27-year-old’s best stretch of health and effectiveness since the trade. I don’t have a recent scouting report for Whelan, so for all I know he could be doing it with smoke and mirrors, but he worked off a low-to-mid-90’s fastball with a devastating splitter (the pitch responsible for all those whiffs and the lack of hits) in the past. Until I hear otherwise, I’m just going to assume the same (or something reasonably close to it) holds true today.

The Yankees, as you’ve probably already noticed, have a spare bullpen spot to play with. It’s currently occupied by Buddy Carlyle, but it’s also been filled by Hector Noesi and Luis Ayala in the past few weeks. I’m not saying the Yankees should cut ties with Carlyle now and call up Whelan, but I would have to think he’s at least in the conversation for a call-up if/when another one is needed. Like I said, he’s going to become a free agent after the season, so the club should at least take a look at him at the big league level and see what he has to offer, even if he just ends up as the third piece in a trade. It’s better than losing him for nothing.

The Yankees have set a precedent when it comes to Triple-A relief arms having excellent seasons, often leaving them in the minors instead of promoting them to the show and giving them a chance. And you know what? They’ve been right about these guys. Chris Britton has spent the last two years pitching in an independent league. Jon Albaladejo reinvented himself last year and still garnered so little interest from MLB teams last year that he bolted for Japan this winter. Colter Bean, Sam Marsonek, the list goes on and on. For all we know Whelan could be the next in that dubious line, but if he has anything to give at the big league level, the Yankees should see what it is at some point this summer. They just might end up with something to show for the Sheff trade after all.

The RAB Radio Show: April 26, 2011

Tough loss last night, but those happen. There were positives, though. More important, of course, is the game at hand this evening. Ivan Nova has plenty on the line, as Kevin Millwood’s opt-out date approaches. They found a mechanical flaw that might have affected him his first few times out, but how many times have we heard that line?

Then there’s Phil Hughes, who will undergo tests and scans today as the Yankees try to figure out why his arm feels dead. There is plenty of speculation, but that’s all we have until the Yankees announce the test results.

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2011 Draft: Baseball America’s Experts Draft

We haven’t quite reached mock draft season yet, that’s about a month away, but the gang at Baseball America put together their annual Experts Draft and posted it yesterday. It’s not a projection of who will be drafted where, but instead just a list of who they’d take at a given slot (in the first round), as if they were calling the shots for the teams. It’s a snapshot in time (a lot can and will change between now and the draft), but it’s a great overview of each player’s stock at the moment. Best of all: it’s free, you don’t need a subscription. So check it out, no excuses.


Hot & Cold: A Yankee Offense Story

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s no secret that the Yankees have a great offensive team, they’ve been showing it off pretty frequently in the first few weeks of the season. They’re out-wOBA’ing the rest of the league by several points and are within striking distance of the MLB lead in runs scored despite playing at least two fewer games than 28 other teams. The Orioles are the lone exception, playing just one more game than New York.

Despite that dominant offense, the individual pieces that make up the everyday lineup fall into one of two categories right now: hot or cold. There’s no middle ground, everyone is either tearing the cover off the ball or struggling to find their way on base. It’s far from ideal but they’ve gotten by so far. Let’s quickly recap everyone’s current status…

Derek JeterCOLD Jeter’s been could for a full year now it seems. The Yankees’ captain managed to go 4-for-6 in Sunday’s game, but he still has only seven hits and two walks in his last 33 plate appearances. A .273 OBP (during that stretch) is never good for a leadoff hitter, small sample size or not.

Curtis GrandersonHOT The Grandyman extended his hitting streak to nine games with that ninth inning single last night, during which time he’s hitting .417/.447/.946 with five homers, three doubles, and a triple. That’ll do, that’ll do just fine.

Mark TeixeiraHOT It’s safe to say that Tex has avoided his annual April slump with his monster showing this month, but he’s been even better of late: in his last ten games, the Yankees first baseman is hitting a stout .333/.457/.639 with the same number of walks (eight) as strikeouts.

Alex RodriguezHOT A-Rod‘s never not been hot this year. He went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts last night and is still hitting .346/.478/.750 on the season with nearly twice as many walks (14) as strikeouts (eighth). That man is mighty good at baseball.

Stop swinging at everything, Robbie. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Robinson CanoCOLDAlthough he had a 13-game hitting streak snapped last night and his season line sits at a more than respectable .304/.309/.544, I’m sticking Cano in the cold category because his plate discipline has regressed to cover-the-children’s-eyes levels. He’s striking out in 17.7% of his at-bats (11.9% career) and has drawn just one walk all season, seeing just 3.22 pitchers per plate appearance. Cano’s still getting his hits, but if pitchers throw him anything out of the zone, he’ll get himself out right now.

Nick SwisherCOLD It’s a tale of two Swishers this season. He’s hitting a gaudy .524/.500/.609 as a right-handed batter this year (24 PA) but just .089/.275/.089 as a lefty (58 PA). He also hasn’t hit a homer yet. Since there’s way more righty pitchers than lefties, he goes in the cold bin.

Jorge PosadaCOLD Joe chronicled Jorge’s struggles yesterday, and after last night’s 0-for-3 with a whiff, his season line is down to .145/.243/.435. He’s had just two hits (one homer) in his last 31 trips to the plate. At least there’s not four years left on his contract.

Russell MartinHOT The Yankees’ new catcher hasn’t stopped hitting since showing up to Spring Training, and is currently sitting on a .311/.391/.656 batting line for the season. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s been the team’s best hitter behind A-Rod so far.

Brett GardnerCOLD If it wasn’t for his brilliant defense in left field, Gardner would be useless. He’s hitting just .136/.190/.254 with as many stolen bases (three) as caught stealings on the year, and he’s been ever worse of late: .079/.079/.184 with no stolen bases and all three of those caught stealings in his last eleven games. Gardner hasn’t drawn a walk in 18 days now.

* * *

So that’s five slumping bats (three in a row) out of nine, though I admittedly made a judgment call on Cano. If it makes you feel better, we could call it 4.5 cold bats and 4.5 hot bats. Doesn’t make much of a difference either way. Obviously some of those cold bats are extremely likely to snap out of it and get back to (at least) their career norms, Swisher and Cano for sure, but we can’t be certain about the other three. There’s a very real chance that Jeter and Posada are just straight up done, and perhaps Gardner is incapable of adjusting to the adjustments the league made against him. We can’t say for sure just yet.

Because it’s so early in the season, the best thing to do is just sit back and wait (hope) things correct themselves. They might not, at which point the team will need to make some changes, but 19 games isn’t enough to say anything definitive about anything. It’s frustrating to watch, no doubt about it, but Grandy, Tex, A-Rod, and Martin are enough to carry a team for a little while. At some point the others have to begin contributing though, preferably soon.

Yanks can’t get anything on offense, drop to Sox 2-0

AP photographer Kathy Willens captures last night's game in a single image.

A few times every year there’s a game that is so straight forward that no one wants to relive it. If you saw it, you don’t want to see it described. If you didn’t see it, you’re better off without the frustrating facts. If, for some reason, you chose to skip this one, well done. You will live a less stressful existence for the next 20-odd hours. But considering the frequency of off-days, I’m not sure many of you missed this one.

The Yankees did have some decent at-bats: five, six, seven pitches. They just never amounted to anything. It took them 19 outs before they finally got a hit and finished with just three singles on the day. Two of their precious five base runners were erased via the double play, including Curtis Granderson after a single to lead off the ninth. They weren’t facing the most formidable of foes in Philip Humber, which raises the frustration level. If you believe that the Yankees somehow can’t hit pitchers they haven’t seen previously, you have that to gripe about, too.

It’s not every night that a Yankees pitcher goes into the seventh, and even rarer for him to see the eighth. Yet for the second time in three game that’s what the Yankees got. A.J. Burnett pitched what was easily the best game of his season, lasting eight full innings and needing just 108 pitches to dispatch of 24 White Sox. He didn’t have the swing and miss thing working, as he struck out only two. But he got 11 ground balls and allowed just three hits all evening. It’s a shame to fall so flat in support of such a stellar start.

Then there are the usual gripes. Robinson Cano swings at everything. Jorge Posada looks like he’s 50, Nick Swisher can’t hit from the left side, Rafael Soriano hangs too many sliders and is too smug to catch a pop up, etc. There are plenty to choose from.

Baseball might break your heart and make you tear out your hair, but it always comes back the next day. The Yanks will again trot out their guys to face the White Sox tomorrow evening. Just a hunch, but I’m feeling that they’ll get a few more hits and maybe score a couple’a runs.

Hughes headed for MRI tomorrow

Update (11:41pm): Via Chad Jennings, Hughes did pass all of the strength tests with the doctor(s) today, so that’s encouraging.

Original Post (10:30pm): Following tonight’s loss to the White Sox, manager Joe Girardi told reporters that Phil Hughes will undergo an MRI tomorrow “just to see what’s going on.” Why they didn’t bother to do this when he first went on the disabled list, I don’t know. Hughes experienced a setback during today’s bullpen session, as the right-hander simply said that his arm felt dead after ten or so pitches. Hopefully the MRI comes back clean, but I really wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t.