Aceves, Pettitte to throw this week

Via Marc Carig, Al Aceves will make another rehab start tomorrow, his fourth so far. Joe Girardi has indicated in the past that they want to get Ace on a normal reliever’s schedule – working every other day, etc. – before they activate him from the disabled list, so it could be another week or so before he’s ready to join the team.

Andy Pettitte, meanwhile, will throw a bullpen session this Friday, his first since suffering a setback with his groin injury a week or so ago. There’s no timetable for his return nor should there be at this point. Let’s see him get that first mound session out of the way before we start planning ahead. Hopefully Ivan Nova pitches well tonight and alleviates some of the urgency surrounding Andy’s return. As long as he’s healthy for October, that’s what really matters.

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Pondering roster moves for the returning pitchers

During the next two weeks it sounds like the Yankees plan to bring in the cavalry for its pitching staff. First up could be Al Aceves, who faced four batters in Scranton on Tuesday and is scheduled to start for Trenton on Friday. Then, as Josh Norris relays, Andy Pettitte is in line to make a rehab start on Tuesday. That will be a boon to the pitching staff, though for the most part they’ve pitched pretty well recently. So well, in fact, that I wonder what two pitchers will lose their roster spots when Pettitte and Aceves return.

(AP Photo/Ray Abrams)

Aceves is a bit tougher to peg, since there’s no guarantee he’ll actually make a return. He has been out since he hurt his back mid-pitch on May 8. Since then he’s been through plenty, getting multiple epidurals and having his rehab shut down twice. This time through has been a bit more smooth in that he’s actually pitched in a live game. But when it comes to back injuries there are no guarantees. His return will largely depend, I’m sure, on how he feels following his outing on Friday.

Another rehab appearance might be in the cards, and the Yanks might even want to see if he can pitch on back-to-back days before activating him. Because he pitches in relief I suspect they’ll want to see him pitch more frequently than every third day before they let him face major league hitters. That could put his return anywhere from next weekend against Seattle all the way to September. That is, again, if he returns at all.

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

It’s unclear how many rehab starts Pettitte will make, though I’d guess he’ll make two. That would mean his second one comes on Sunday the 22nd, but with both Scranton and Trenton on the road that day I’m not sure what they’ll do. What I am sure of is the roster move that will correspond to Pettitte’s return: the designation of Chad Gaudin for assignment. He has served his purpose, but Dustin Moseley has been the superior pitcher. Pettitte’s return will move Moseley to the bullpen, where he can play the role of long man. DFAing Gaudin works in two ways, since the Yankees will also need to clear a 40-man roster spot in order to reinstate Aceves from the 60-day DL.

This leaves in question what the Yankees will do when Aceves returns. They have just four pitchers who still have minor league options: Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, David Robertson, and Boone Logan. After Joba’s kind-of demotion, Joel Sherman reported that the Yankees would not send him to the minors. They obviously won’t send Hughes or Robertson because of the prominent roles they play. Logan has been on the Scranton Express this season, but he doesn’t seem like the choice either. Not only has he been much better during his current stint, but Joe Girardi loves having a lefty in the bullpen. I doubt he goes down to Scranton again.

Chances are, then, that we don’t see Aceves until September, when rosters expand. That will give him enough time to build up stamina, allowing him to fill his previous role of hybrid long man and setup guy. It will also allow the Yanks to retain their depth, since Sergio Mitre would be the only logical casualty if Aceves returned before rosters expand. The same goes for Damaso Marte. Chances are we’ll see him pop up in a couple of rehab appearances towards the end of August, with a return in September.

The Yanks, then, will have a surplus of pitching to get them through the final month. They’ll have not only a glut of effective bullpen arms, but they’ll have spot start options if, like last year, they want to rest their starters before the playoffs. September could prove interesting, too, because of all the bullpen arms vying for postseason roster spots. It’s a good position to hold right now. The more options for the bullpen and the rotation, the better.

Aceves to join team on upcoming road trip

According to Joe Girardi‘s pregame press conference, the sorely missed Al Aceves will join the Yankees on their upcoming seven game road trip. His back is getting better, and he’s expected to throw several bullpen sessions during the trip. This doesn’t mean Aceves is close to returning, however. He’d still need to throw full mound sessions with no pain before going on a minor league rehab assignment, so Ace is still several weeks away from rejoining the team. Still, this is better news than what we’ve been getting.

Aceves making progress, but back will remain a concern

Photo credit: Jim Mone/AP

For about a week the Yankees’ bullpen appeared a shambles. Nearly every reliever, from the mop-up guys to the setup men to the closer, had a hand in blowing a game. That made many of us wonder if Al Aceves would make his way back anytime soon. Diagnosed with a bulging disc in his back and placed on the disabled list retroactive to May 9. He’s eligible to return at any time now, but the Yankees will proceed with caution. There’s no reason to rush a player with back problems.

Last week, pining for Aceves’s presence in the bullpen, I wondered if his back had been bothering him all season. He had, after all, felt some pain towards the end of spring training, and the Yankees used him sparingly in the season’s first month. On Saturday I asked Aceves about his back, and he said that yes, it had bothered him and had affected his stuff. That’s a good sign, really, because it helps explain the diminished velocity on his cutter. It might also help explain his walking four batters in just 12 innings after displaying excellent control in 2009.

Otherwise, though, we shouldn’t read too much into Aceves’s numbers. For instance, his low strikeout rate might have something to do with his back, but he thinks it’s more the situations he has faced than his back affecting his strikeout stuff.

“I’m not thinking of striking out guys,” he said. Given the situations in which he has entered, though, he hasn’t quite needed the strike out. He has entered five games with runners in base, and none of them have come with a runner on third. In only two was there a runner on second, and in one of those situations there were two outs, making a strikeout less necessary. Pitching to contact might have been the best strategy there, especially for a player nursing a balky back.

He seemed optimistic that he’d return in short order, noting that it was his third straight day playing catch. As the Yankees took batting practice, Aceves stood on the left field foul line and had a catch, though I couldn’t tell the force with which he was throwing. He also mentioned that he would be headed to the minors for a rehab assignment, and about 15 minutes later Joe Girardi confirmed that Aceves would head to Tampa on Monday. Look for him in tonight’s DotF.

Back problems for baseball players can be chronic conditions that affect them throughout their careers, even after an off-season of rest. Aceves experienced back problems last July and they cropped up again this spring, despite three-plus months of rest. The Yankees obviously hope that rest and treatment will help keep Aceves healthy the rest of the year, but that’s no guarantee. He seems nothing but optimistic, saying treatment has made his back feel great. That’s a positive sign, of course, but with a back problem you just never know.

We should get a better idea this week of when he can rejoin the team. The team will certainly benefit from his presence in the bullpen.

Was Aceves’s back affecting his stuff?

With the recent spate of bullpen ineffectiveness, Yankees fans have pined for one of the few steady presences in the bullpen, Al Aceves. He’s been on the DL since earlier this month with a bulging disc in his back, an injury that sounds pretty bad. It sure looked bad when he hurt it mid-pitch in Boston. He has since received a cortisone shot, and claims that it feels much better. That’s good news for the bullpen if Aceves can return to his 2009 form. A look at his early season peripherals makes me wonder, though, whether the back has been a lingering issue all season.

Photo credit: Ray Abrams/AP

In 2009 Aceves helped save the bullpen. The unit posted a 6.46 ERA in April, and that was no fluke. They allowed far too many baserunners, and almost half of opponents’ hits went for extra bases. Aceves got the call by month’s end and helped stabilize the endgame. He not only generated excellent results, including a 3.54 ERA, but he had the components to back it up. In 84 innings he struck out 69 to just 16 walks and 10 home runs allowed, which amounted to a 3.75 FIP. His xFIP, which normalizes the HR/FB rate, was a bit higher, at 4.09, but from my experience this is a common occurrence among relievers.

This season his breakdown has changed a bit. He walked four batters, a quarter of his 2009 total, in just 12 innings. Worse, he struck out just two batters. That represents quite a slide in K/BB ratio, from 4.31 to 0.50. This meant more balls in play, and thankfully most of those were ground balls. In fact, he essentially replaced his missing strikeouts with ground balls, which, while not as positive an outcome, is a far better one than allowing more fly balls and line drives in place of strikeouts. Still, it can be rather tough surviving in the majors with a 1.50 K/9.

In terms of pitch type there doesn’t seem to be much different with Aceves’s approach. He threw a few cutters this year in place of curveballs, but that’s about it. The cutter, however, appears to be the only pitch that has lost velocity this season. Baseball Info Solutions data has that as a 2 mph drop, while PitchFX measures it as only 1 mph below last year. According to his pitch type values the cutter has actually been more effective than last season, though that only considers an at-bat’s ultimate pitch. Perhaps Aceves has had trouble locating the pitch in order to set up batters. Batters are whiffing at it far less — 2.4 percent this year to 8 percent last year — and are putting it in play more often, 31.7 percent this year and 22.5 percent last year. Those are not positive changes.

We’re dealing, of course, with small samples. Aceves has appeared in just 10 games so far and has pitched 12 innings, so we can’t get a real accurate read on him. Maybe his lack of work plays into the change. He threw just 12 innings in the team’s first 29 games, which put him on pace for 67 innings. He threw 84 innings last year and was only on the roster for 137 games. Another possible cause is a lingering back issue. Aceves had problems with it at the end of spring training, and while it didn’t necessitate a DL trip it probably lingered a bit, coming to a head in Boston on the 8th. If it was the back that caused him problems, we might see a better Aceves upon his return.

While a bulging disc can be a pretty serious injury, it sounds like the Yankees might have lucked out. Aceves did report feeling better just before the Yankees placed him on the DL, so I’m not sure how much to trust his most recent statement, but if it is accurate then they might get back a useful setup man in a couple of weeks. The layoff, too, might help him get back to form. His back probably needed rest anyway, and the DL stint provides just that. When he returns, maybe, finally, the Yankees will be rid of Boone Logan.