Ivan Nova is showing off a slightly new delivery in Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By any measure, the 2015 season was close to a disaster for Ivan Nova. He returned from Tommy John surgery at midseason and had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings, which temporarily cost him his rotation spot in September. His strikeouts were down and lefties crushed him. It was not a good year at all.

After a season like that, a pitcher and his pitching coach are going to look for answers. It’s reasonable to expect Nova to improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery, sure, but that can’t be the only solution. Nova and pitching coach Larry Rothschild had to figure something out, and it appears that something is a slightly revamped delivery. Here is 2015 Nova (on the left) vs. 2016 Nova (right):

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016

Nova is no longer going over his head during his delivery. I can’t tell if that’s the only difference, but it is the most obvious difference. Nova was not bringing his hands over his head in last Wednesday’s start against the Mets, his only other televised outing of the spring, so this has been going on for a while now. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing last night.

As far as I can tell, neither Nova nor Rothschild has talked about the reworked delivery with reporters this spring, so we’re stuck guessing why the changes were made. How exactly does keeping his hands at his chest during his delivery help Nova? In my totally amateur opinion, this right here looks like the biggest benefit of Nova’s new mechanics:

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016 head

When Ivan brought his hands over his head, he turned his head down toward the ground for a few moments. With his new mechanics, Nova is able to keep his head forward and his eyes on the target the entire time. Before he would pick up his target, begin his delivery, look at the ground, then pick up the target again. Now he never takes his eyes off the catcher.

That … seems like kind of a big deal? We’ve all played catch before. When you focus on your target you tend to be more accurate. At least I do. I don’t know if this is the reason behind the mechanical change, but it does seem like a benefit. Nova no longer has to pick up his target in the middle of his delivery. And considering the majority of his issues are command related (fat pitches over the middle of the plate) and not stuff related, this might be a big help.

We’ll see. We’ll see if it helps and we’ll see if Nova sticks with it. Nova and Rothschild have clearly identified this as some kind of potential solution. Remember, Ivan had been bringing his hands over his head his entire career. Now he’s no longer doing it and that’s a big deal. There’s a lot of muscle memory that has to be changed. Making an adjustment like this is not as easy as it looks.

Nova has thrown well so far this spring (two runs in nine innings), and while he may not have a rotation spot come Opening Day, he’ll inevitably get a chance to start this summer. If these new mechanics help him be effective, Nova stands to make himself a lot of money as a free agent next winter.

The Yankees keep saying CC Sabathia is not a lock for the rotation, but I don’t believe them

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, in his second start of the spring, CC Sabathia was roughed up for three runs (two earned) on five hits, a walk, and a hit batsman in only 1.2 innings of work. His defense didn’t help matters — Sabathia himself made an error on a would-be inning-ending tapper back to the mound, then the inning snowballed — but there was still a lot of loud contact and two-strike foul balls.

It’s only Spring Training, so the actual results don’t hurt the team in any way. It was still discouraging to see Sabathia have the same problems — long at-bats, loud contact, inability to handle righties — that have plagued him the last two or three years. “I’m 35 years old. I’ve thrown a lot. We’re here trying to win, so it is what it is,” he said to Mark Feinsand after the game. “I’m just going out and getting work, getting ready. We’ll see what happens.”

Following the game Joe Girardi was inevitably asked whether Sabathia has a rotation spot locked up, and Girardi gave the same answer he gave all winter: “We’re going to take what we feel is the five best. Bottom line,” he said. If nothing else, that gives off the impression Sabathia is not guaranteed a rotation spot. Spring competition is a good thing, even among veterans. I just don’t buy it at all. Not for a second. For a few reasons.

Sabathia wasn’t one of their five best starters last year

It was pretty clear Sabathia was not one of the Yankees’ five best starters last season, yet when the time came to make room for Ivan Nova, it was Adam Warren who went to the bullpen. Warren is gone, meaning there’s even less competition for the fifth starter’s spot. It’s Sabathia vs. Nova, and Sabathia was better last season. Better ERA (4.73 to 5.07), better FIP (4.68 to 4.87), better strikeout rate (18.9% to 15.3%), better walk rate (6.9% to 8.0%).

There’s always a chance Nova’s performance will improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery. That’s the hope, anyway. At the same time, the Yankees and everyone else have expressed confidence in Sabathia’s new knee brace, especially since he pitched so well late last season. Point is, the Yankees showed last season they’re willing to stick with Sabathia. Actions speak louder than words, and when they needed to open a rotation spot last year, they sent a more effective pitcher to the bullpen and kept running Sabathia out there every fifth day.

Sabathia might actually be one of their five best starters this year

Here’s a not so fun twist: Sabathia just might be one of the five best starters in the organization right now. ZiPS prefers Nova to Sabathia (0.9 to 0.2 WAR), but both Steamer (1.6 to 0.8 WAR) and PECOTA (0.9 to 0.5 WARP) prefer Sabathia. And again, Sabathia out-pitched Nova last year, and Warren is no longer around as proven depth. Bryan Mitchell is likely next in line for a rotation spot. You don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which Sabathia out-pitches both Nova and Mitchell in 2016.

$25M

That’s how much the Yankees owe Sabathia this season. That’s not reliever money. It’s ace starter money, and while Sabathia is no longer an ace, not too many owners would be happen marginalizing a player with that kind of salary. I’m sure the money was part of the reason Sabathia remained in the rotation last year. The Yankees want to get their money’s worth.

If nothing else, the money is a tiebreaker. When the final rotation spot comes down to one guy making $25M and another guy making $4.1M (Nova), and you’re not confident in either being even league average, the dude making $25M is going to get the job. Sabathia is a sunk cost. The Yankees owe him that money no matter what, but chances are they’re going to want to try to salvage the investment as much as possible.

The Yankees don’t base major decisions on Spring Training

I can’t remember the last time the Yankees based a major decision on Spring Training. They’ll use it to sort out bench spots or the final few bullpen spots, that sort of thing, but a major decision like a rotation spot? Nope. They tend to go into Spring Training with everything planned out and adjust only if necessary due to injury or a trade, something like that.

That’s smart. Spring Training is a terrible time to make decisions. We see it each and every year. A player comes in, wins a roster spot with a strong showing in March, then reverts back to his previous self in the regular season. The reverse is true as well. A player struggles in camp then rights the ship in the regular season. There are way too many variables in Spring Training — sample size, the caliber of competition, players working on things, etc. — to take performance seriously.

The Yankees have a history of saying a spot is up for grabs when it really isn’t, and this feels exactly like that. Girardi saying they’re “going to take what we feel is the five best” is as much about motivating Nova as it is letting Sabathia know they need him to pitch better. In the end, everything the Yankees have done the last few years points to Sabathia getting a rotation spot over Nova. The only way I see CC not being in the rotation this summer is injury.

Ivan Nova’s Contract Year [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ivan Nova has spent pretty much his entire career in someone else’s shadow. Coming up through the minors, he was always stuck behind more highly regarded pitching prospects like Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, and Manny Banuelos. Then when he broke into the big leagues, he was behind guys like Phil Hughes and Michael Pineda. Even David Phelps at times.

This season Nova came to camp as the second oldest of the team’s six starting pitcher candidates — only CC Sabathia is older — and he isn’t even assured a rotation spot. He’s coming back off a yucky 2015 season (5.07 ERA and 4.87 FIP) that started late because he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The poor performance and the injury could be connected, of course. Then again, Nova was healthy in 2012, when he had a 5.02 ERA (4.60 FIP).

Nova is entering his age 29 season and his sixth big league season, and I still feel like we have no idea who he really is. Is Nova the guy who pitched so well in 2010 (3.70 ERA and 4.00 FIP) and 2013 (3.10 ERA and 3.47 FIP)? Or is he the guy who stunk in 2012 and 2015? Is he a fastball-slider pitcher or a fastball-curveball pitcher? He’s alternated breaking balls over the years too. Nova’s a mystery.

The 2016 season is Ivan’s last year before free agency, so it’s fair to call this the biggest season of his life. A good season along the lines of 2010 and 2013 will equal a handsome payday next winter. A poor season like 2012 and 2015 means Nova will probably find himself looking for a one-year contract to re-establish value. That’s a lot of pressure, and I can’t imagine it helps that he came to camp as the sixth starter. This is a tough spot.

That said, I’m pretty sure Nova’s going to end up making a bunch of starts this season. Upwards of 20-25, even. No team goes through a season using only five starters these days, and the Yankees carry even greater injury risk in their starting five than most teams. Heck, the Yankees go out of their way to use a sixth starter. At some point someone is going to get hurt and Nova will step into the rotation. It’s going to happen. Baseball is a son of a bitch like that.

The question is can Nova give the Yankees quality innings and put himself in position to land a nice payday after the season? When he’s been at his best, Ivan combined an average number of strikeouts with an above-average number of ground balls. Last year his strikeouts were down (15.3%) but his grounders were fine (49.0%). He also had close to no platoon split when at his best. Nova never did get enough credit for having success against both righties and lefties earlier in his career.

Last year though, left-handed batters tattooed Nova for a .311/.375/.524 (.387 wOBA) batting line. They struck out only 9.1% of the time too. Yikes. He was fine against righties (.300 wOBA and 21.6 K%) but lefties were unforgiving. Looking at the heat map of his pitch location against lefties, it appears he was a little more over the plate last season than he was in 2013, his last full season before Tommy John surgery:

Ivan Nova vs. LHB

The heat maps are from the catcher’s point of view and you’ve got 2013 on the left and 2015 on the right. You can click the image for a larger view. All the red is in the lower left corner, which means Nova threw most of his pitches to lefties down and away. That’s good. There were some more pitches out over the middle of the plate last season, which could be the cause of his problems or nothing at all. It could be sample size noise.

The book on Nova has long been that he has good enough control (the ability to throw strikes) but below-average command (the ability to locate exactly where he wants), and he also lacks deception in his delivery, so hitters get a good look at the ball out of his hand. His stuff is good. Nova’s fastball moves and he can throw a nasty breaking ball when right. Even his changeup looks pretty good from time to time. He just needs be really fine because hitters see everything well.

At this point of his career, it’s unlikely Nova will alter his delivery to add deception or improve his command in a meaningful way. Not too many pitchers make major changes to their mechanics after five years in the show. Guys like Charlie Morton are the exception, not the rule. That said, it’s possible Nova will be more consistent with his delivery this season, as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery. He never blamed his 2015 struggles on the surgery but he did acknowledge his arm feels “lighter” this spring.

If Nova can repeat his mechanics and locate a little better this summer, it could have a big time impact on his numbers. He left way too many mistake pitches over the plate last season and he paid for everything. Nova never seems to get away with a mistake. Limiting those mistakes has always been the priority and it can be hard to do that when you’re breaking in a new elbow ligament. Ivan’s not the first guy to have problems after elbow reconstruction.

This is a big season for Nova personally. He stands to make himself millions with his performance. Nova is also pretty important to the Yankees as their inevitably-will-be-needed sixth starter. He’ll be further away from Tommy John surgery, which may or may not improve his location and his performance against lefties. As much as he frustrates me, part of me will miss Ivan if (when?) he leaves as a free agent. Hopefully his final year in pinstripes is his best yet.

Healthy Ivan Nova could help the Yankees as a depth arm in his contract year

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By any objective measure, the last two seasons have been a disaster for Ivan Nova. He was limited to 21 starts and 114.2 innings from 2014-15, his age 27-28 seasons, because of Tommy John surgery, and during those 114.2 innings he had a 5.65 ERA (5.24 FIP). Obviously the surgery and performance are related to some degree. Nova wasn’t healthy in 2014 and he was shaking off the rust in 2015.

Nova, now 29, reported to Spring Training last week as the sixth starter on the depth chart. Brian Cashman all but confirmed whoever doesn’t win a rotation job in camp will be the long man to start the season, and right now Nova is that guy. Being the sixth starter stinks, but it’s not all bad. Inevitably the Yankees are going to need a sixth starter. Last season 25 of the 30 teams had six starters make at least ten starts.

Regardless of role, the 2016 season is huge for Nova on a personal level because it’s his contract year, and I’m sure he wants that Ian Kennedy money next winter. Baseball pays very well, but, relatively speaking, Nova has not yet cashed in big. He received an $80,000 bonus as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic, made next to nothing in minors, and will earn a total of $8.2M or so during his six years of team control.

“He’s getting ready for his free-agent walk year. If there’s going to be a time for him to put his best foot forward, if he’s on a salary drive, this would be the year for it. Hopefully we’ll benefit from it,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty earlier this month. Money is a great motivator and baseball players are human. Of course they put forth their very best effort in their contract years. There’s no reason to think Nova will be any different.

Nova does not have a rotation spot at the moment, though I figure that opportunity will come in time. What he does have going for him is health, at least to the extent any pitcher can have health in their favor. Nova will open the season roughly 23 months out from Tommy John surgery, and typically it takes pitchers a few months to get all the way back from elbow reconstruction. Everyone is different of course, but many need a little time to get back to normal.

“We felt that we would see a different guy this year. I was impressed with his bullpen today. I saw an arm that was very quick, probably better than any point we saw last year. I think the time off really helped him and you will see a different guy,” said Joe Girardi to George King yesterday. The other day Nova himself told Chad Jennings his arm feels “lighter” this spring than it did last season.

Even before the Tommy John surgery, Nova was unpredictable and his career had a lot of ups and downs. He had a 3.70 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 165.1 innings in 2011. Then he had a 5.02 ERA (4.60 FIP) in 170.1 innings in 2012. And then he had a 3.10 ERA (3.47 FIP) in 139.1 innings in 2013. It was impossible to know which Nova would show up start to start, nevermind year to year. Like lots of other young pitchers, Nova’s performance was volatile.

The Yankees spent much of the offseason exploring trades for Nova despite their questionable rotation depth, and I don’t blame them. It’s hard to count on him to be reliable and it’s possible the team will lose him to free agency for nothing next offseason. That said, I do think keeping Nova was a smart move. No one blew the Yankees away with an offer and Ivan figures to be more valuable to the team as a depth arm than any middling prospect he’d return in a deal.

Given his history, it’s easy to be skeptical of Nova’s ability to help the Yankees in 2016. I’d be lying if I said I was confident he’ll be a valuable member of the staff. I do know the Yankees are almost certainly going to need him to step in to make some starts at some point, and that alone makes him pretty important. That he’s further removed from Tommy John surgery and presumably motivated by his upcoming free agency at least gives us some reason to think Nova will be able to perform much better this season than he did last.

Joe Girardi’s Spring Press Conference: Chapman, Tanaka, Castro, Gardner, Ellsbury, More

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa for Spring Training today, meaning the first steps of the marathon that is the 2016 season have been taken. Joe Girardi met with reporters for his annual start-of-spring press conference this morning, and of course he was asked about all aspects of the team.

“Pretty much (quiet). I think it was evidence in the amount of time it took someone to ask a question this morning,” said Girardi when asked about this being a normal camp because they’re no huge stories. “We haven’t had the big story and that’s nice … It is a pretty regular Spring Training. I hope that doesn’t make it a boring Spring Training, but it is regular.”

Normal spring or not, Aroldis Chapman dominated this morning’s press conference, with questions about his pending suspension, the domestic dispute incident, and his role as closer. You can watch Girardi’s press conference right here (it’s chopped up into smaller clips.) Here’s a recap of the important stuff with some thoughts thrown in.

All Things Aroldis

  • On an appropriate punishment: “I think that’s up to the commissioner to decide. That’s not my job. Obviously I wasn’t in the room when they put the (domestic violence) policy together. I have not reviewed the cases … I know it’s very serious and we have to take it very serious. To me, it’s very important when there’s an issue, it’s taken care of.”
  • On behavioral concerns: “Obviously you look at behavioral patterns to see if guys are maturing … We’ve all probably done things in our lives we wish we could do a little differently. I want to get to know him before I really form an opinion about his character. It’s unfortunate sometimes players get labeled before you a chance to know him.”
  • On conduct: “I think there’s an expectation of conduct and how you’re supposed to handle things. The court of law is different than the court of MLB or the MLBPA (or) the public’s opinion. I think we have a responsibility as athletes with the way we present ourselves on and off the field, and I’m okay with that.”
  • On Chapman’s decision to appeal any suspension: “I think it tells you he wants to question the suspension … Does it tell me maybe he (doesn’t think he did) something wrong? I don’t think it says that.”
  • On getting to know Chapman: “I think it’s really hard to form a really good opinion by talking on the phone. There’s some language issues there … He’s very thankful to be here … But until I really get around him it’s really hard to form an opinion.
  • On making Chapman the closer: “He’s been a closer most of his career. It’s (a role) he’s probably most comfortable with. Andrew Miller did a tremendous job … Andrew has been a reliever most of his career — setup guy, seventh inning guy, lefty specialist — I thought it would be (easier for him) to adjust to it better than Chapman.”
  • On the trade itself: “His name was brought up, then it kinda died, then it happened really fast. I had some information about it (but) I was not given much information.”

Girardi danced around any questions regarding Chapman’s domestic dispute incident, which was to be expected. Technically MLB’s investigation is still ongoing and he wasn’t going to say anything remotely controversial. Girardi deflected everything with “that’s up to MLB” and “I have to get to know him,” basically.

I hope commissioner Rob Manfred announces the suspension soon, however long it may be, so Chapman can file his appeal and go through the process. The longer this goes on, the more of a distraction it will be. Let’s rip the band-aid off, so to speak. The sooner we can begin focusing on nothing but baseball, the better. During the press conference you could tell Girardi felt the same way.

The Rotation

  • On Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow: “We will watch him closely to see where he’s at … We’ll make sure that we put him in a situation where he’s ready to go pitch before he gets into a game. If it takes a little longer, it takes a little longer.”
  • On the fifth starter spot: “I think you have to let things work their way out in Spring Training. I know (CC Sabathia‘s) name has been brought up in that conversation, as well as Ivan Nova. Sometimes things have just a way of working out. The competition just goes way. A lot of times, unfortunately, that comes down to health … The big thing is that we have five healthy starters when we leave Spring Training. That’s my goal. We’ll take the five best starters.”
  • On managing workloads: “I thought putting an extra starter in there helped them … I think just watching them physically and watching their innings (is important). You have to be sensitive to your bullpen that it doesn’t get overworked. I think we were able to manage that because (the young relievers) were able to come up and be interchangeable.”
  • On Luis Severino‘s workload: “I think he’s a guy that can handle 200 innings.”

There were surprisingly few questions about the rotation. I guess that’s what happens when you have five pretty clearly established starters plus a sixth starter who’s been around the block. I don’t buy Sabathia being involved in any kind of fifth starter competition though. If he’s healthy, he’s going to be in the rotation. We all know that. As for Severino throwing 200 innings … we’ll see. I’d bet against it.

The Position Players

  • On Brett Gardner playing hurt: “He actually got hit (in the wrist) in April. This was something he dealt with all year long, and if you remember his July, it was an MVP type of month. Sometimes it’s hard to predict. Was it fatigue? Was it the wrist? Did he just get in a bad way? … Everyone plays beat up, that’s the bottom line. That’s what happens in our game … You hope players are honest enough with you that when it becomes too much, they come to you. He never felt it was too much and we didn’t either.”
  • On expecting veterans to produce again: “I think you can expect it. You have to manage them physically and their workload in a sense to make sure they’re strong at the end of the season. And that’s something when you’re fighting for that spot to get into the playoffs, it gets harder to manage that workload … I think the versatility of our club should help that.”
  • On mending fences with Jacoby Ellsbury: “I have talked to him over the winter … I had a tough decision. Brett Gardner has been pretty successful here too. Maybe he wasn’t as big a free agent signee as Jacoby Ellsbury, but Brett Gardner has been extremely productive in his career. That was a hard decision. I was going to disappoint someone immensely. I did what I thought was best for the team.”
  • On Starlin Castro at third base: “It’s something that I need to talk to him about to see where he is. I have not talked to him. I want to talk to him face-to-face about the possibility of what do we do if we need to give (Chase Headley) a day off. That’s something that will be important when we get to Spring Training to talk about.”
  • On A-Rod: “He is our DH and we expect him to be productive … He’ll be ready.”

I though the Ellsbury question was pretty funny. Girardi was asked about saying he had to mend the fences with Ellsbury but quickly pointed out he never said that. He was asked whether he had to mend the fences at the end of last year, that’s it. He never thought much of it. Girardi spoke to Ellsbury this offseason and this seems like a whole bunch of nothing.

Girardi again made it clear the Yankees want to rest their veteran players as much as possible this season, and he indicated the Castro and Aaron Hicks pickups will allow them to do that. (He also said Castro and Didi Gregorius are young and don’t need as much rest.) He didn’t name names and didn’t explain how he intends to rest these guys, but I think we all have a pretty good idea. We’ll find out soon enough.

Miscellany

  • On goals for 2016: “Our goal is to win the World Series. Bottom line. I appreciate how hard our guys played all year, how they never gave up last year, but you know what? We didn’t get to where we wanted. We lost in the first round of the playoffs … Our goal is to win the World Series. That’s why we come to Spring Training.”
  • On getting over 2015: “It’s never easy … I really don’t get over it until baseball ends. Completely ends. There’s an emptiness inside that you should be there. You try to avoid that one-game playoff and be a division winner. Our first goal is win the division this year.”
  • On biggest spring concerns: “There’s some competition here. When you look at some spots in our bullpen, I think we have to iron that out. And I always have concerns about players trying to do too much. I will let them know you’re not going to impress me in your sides, you’re not going to impress me in the first week of games.”
  • On some new additions: “We added Castro, who gives us an everyday second baseman that has been productive in his career. (This) is a young man that has almost 1,000 hits and is only 25 years old … We added a switch-hitter as an outfielder, which gives us more of an opportunity to rest maybe our two left-handers out there against left-handers more often, in a sense. I think we’re deeper.”
  • On young players contributing again: “You might be a non-roster player, you might be in Double-A when you get sent down, but you may have a chance to contribute … That wasn’t an easy job for the relievers — I was honest with them, I told them what was going to happen — but be the guy what when we make another move, is throwing well … Anything can happen. If you’re in uniform, anything can happen, so give everything you’ve got.”
  • Are the Yankees better than last year? “I think so. I think on paper we are better. Paper doesn’t really mean anything until you go out and compete … I think there’s more depth. I think our younger players in the minor league system have gotten a taste (and are eager to contribute).”

There wasn’t as much talk about young players contributing this year. There’s been a lot of that the last few years. I guess that after last season — Girardi mentioned Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Rob Refsnyder (among others) by name when asked about who impressed him last season — and an offseason in which the Yankees signed zero big league free agents, it’s common knowledge they’re going to rely on young players again. That’s pretty cool. And kinda scary.

Spring Notes: Tanaka, Sabathia, A-Rod, Castro, Nova, Davis

Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)
Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)

Pitchers and catchers are due to report to Spring Training in just six days. Many — or most, it seems — are already in Tampa though, so some early camp notes are starting to trickle in. This is good. I am ready for baseball. Here’s a roundup of recent news and notes from Tampa.

Tanaka begins throwing, may be behind other starters in camp

Masahiro Tanaka has gotten back on a mound after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow in October. According to Ronald Blum, Tanaka threw a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium last week in front of pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Bryan Hoch says Tanaka played catch in Tampa today. Afterwards he said he needs to “get innings in (to) see how I feel” before knowing whether he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild told Dan Martin Tanaka’s “throwing program was right on target,” though Brian Cashman was a bit more conservative. “He will enter Spring Training maybe a little behind for precautionary reasons. He may be behind going off the bullpen from the beginning, but he is healthy. There are no issues, there are no hiccups,” said the GM to George King.

CC Sabathia was behind the other starters in Spring Training 2013 after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow early during the 2012 offseason. He was ready to start the season on time; the club limited his bullpen work early in camp, and had him make his first few spring starts in controlled minor league games rather than regular Grapefruit League games. Tanaka could do the same this spring. We’ll see.

“When you pitch a good game, you’re the hero,” said Tanaka, who worked out with his former Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates in Japan this offseason, to Brad Lefton. “When you have a bad game, everyone says, ‘Something’s wrong with the elbow.’ There’s no way to handle it other than to just accept that’s the way it’s going to be. If you want to stop such talk, then you just have to go out and keep winning ballgames.”

Sabathia and his knee are feeling great

You can file this in the classic early Spring Training everything is awesome category: CC Sabathia’s knee feels great and he’s doing very well following his stint in an alcohol treatment center, he told Laura Albanese and Mark Feinsand. “I feel great and I’ve been working hard for the last three months and I’m ready to go,” said Sabathia. “I’m excited … This is the best I’ve felt in three years.”

Sabathia, now 35, usually throws year round, but he took a month off from throwing a baseball while in rehab. He’s been throwing off a mound for three weeks now. “I’m definitely in a good place. You’ve never got this thing beat; it’s always there and I’m always going to be a recovering alcoholic, but I’m in a good place,” he said. “This is my 16th year in the big leagues and you can take it for granted. This whole experience has put a new lease on my career and the way I’m viewing it.”

I’d be lying if I said I have even medium high hopes for Sabathia this coming season — I’ve done the “overly optimistic about CC” thing a few times these last three years — but I’m glad he feels great and his alcoholism recovery is going well. That goes beyond baseball and he’ll be fighting it the rest of his life. On the field, if the new knee brace allows Sabathia to give the Yankees, say, 180 league average innings in 2016, that would be an enormous upgrade over what he gave them from 2013-15.

Cashman reiterates A-Rod will be a DH only

As if it was not already clear, Cashman reiterated the Yankees see Alex Rodriguez as a DH and a DH only going forward. “You’ve got to stop asking Alex questions,” said Cashman to Billy Witz. “He’s not playing any position anymore. He’s a DH. He’s a very productive DH. For us to get maximum value out of Alex Rodriguez, he’s going to only DH. If we have to put him in the field somewhere, we’re in trouble.”

I wish the Yankees would at least entertain the idea of giving Alex some time at first base in Spring Training, but obviously that’s not going to happen. Greg Bird is done for the season, leaving Dustin Ackley as the backup first baseman. It would be nice if A-Rod were at least capable of being an emergency fill-in at first base for a few innings. Alas. The DH spot is his and his alone.

Castro will play some third base in Spring Training

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

As expected, the Yankees will have Starlin Castro play some third base in Spring Training this year, Cashman told Ryan Hatch. Castro has not played third since rookie ball years and years ago, and that was only a handful of games. He’s played shortstop most of his career, so he is familiar with being on the left side of the infield. Castro moved to second base last August, and I’m not sure giving him another new position to learn right now is the best idea, but we’ll see.

“It’s too early to tell (if he can handle third), so we’ll take the time in Spring Training,” said Cashman. “If (he) can swing over and play some third for us and spell Chase (Headley), that’s a huge benefit for roster flexibility, but if he can’t, we’re not going to force it … If it’s something he’s not comfortable with we’re certainly not going to force that either. But we’ll certainly find out when we get to know him a little better and see how he looks.”

Nova wants to start, because duh

Ivan Nova, who is currently sixth on the rotation depth chart, told Martin he wants to start this year but will pitch out of the bullpen if necessary. “I’m a starting pitcher. I’m not a reliever, but if that’s what they tell me to do, that’s what I’ve got to do,” he said. “If I feel bad going to the bullpen, what’s that going to change?”

The Yankees sent Nova to the bullpen briefly last September, but he never did make a relief appearance and instead moved back into the rotation when Tanaka pulled his hamstring. I firmly believe Nova is going to end up making something like 20-25 starts this year. One or three of the other starters will get hurt and he’ll be the guy to step in. The sixth starter always works more than expected, it seems.

Nova, now 29, had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery last year. He didn’t blame his struggles on the elbow — “Whatever happened last year wasn’t because of the Tommy John. I just didn’t pitch good. If I didn’t feel good, I would have said it,” he said — but I do think it’s fair to expect him to improve as he gets further away from the procedure. That’s common. This is also Ivan’s contract year too. I’m sure he’s extra motivated to pitch well, and the Yankees will happily take it if he does.

Beltran, McCann do not want to play first base

Although both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have briefly played first base for the Yankees, neither wants to do it going forward, they told Anthony McCarron and Brendan Kuty. “No, no, no. I would do anything. Except (play first). It’s a different animal,” said Beltran. McCann added “I don’t think they want me over there. I don’t move too good. I don’t think they want that.”

Both Beltran and McCann have played some first base in pinstripes, so they’re clearly not opposed to the idea, but they don’t want to do it regularly. I understand that. The Yankees shouldn’t want Beltran or McCann to do it at all. Ideally Mark Teixeira stays healthy at first base and mashes taters all season with Ackley backing him up. If it gets to the point where Beltran has to play first, something very bad has happened. By the way, Beltran told Hatch he dropped ten pounds this offseason and joked he “might try and steal some bases this year.”

Cashman confirms Yankees have spoken to Davis

In the wake of Bird’s injury, the Yankees have indeed spoken to free agent Ike Davis, Cashman confirmed to Anthony Rieber. “We’ve talked to Ike Davis. That’s all I can tell you, really. We’ve talked to a lot of people,” said the GM. “Again, in terms of the Greg Bird scenario, we clearly have a need for an everyday first baseman at Scranton. So anybody that we feel is of quality and can fit that bill and is interested and willing to play in Scranton, then we’re going to have those conversations with a number of different people. But we have talked to Ike as well.”

Ken Davidoff says Davis is expected to sign a minor league contract — not necessarily with the Yankees — at some point soon. Davis, 28, hit .229/.301/.350 (83 wRC+) with three homers in 74 games for the A’s last season. He is a year removed from a 109 wRC+ season, however. Davis is a dead pull lefty hitter with power, making him a very good third string first base candidate for the Yankees. At this point of the offseason, he’s the best option to replace Bird in Scranton. Steve Simineri explained why the Yankees should side Davis in a guest post recently.

Ivan the Reliever

(Getty)
(Getty)

Heading into 2016, the Yankees seem to have a full starting rotation. Injuries will happen and more than five pitchers will start for the team this year, but if we bite our lips and close our eyes, take ourselves away to paradise where everything breaks right (meaning nothing breaks) and the Yanks are able to roll with Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Luis Severino for most of the year, that leaves Ivan Nova with no spot in the rotation. For many–author included–that’s not a bad thing. Nova’s been very up and down in his career and coming off of Tommy John surgery in 2015, that was no different. While Severino pitched his way into the 2016 rotation with his 2015 performance, Nova may’ve pushed his way (permanently) out of it and into that ever gray, nebulous area of ‘not good enough to start, but not an obvious reliever, either.’

Of course, Nova could fit nicely into the long-reliever slot. The Yankees don’t necessarily need to be concerned with his long-term development as he’s close to free agency and he is blocked in the rotation by pitchers with better stuff, better results, and better upside. Allowing him to wallow for a while won’t negatively impact the team too much. It’s better that he fills this role than, say, Bryan Mitchell, who still has some room to grow and may yet turn out to be a starter for the big league team. And though it’s hard to see, given his lack of consistency, there is a route to success in the bullpen for Nova.

When we think of good relief pitchers, we generally think of those with one devastating pitch, which is something Nova hasn’t had in his career, despite throwing relatively hard and flashing a good curve every once in a while. Other relievers have a good two-pitch combo, like Andrew Miller‘s blistering fastball and sweeping slider–ditto for Dellin Betances and his curveball. Nova may not have any one pitch that is nearly as good as any his teammates have, but if he focuses on his two pitch combo–sinker and curveball, especially the latter–he may just find surprising success in the bullpen.

One key to Nova’s experience in the bullpen may just be increased reliance on that curve. Of course, I should note that it may not be wise for a guy coming off of elbow surgery to up his curveball usage, but if he’s relieving, the gross total may be lower than if he were a starter, even if the percentage goes up. For his career, Nova’s curve has the second highest whiff/swing rate at 36.97%, trailing only his slider (40.80), which he hasn’t thrown–per Brooks–since 2013. In 2015, he had whiff/swing rate of 37.43% with his curveball, blowing away all of his other pitches. The other key will be pairing that curveball with his sinker, which is most definitely Nova’s calling card. Both for his career and 2015, that sinker has gotten a hefty number of ground balls, with both tallies coming in at over 60% grounders/balls in play.

Ditching a fastball may seem like an odd choice, but it may be best for Nova if he’s going to succeed in a relief role. Moving into the ‘pen and out of the rotation is about simplifying your game and the simplest thing Nova can do is use his two best weapons–his bowling sinker and his effective curve. If he can do that and harness the power of those two pitches, perhaps he can move from just a long-man to an effective short reliever. The chances may not be great, but this is baseball, after all, and stranger things have happened.