As expected, Joe Girardi announced CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova will start the team’s first three games of the regular season. Well, he didn’t really come out and announce it, but the rotation for the rest of the week indicates that will be the case. This lines up Kuroda for the home opener. Masahiro Tanaka figures to slide in as the number four starter with either Michael Pineda or David Phelps as the five. Obligatory reminder that the rotation order on Opening Day means nothing.
I know it’s only Spring Training, but man oh man has Michael Pineda looked good. He looks healthy, his delivery is free and easy, his slider is still vicious, and his fastball gone from topping out at 92 mph in his first outing to topping out at 94 mph in his third. It has only been three games and a total of nine innings, but it’s hard not to be encouraged and excited by what Pineda’s done these last few weeks. He looks as good as we could have possibly hoped.
And yet, despite Pineda’s strong showing, he isn’t the big pitching story of the spring. Masahiro Tanaka has come over from the Rakuten Golden Eagles and after only a few weeks of camp, it feels like he’s been here for years. The transition has appeared to be seamless — I’m sure it’s been difficult for him, how could it not? — and his outings have matched the scouting reports. He throws strikes, has a wipeout splitter, and an underrated slider. When he’s gotten in jams, he’s cranked it up a notch, something we heard he’ll do long before he signed on the dotted line. As with Pineda, Tanaka has looked as good as we could have possibly hoped.
Flying under the radar this spring has been Ivan Nova, at least to some extent. Following yesterday’s outing he now has 21 strikeouts and two walks in 19.2 Grapefruit League innings, and I think the most impressive thing was the way he made adjustments mid-start and rebounded from a terrible first inning against the Astros a week or two ago. It was the kind of bad inning that used to spiral out of control, but instead Nova righted the ship and put together a good start. He’s been healthy and he’s been throwing the ball well. It’s been a strong spring for Ivan.
“I’ve seen a guy that’s come into spring training that, it seems like he realizes how good he can be,” Girardi said. “And I think that’s important. I think for all young players, there’s that doubt always a little bit, can I do this on a consistent basis? Can I do it start after start, or game after game if you’re a position player? Do I need to look over my starter? Is there someone always doubting what I can do? I think he’s realized that, you know what, I can be pretty good.”
Joe Girardi said that to Chad Jennings yesterday and was referring to Nova, but he could have easily been talking about Pineda or Tanaka. All three came to camp with something to prove and they’ve answered every question along the way. Just about everything has gone according to plan with these three and that’s pretty great. Usually when you’re talking about three pitchers — I guess this applies to any type of player, really — one will slip up somewhere along the lines. Two out of three is a pretty good success rate in baseball.
But all three guys have done everything they’ve needed to do in Spring Training and it’s really exciting. It’s really exciting for 2014 and for the Yankees going forward, because all three of these guys are young. Nova is the oldest and he just turned 27 in January. Pineda turned 25 that same month and Tanaka turned 25 back in November. The Yankees have an older roster in general and the other two members of the rotation are up there in age — Hiroki Kuroda just turned 39 and CC Sabathia is about 75 in pitching years given all the mileage on his arm — but these three fellas are all right smack in their prime or about the enter the prime of their careers. I’m going to use the word again: exciting.
This is Spring Training and the time of the year for overwhelming and occasionally irrational optimism. I don’t know how any Yankees fan could look at Pineda, Tanaka, and Nova these last few weeks and not start dreaming about a rotation built around their young power arms for the next few years. We know there are going to be bumps in the road, they’re inevitable, but right now everything is going right and that’s something the club needed in Spring Training. The pieces of the next great Yankees rotation are in place. We’ve know that because seen ‘em with our own eyes these last few weeks.
One thing I’ve come to understand over the years is the order of the starting rotation at the beginning of the season means very little. It’s all symbolism. The Opening Day start usually goes to a veteran who has been with the team a while, not necessarily the best pitcher. Being designated as the staff ace and actually pitching like an ace are two different things. Scheduled off-days and rain-outs throw a wrench into the rotation after a few weeks and the order gets all mixed up anyway. It’s fun to talk about, but the importance is small.
Spring Training ends in less than two weeks — the final Grapefruit League game is next Saturday — and the Yankees have started to line up their rotation for Opening Day and the start of the regular season. I’m sure it has actually been plotted out and planned for a few weeks now, but now that we can see the light at the end of the Spring Training tunnel, the plan is a little more concrete. Courtesy of Chad Jennings, here is the rotation through the weekend according to Joe Girardi:
With Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren nowhere to be found, it’s likely both have already made their final starts of the spring. That makes sense, they always seemed to be the distant third and fourth contenders for the final rotation spot. Girardi confirmed Warren will make the team in some capacity a few weeks ago, so he’s headed to the bullpen. Nuno could very well wind up in Triple-A as the sixth starter.
Michael Pineda has been fantastic this spring with the obvious caveats: he’s coming off major shoulder surgery, it’s mid-March, he isn’t stretched out all the way, he hasn’t faced the greatest lineups, etc. Everything we’ve seen so far is encouraging and even though Girardi stopped short of anointing him the fifth starter — “The other guys are throwing pretty well too. We’ve got to figure out what’s best for our team as a whole,” he said to Bryan Hoch yesterday — it sure seems like Pineda is the favorite to start the season in the rotation, relegating David Phelps to the bullpen. So, with that in mind, here’s how next week’s rotation lines up:
- Monday, March 24th: OFF DAY (Nova throws a simulated or minor league game)
- Tuesday, March 25th vs. Phillies: Phelps on regular rest
- Wednesday, March 26th @ Blue Jays: Sabathia on regular rest
- Thursday, March 27th @ Pirates: Kuroda on regular rest
- Friday, March 28th vs. Marlins: Tanaka with one extra day of rest
- Saturday, March 29th vs. Marlins: Nova on regular rest, Pineda???
- Sunday, March 30th: OFF DAY
According to Jennings, Girardi “hinted that someone will pitch at the complex” during the Monday’s scheduled off-day. Nova lines up perfectly for that day, so he seems to be the guy. Phelps, Sabathia, and Kuroda follow with their final Grapefruit League starts on regular rest, then Tanaka goes with one extra day. The team has said they are planning to give him the extra day here and there. It’s also worth noting that regardless of whether he starts Thursday or Friday (or Saturday or Sunday for that matter), Tanaka will have faced only one AL club this winter (the Twins this coming Saturday). I doubt this was a coincidence. The Yankees kept him hidden from the direct competition while still getting him innings against MLB caliber hitters. Clever.
Anyway, following Tanaka’s start, Nova closes out the Grapefruit League schedule on regular rest next Saturday. What happens with Pineda at that point is anyone’s guess. He could come out of the bullpen to replace Nova, he could throw a simulated game, or he could start a minor league game. The Yankees have options. Pineda will be working on one extra day of rest Saturday and it’s good to give him that little break following his surgery and long rehab. They have to take it easy on him and not work him too hard, too soon.
With that all laid out, here’s how the rotation lines up the following week:
- Monday, March 31st: OFF DAY
- Tuesday, April 1st @ Astros: Sabathia with one extra day of rest
- Wednesday, April 2nd @ Astros: Kuroda with one extra day of rest
- Thursday, April 3rd @ Astros: Nova on regular rest
- Friday, April 4th @ Blue Jays: Tanaka with two extra days of rest
- Saturday, April 5th @ Blue Jays: Pineda with two extra days of rest
Nova’s the only guy who wouldn’t make his first start of the season with extra rest and since he’s young and healthy (and not coming over from Japan), he probably needs the extra rest the least. Pineda could throw a simulated game or pitch in a minor league game on Sunday the 30th instead of Saturday the 29th, allowing him to make that first regular season start on one extra day of rest rather than two. There is such a thing as too much rest, remember. He can get out of rhythm or something like that. Tanaka is used to starting with six days of rest, so the two extra days should be no big deal to him.
The Yankees have indicated Tanaka will start the fourth game of the season rather than the third for two specific reasons. One, they want to split him and Kuroda up since they have very similar styles as fastball/splitter/slider pitchers. (It’s not just a racial thing, you know.) Two, they want to give Tanaka extra rest when they can, and by starting him in the fourth game, he’ll be able to make his third start of the season with an extra day of rest. If he starts the third game of the season, he’d have to make both his second and third starts with normal rest. Anything to help the transition.
Sabathia was pretty terrible last season but he’s getting the nod on Opening Day for past performance. The guy was pretty awesome from 2009-12. Like I said before, the Opening Day start is a novelty more than anything. It doesn’t have any kind of real value to the team. The Game One starter for a postseason series, now that actually matters. Opening Day? Nah, not worth getting upset over. The rotation is all lined up for the start of the season and everyone who needs an extra day or two of rest will get it, and that’s it the most important thing.
It wasn’t all that long ago that it felt like a miracle whenever a Yankees’ starter completed six full innings of work. At least it felt like a miracle to me. In fact, from 2006-08, the team’s starters completed six full innings only 284 times out of 486 regular season games, or 58%. Over the last three seasons, that number is 67%. Doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it is one extra start of 6+ innings out of every ten games.
Thankfully things have changed in recent years and I think the reasons are obvious. The Yankees haven’t only added better starters over the last few seasons, but they’ve added more durable starters as well. They’ve been getting not just more innings, but more quality innings, and in turn the workload on the bullpen has been reduced. It makes the entire staff better when the starter can go deep into the game.
This coming season, the Yankees again figure to have a few starters who can be counted on to soak up innings and complete those six innings of every five days. Given the questionable state of the middle of the bullpen, having the starter take the ball deep into the game will be more important to the club in 2014 than it was at any point in the last few years. Who is going to eat up those innings? Let’s preview.
Let’s get this out of the way early: Sabathia was terrible last year. The reasons are whatever the reasons are, but the bottom line is that he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Terrible. From 2009-12, even bad Sabathia starts were hardly disasters, usually something like four runs in six innings than six innings in four innings. That wasn’t always the case last summer.
And yet, despite all his struggles, Sabathia still managed to throw 200+ innings for the seventh straight year. Mark Buehrle, James Shields, and Justin Verlander are the only pitchers who can make that claim. Sabathia’s 211 innings were the 16th most in baseball, and he completed six full innings in 24 of his 32 starts. He completed seven full innings 17 times, the 12th most in baseball. CC’s effectiveness is waning but he remains a workhorse of the first order, someone the Yankees can rely on to spare the bullpen every five days. I have very little doubt he will continue to eat innings in 2014.
An oblique strain and a concussion caused Kuroda to miss nearly three full months in 2009, but he’s thrown at least 196 innings in the four seasons since. He’s also thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. Kuroda, true to his workhorse form, completed six innings 24 times and seven innings 14 times in his 32 starts last season. Remember when I said the Yankees were not just getting more innings, but more quality innings out of their starters in recent years? That describes Kuroda perfectly.
Both the Yankees and Kuroda have indicated they will look for ways to lighten the load on their top right-hander this summer, mostly because he’s 39 years old and has faded late in each of the last two regular seasons. How will they accomplish that? I have no idea. Maybe they won’t send him out for that one extra inning, maybe they’ll use off-days to give him extra rest, maybe they’ll do that and more. Kuroda may intentionally be turned into a 180-inning starter this year, which is still a ton of innings even if it falls short of the hallowed 200-inning plateau.
After three televised Grapefruit League outings, we still don’t really know what to expect out of Tanaka this coming season. We know the scouting report and all that, but until he gets on a big league mound and pitches every fifth day in the regular season, there’s just no way to know what he can give the Yankees in 2014. He could be great, he could be awful, he could be something in between.
What we do know is that Tanaka was pretty durable during his time with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, missing a little bit of time with shoulder inflammation in 2008, 2009, and 2012. Tanaka threw 212 innings last season and has averaged 203.2 innings per season over the last three years, which works out to 7.9 innings per start. That was pitching ever seventh day and not a pace he will maintain in MLB, but it shows Tanaka is used to pitching deep into the game.
The Yankees have indicated they will try to work some extra rest in for Tanaka throughout the season, and may start him in the fourth game of the season rather than the third for that very reason — an off-day means his second start would come with an extra day of rest as the number four starter rather than regular rest as the number three. Can he give the team six or so innings every time out? I hope so, but he have to see how efficient he is first. The club will try to give their new starter some extra rest here and there, but make no mistake, he’s being counting on for lots of high-end innings right away.
It wasn’t until his sixth professional season, when he took a comebacker to the ankle in July 2011, that Nova missed a scheduled start. He was insanely durable throughout his minor league career, and he’s thrown at least 140 innings every season since 2008. Nova did miss three weeks with shoulder inflammation in 2012 and four weeks with triceps inflammation in 2013, so he’s not an ironman, but by and large he’s been an innings guy throughout his career.
The question now is whether Nova can be counted on an innings eater in 2014. It’s not just the two relatively minor arm problems the last two seasons, it’s the unpredictability of his performance as well. He’s been very up and down over the last three seasons, not an uncommon problem for a young starting pitcher. Nova’s a big guy (listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs.) and his delivery seems to be pretty smooth, two traits that portend workhorseishness. Can he make the jump to become a consistent 180+ or even 200+ innings guy this season? I hope so. Nova’s is a pretty important piece of the franchise going forward and taking that next step would be a nice development.
* * *
The Yankees have said Michael Pineda will have an innings limit because, well, duh. Of course he will. The kid threw 171 innings for the Mariners a few years ago but it’s hard to think that number means anything after a major shoulder surgery and two lost years. They have to be careful and build Pineda back up slowly. In no way should he be counted on to chew up innings, even if the bullpen was taxed the night before.
David Phelps (94.1 IP), Adam Warren (77 IP), and Vidal Nuno (45 IP) all threw fewer than a hundred innings in 2013, but none of them are particularly young (Nuno is the youngest at 26) and they all have multiple 100+ inning seasons to their credit (Phelps and Warren have multiple 150+ inning seasons). I think the Yankees would let all three throw upwards of 150 innings this season, maybe more depending on how they’re performing.
Sabathia (performance), Kuroda (age), Tanaka (transition), and Nova (unpredictable) all come into the season with questions but they all have the ability to be top-notch innings guys. This isn’t some far-fetched idea either, we’re asking these guys to do something they did just last year and over the last several years as well (aside from Nova). The benefits of having durable starting pitchers is obvious and the Yankees are in line to have several of them in 2014.
For most of these season preview posts, we’ve been lumping players together based on similar skills or roles or whatever. I was planning to do the same for the breakout candidates as well, but looking over the projected big league roster, not many guys fall into the category. David Phelps and Adam Warren? Yeah, maybe. But how high are their ceilings, really? Michael Pineda and Dellin Betances? They haven’t had an extended stint on the Yankees’ roster yet.
When I think about players who could be in store for a breakout season, I think about guys who have been in the show for a year or three and appear to be ready to take that next step. David Robertson broke out in 2011. Brett Gardner broke out in 2010. Robinson Cano broke out in 2009. Those are breakouts to me. Not someone who is getting their first taste of the big leagues. As far as I’m concerned, there is only one true breakout candidate on the Yankees’ roster this year.
These last three years have been really up and down for Ivan Nova. He has alternated being excellent and awful, which, really, isn’t all that different from most young pitchers. We’ve seen enough flashes of dominance to think Nova can pitch near the front of a rotation down the road, assuming he puts it all together at some point. Does that mean he’ll be Max Scherzer or Felix Hernandez? No, of course not. Those guys are very rare. Can he be as valuable as Anibal Sanchez for a few years though? I think we’d all take that. I know I would.
Unfortunately, taking that step forward to become a consistent, top flight starter is really tough. Many have tried, most have failed. Nova does two things that make you think he can one of the few to take that step forward: he misses bats and he gets ground balls. Or at least he’s shown the ability to do those things at various points over the last three years. After striking out 13.9% of batters faced with a 6.6% swing and miss rate in 2011, Nova has bumped it up to 20.2% and 9.1%, respectively, the last two seasons. He also sandwiched an okay 45.2% ground ball rate in 2012 around 52.7% and 53.5% ground ball rates in 2011 and 2013, again respectively.
The ability is there, we’ve seen it every so often. Nova needs to find a way to marry that 2012-13 strikeout rate with the 2011 and 2013 ground ball rates to be the best possible pitcher he can be. He did that last summer, at least for a little while. He was pretty terrible before going on the DL with a triceps problem, but he resurfaced in late-June and pitched well through the end of the season. That’s the guy the Yankees want to see all the time, the late-June through September version of Nova. That guy racked up both strikeouts and ground balls*.
* Nova’s walk rate (2.97 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%) has been pretty consistent over the last three seasons, in case you’re wondering. If he and the Yankees want to try to cut down on the free passes, great. He’s fine right where he is right now though.
I think that, in general, Nova is a tough pitcher to wrap your head around. He looks like he should be one of the best pitchers in baseball because he’s got some really good stuff, the big frame scouts love, and confidence that borders on arrogance, but there’s a disconnect between what he looks like and what he actually is. I think part of the reason why he’s so difficult to understand is the way he’s changed just over the the last three seasons. Look at his pitch usage, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Look at how much it changes from year to year. When Nova dominated in the second half of 2011, it was because he emphasized his slider. Less than two full seasons later, the slider was a non-factor and the curveball became his go-to secondary pitch. The red and yellow lines head in completely opposite directions. It’s also worth noting Nova doesn’t use his fastball as much as he once did these days, and in fact for most of the last year he threw his curve more than his heater. That’s … uncommon.
The pitch usage suggests Nova is still looking for what works for for him. That’s a guy making adjustment after adjustment, not for the sake of fine tuning his game or perfecting his craft, but out of necessity. If Nova didn’t start throwing his curveball so much last year, he might have been stuck in Triple-A. Maybe the new fastball-curveball approach is the one that leads to the breakout and long-term success. We did wonder the same thing about his fastball-slider approach after 2011, remember. I don’t think we can say anything definitive about what pitch mix works before for Nova. The guy’s a mystery.
And yet, the flashes are there. The strikeouts, the ground balls, the fastball-breaking ball combination … we’ve seen it all over the last few years, just not all at the same time. Not often enough anyway. Last season was a step in the right direction but now another step forward is needed. Nova needs to put together a full, productive season from start to finish. No more wake-up call demotions to Triple-A (he’s out of options anyway), no half season of awfulness followed by a half season of excellence, just a full year from start to finish.
I think Nova is capable of having that kind of season in 2014. It’s about time he does, really. He’s making some decent money ($3.3M during his first trip through arbitration) and he turned 27 back in January, so Nova is entering what should be the best years of his career. If he doesn’t break out this summer, you have to wonder if he ever will. I wouldn’t go as far as calling this a make or break year for Nova, it’s not like he’ll never pitch in the big leagues again if he doesn’t perform well, but this is the time for him to advance his career and cement himself as a cornerstone piece for the Yankees going forward.
When it comes to building the roster and making moves, the Yankees tend to be very reactionary. That is out of necessity more than anything; it’s tough to implement a plan when your farm system has been as unproductive as the team’s has been these last few years. The Yankees rely on free agency to fill holes and they pay premium prices not because they can, but because they have to.
A few weeks ago I wrote about a potential contract extension for David Robertson, which might have given the team a closer at a setup man price, but that ship seems to have sailed. Robertson avoided arbitration with a one-year contract a few weeks ago and he’ll become a free agent next winter looking for that closer contract.
Another The only other player on the roster who would be worth considering an extension for is Ivan Nova, the just turned 27-year-old right-hander who figures to slot in as the number four starter come Opening Day.
There is no real reason for the Yankees to have any urgency when it comes to locking Nova up right now. The two sides avoided arbitration with a one-year contract worth $3.3M a few weeks ago, so he’s signed for this coming season and remains under team control as an arbitration-eligible player for another two years after that. Nova won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season, and, as everyone learned the hard way with Chien-Ming Wang, a pitcher’s career could go south in an instant no matter how promising he seems. There is risk anytime you sign a player long-term and that is especially true with pitchers.
As MLBTR’s Extensions Tracker shows, most starting pitchers at Nova’s service time level who signed extensions only signed for two years. All those contracts did was give the player a small amount of security and the team cost certainty. Those pitchers were still arbitration-eligible one last time after the extension expired and their free agency was not pushed back. That type of contract would make no sense for the Yankees since Nova is already signed for 2014 and they can afford whatever raise he’ll get for 2015. Signing Nova would be about keeping him beyond his arbitration years and (hopefully) saving some money in the process.
The only four pitchers at Nova’s service time level to sign extensions of at least three guaranteed years in the not too distant past are:
|Nova||Johnny Cueto||Ervin Santana||Paul Maholm||Scott Kazmir|
|Platform Year bWAR||3.6||2.2||5.0||4.0||5.8|
|Platform Year fWAR||2.5||2.6||6.0||2.4||5.1|
Maholm is the best comparable to Nova, at least in terms of bWAR and fWAR, but the Yankees can forget all about paying him only $14.5M for his three arbitration years. They’re already paying him $3.3M for his first year, meaning Ivan would have to agree to a $5.6M average annual salary for his second and third years. That would be a huge discount. Maholm signed that extension prior to the 2009 season, so it’s pretty outdated. Same goes for the Kazmir deal too.
Santana and Cueto signed away their three arbitration years for $17.8M and $16.2M, respectively, which averages out to $17M even. Nova’s salary would have to jump to roughly $5.7M in 2015 and $8.1M in 2016 ($2.4M raise each year) to match that, which is pretty reasonable. John Danks went from $3.45M to $6M to $8M during his three arbitration years while Matt Garza went from $3.35M to $5.95M to $9.5M during his three arb years, just for comparison. The Santana/Cueto extension framework seems to work for Nova.
Now, would Nova take a four year deal in the $27-30M range (plus an option!)? Who knows. His bonus was only $80k when he signed out of the Dominican Republic, so he doesn’t have that huge seven-figure bonus tucked away somewhere. He might jump at the security. Nova has been pretty erratic these last few years and the Yankees might not like the idea of risking that much money on a pitcher who is still something of an unknown. That said, look at some recent extensions signed by pitchers who were two years away from free agency:
|Matt Harrison||Brandon Morrow||Josh Johnson|
|Platform Year bWAR||6.1||1.2||6.6|
|Platform Year fWAR||3.6||3.4||5.5|
Morrow isn’t a good reference point because he started his career in the bullpen and had only two years as a starter by time he accrued four full years of service time. Harrison’s deal and Johnson’s deal average $10.4M annually while Santana’s and Cueto’s deals average $7.1M annually. If the Yankees wait a year to extend Nova and he goes on to have a pretty good (not even great) 2014 season, locking him up will be substantially more expensive, about $3M per year more expensive. The sooner they get it done, the more they save, and that’s just smart business regardless of whether the team has a $50M payroll or a $200M payroll.
The Yankees have softened on their archaic no extensions policy in recent years, most notably by trying to lock up Russell Martin, Robinson Cano, and Hiroki Kuroda. The problem with those three was that the team waited until they were only one year away from free agency, and when a guy can see the light at the end of the free agent tunnel, it’s tough to talk him out of exploring the open market. I understand why the Yankees would be hesitant to sign Nova long-term, but doing it now could potentially save a ton of money and allow them to get out ahead of the market for once.
Ivan Nova‘s relatively short big league career has been a bit of a rollercoaster. He was okay during the first half of 2011 (4.12 ERA) and dominant in the second half (3.18 ERA). The 2012 season was atrocious from start to finish (5.02 ERA), and that carried over into early 2013 (5.16 ERA in April and May). But, after returning from a brief DL stint and a trip to the minors, he was again dominant and arguably the best pitcher on the staff the rest of the season (2.70 ERA). This graph tells the story:
Yeah, these last three years have been pretty up and down for Nova, but that’s okay. Not every young guy comes into the league and dominates right away like Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey. Most young pitchers take their lumps before learning what works for them and how to make the necessary adjustments. Heck, some guys never learn that stuff. It’s just the way it goes. Pitching is hard.
To his credit, Nova has already shown the ability to make some adjustments. That excellent second half in 2011 came after he started using his slider more often. When he was demoted to Triple-A last season, he focused on his curveball and rode that pitch to a successful second half. I don’t think anyone would question the quality of Nova’s stuff — he shows some nasty, nasty stuff when he’s on — but learning how the command it well and get by on days when one or two pitches aren’t working has been a challenge. Again, that’s part of the learning process.
Now, that said, Nova turned 27 earlier this month and he’s about to enter his fourth full season with the Yankees. He’s also earning some decent money ($3.3M in 2014) now that he’s gone through arbitration for the first time as well. The learning process never stops, but Nova is at the point where that rollercoaster ride should end and he puts together a consistent and productive season, from Opening Day through Game 162. The days of posting an ugly first half and going to Triple-A for a wake-up call before finding success down the stretch should be in the past. They have to be — Nova is out of minor league options and can’t go to Triple-A without passing through waivers.
“When I got hurt and went to Tampa [for rehabilitation], I really thought about what I want to do and what I want to be. I forgot about the past and focused on doing what I have to do,” said Nova to Ken Davidoff last September, after his complete-game shutout against the Orioles. It certainly appeared as though the figurative light bulb had turned on late last year, but I felt the same way in the second half of 2011. Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but Nova has given me some reason to doubt whether that success last year will carry over into this coming season.
At this point, three full years into his big league career, we still don’t know what Nova is. Is he the guy who’s slung to a 3.00 ERA for a half-season on two occasions? Or the guy with a 5.something ERA for the season and a half in between? Reality is probably somewhere in the middle and that’s fine. He has shown he can get ground balls and strikeouts, two skills that are a pretty good recipe for success. Chris Moran took an in-depth look at why Nova might be ready to emerge as a steady rotation presence earlier this winter, but we need to see that emergence actually happen.
The Yankees spend a boatload of money to make Masahiro Tanaka the centerpiece of their rotation going forward, and now they need Nova to shed the “enigma” label and become Tanaka’s running mate as CC Sabathia declines. I wouldn’t call this a make-or-break year, but the time has come for Nova to stop being an interesting young pitcher and become a reliable member of the rotation. This is the year for him to show the team he is a building block and not just more back-end fodder.