What Went Right: Ivan Nova

Nova delivers a pitch during his first career complete game shutout. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Nova delivers a pitch during his first career complete game shutout. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Early in the 2013 season, it appeared that Ivan Nova would fall into the What Went Wrong category. Through his first three starts he allowed 10 runs in 14.2 IP and hadn’t recorded as much as a single out in the sixth inning. In the third inning of his fourth start, he exited with what appeared to be an elbow injury about fifteen seconds after trainer Steve Donohue came to check on him. His season had disaster written all over it.

Given how many young pitchers undergo the procedure every year, it would have surprised few if Nova required Tommy John surgery. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case. The Yankees quickly assured us it was a triceps injury, abating some of the fear. About a month later he was back on the roster, pitching out of the bullpen. Apparently, something clicked for him between the injury and the return.

Able to air it out in shorter appearances, Nova let loose with fastballs that, for the only time in his career, consistently exceeded 95 mph. Even more impressive was how he kept the velocity up for a five-inning relief appearance against the Mets, allowing just one run while striking out six. Unfortunately, due to the returns of Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis, the Yankees had to option Nova. It seemed like poor timing for the move, given his resurgence.

Nova didn’t let the demotion get him down, and his persistence paid off. After about two weeks in the minors he got the call again to make a spot start against the Rays. It went well enough, as did his follow-up appearance, a 5.2-inning mop-up job against the Orioles. That earned him a spot in the rotation, wherein he produced one of the best second halves in the majors.

In 87.1 post-ASB innings Nova produced a 2.78 ERA, seventh best in the American League and good enough to bring his season-long ERA down to 3.10. His velocity had dipped back to normal levels, and actually took a further hit in his final four starts. And his peripherals looked a lot like his career numbers. So we must ask the question, was Nova actually good or did he merely get lucky?

Part of the answer is that Nova’s second half peripherals are a bit deceiving, in that they’re arbitrary end points. If you look at his peripherals from the time of his return from the DL, a bit less arbitrary in nature, his peripherals look a bit better. Then there’s the issue of peripherals not being a true measure of a pitcher’s ability. Some pitchers are better at inducing poor contact, meaning they’ll out-perform their peripherals. Other issues play roles, including focus and recovery.

All of that is a long way of saying that it’s incredibly difficult to judge whether a pitcher is lucky or good based on a single season, never mind a portion of a season. Add in Nova’s inconsistent performances for the last few years, and he becomes even more of a mystery. We’ve seen him pitch like one of the best in the league, and we’ve seen him pitch like a guy who will scramble for minor league deals in his late 20s. How could we possibly know which Nova pitches for the Yankees in 2014?

We can leave that speculation for another time, when we’re bored in January and February. For now we can reflect on Nova’s 2013 and how his resurgence helped make the season enjoyable for that much longer. The pitching staff, considered a strength before the season, broke down as CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes got knocked around start after start. Nova stepped up mid-season and gave the Yankees quality innings every fifth day. Without him, they wouldn’t have remained in contention for as long as they had, and they could have been staring down their first losing season since 1992.

Instead Nova did answer the challenge, not only salvaging some respectability in 2013, but giving the team hope for 2014 and beyond. In a season when so many things went wrong, Nova was one of the bright spots.

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Sorting through the Yankees’ top trade chips

(Denis Poroy/Getty)
(Denis Poroy/Getty)

The offseason has yet to really get underway, but there has already been talk of the Yankees going on a big spending spree to address their many needs this winter. I’m not sure where that money is coming from after putting together my most recent payroll breakdown, but that’s besides the point. New York has been connected to a ton of free agents so far, both big names like Brian McCann and Shin-Soo Choo and secondary players like Eric Chavez and Omar Infante. Needless to say, they’re getting around.

Free agency is the easiest way to address needs but it’s not the only way. The Yankees could also explore the trade market, a trade market that will reportedly feature high-end starters like Max Scherzer and David Price, young middle infielders like Jurickson Profar and Elvis Andrus, and pretty much everything in between. The trade market is like free agency — there’s a solution for every roster problem available if you’re willing to meet the asking price.

Therein lies the rub: the Yankees can’t meet too many asking prices these days. Not won’t meet asking prices, can’t. They don’t have many tradeable commodities either on the big league roster or in the farm system, and last winter’s Justin Upton trade talks showed how that can handicap them. The Diamondbacks reportedly did not like the prospects New York had to offer, so the young, power-hitting outfielder signing to a reasonable contract went to the Braves instead.

“I just don’t see it,” said one rival executive to Andy McCullough when asked whether the Yankees had the prospect inventory to swing a major trade this offseason. “I’m not excited about any of them making an impact next year,” added another evaluator while discussing the team’s top prospects while describing them as “solid guys, but not stars.”

The Yankees do have limited trade commodities right now but they aren’t completely devoid of marketable players. Some are just more marketable than others, or, as Brian Cashman likes to say, no one is unavailable but some are more available that others. Here’s a highly subjective rundown of New York’s best trade chips. Remember, at the end of the day, a player’s trade value is only as great as the other team’s evaluation of him.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Best Chip: Ivan Nova
In my opinion, Nova is the team’s best trade chip at this point in time. He turns 27 in January and has shown flashes of brilliance over the last three years. Ivan has not yet put together a full, productive season from start to finish, but he’s had stretches that make you think he could be very good if things ever completely click. It’s also worth noting Nova has thrown at least 150 innings every year since 2010 and at least 130 innings every year since 2008. Teams do value the ability to take the ball every fifth day.

Nova’s trade value is not as great as it was a year or two ago because he’s entering his arbitration years and is no longer dirt cheap, like league minimum dirt cheap. His projected $2.8M salary in 2014 is still a relative bargain, but trading for a guy owed $15M or so over the next three years isn’t as desirable as trading for the same guy when he is owed $16M or so over five years. This isn’t Nova’s fault obviously and getting three cheap years of a durable right-hander is still pretty awesome, but his years of team control are ticking away and he’s yet to really establish himself as … anything. He’s still a question mark.

Rentals: Brett Gardner and David Robertson
Both Gardner and Robertson are due to become free agents next winter, meaning they’re just rental players. Both will earn reasonable salaries next year — Gardner is projected for $4M, Robertson for $5.5M — and they both have their limitations on the field. Gardner is a defense-first outfielder who doesn’t hit for power and doesn’t steal as many bases as people think he can. Robertson is a late-inning reliever, meaning you’re only get 65 or so innings out of him. He’s a very good late-inning reliever of course, but one year of a reliever usually doesn’t fetch a huge package in return. The Yankees could flip these two for solid prospects or a similar rental player, but they’re not going to get that elite prospect or young big leaguer with several years of control remaining.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Warm Bodies: David Phelps and Adam Warren (maybe Vidal Nuno)
There will always be a market for cheap and young pitching. Phelps and Warren have four and five years of team control remaining, respectively, and they’ve had varying levels of success in the show. They’re far from established but have shown they belong in some capacity, either as back-end starters or relievers. Nuno has six full years of control left but is basically a complete unknown at the big league level. He is as close to ready as a pitcher can get, however. Every team needs cheap young arms to fill out a staff, but these guys are okay second and good third pieces in a significant trade, not centerpieces. Far from it.

Prospects: Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott, J.R. Murphy and Rafael DePaula
Baseball has become a young player’s game these last five or six years or so, but I think we’ve reached the point where prospects and (especially) draft picks are being overvalued. Don’t get me wrong, they’re important and you need them to succeed, but they’re being valued higher than established big leaguers and that isn’t always the case. Not even close.

Anyway, Sanchez and Murphy are probably the Yankees’ two best prospect trade chips because a) Sanchez is their very best prospect, and b) Murphy is a big league ready-ish catcher. Quality young catchers are very hard to find and teams have consistently shown they will overpay — either in trades or by reaching in the draft — to get their hands on one. DePaula is the team’s best pitching prospect but he’s still in Single-A ball. Heathcott had an up-and-down season in Double-A but has a lengthy injury history. High ceiling but also high risk. Sanchez and Murphy could headline a package for a non-star player, but Heathcott and DePaula are closer to throw-ins in the grand scheme of things.

Suspects: Tyler Austin, Mason Williams, and Jose Ramirez
Injury of ineffectiveness — Austin, Williams, and Ramirez all had down 2013 seasons for one of those two reasons. Sometimes both. They’re basically buy low candidates, prospects with considerable ceilings who either need to get healthy or fix their mechanics or have their attitude adjusted. If I was another club and talking trade with the Yankees, these are the guys I would be asking for as the final piece in a trade package. Take a shot on one without the deal hinging on their success. There are too many question marks for any of them to be the top guy in a deal for an established big leaguer at this point. I just don’t see how another club would go for that.

MLBTR’s Projected Arbitration Salaries

Nova's going to start making big bucks in 2014. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Nova’s going to start making decent bucks in 2014. (Leon Halip/Getty)

As we spend far too much time trying to figure out how the Yankees will rebuild themselves into a contender while staying under the $189M luxury tax threshold next season, there has always been one great big unknown throwing a wrench into things: arbitration salaries. These go to players with more than three years but fewer than six years of service time; the guys who have been in the league long enough to earn a decent salary but not long enough to qualify for free agency.

Arbitration salaries are very tough to pin down (or estimate, for that matter) but can be substantial in some cases, especially as the player moves closer to free agency. Thankfully, Matt Swartz developed an insanely accurate model — it’s been within 5% or so overall — for projecting arbitration salaries, and the information has been available at MLBTR these last three years. Projections for the Yankees’ seven arbitration-eligible players were released over the weekend:

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Update: Here are the updated projections. Only Robertson’s changed.

Nova ($2.22M raise), Robertson ($2.4M), and Gardner ($1.15M) are all projected to receive healthy raises from last season. The other four guys are projected to receive $640k salary increases or less. Nova is arbitration-eligible for the very first time, meaning he’s coming off what amounts to a league minimum salary in 2013. I have to think that’s a pretty great moment for a young-ish player — that first year of arbitration, when your annual salary goes from mid-six-figures to several million bucks.

Anyway, at the projected salaries, I think both Nix and Stewart are obvious non-tender candidates, meaning the Yankees should cut them loose and allow them to become free agents rather than pay that salary. Nix is a perfectly fine utility infielder who played way too much this past season, when he earned $900k. The projected $1.4M is a real stretch for me. If he’s willing to re-sign with the team for $1M or so, great. If not, move on. There are better ways to spend $1.4M, especially considering the team’s self-imposed budget constraints. Same goes for Stewart. No way should the Yankees pay him a seven-figure salary in 2014. That’s madness.

So, assuming the Yankees non-tender Nix and Stewart but keep everyone else, their arbitration class projects to cost $14.8M next season. They currently have six players under contract with a combined $84.9M “tax hit” for 2014 and that includes Alex Rodriguez, who may or may not be suspended. It doesn’t include Derek Jeter, who figures to pick up his player option. So, between the guys under contract and the arbitration-eligible players, the Yankees have eleven players slated to earn $99.7M in 2014, pending decisions by Jeter and the arbitrator overseeing A-Rod‘s appeal.

That leaves the team with roughly $77.3M to spend on the 29 remaining 40-man roster spots (plus leaving space for midseason additions) when you factor in ~$12M or so for player benefits, which count against the tax. If A-Rod is suspended for the entire season, it’ll be $104.8M for 30 remaining roster spots. That sounds like a lot, but remember, Jeter and the inevitable Robinson Cano contract will soak up about $35M of that leftover money all by themselves. Without A-Rod but with Cano and Jeter, it’s more like $70M for 28 roster spots plus midseason additions. Doable, certainly, but that $300M spending spree might be more myth that reality.

Nova thinks he may have been tipping pitches against Red Sox

Via Chad Jennings: Ivan Nova believes he was tipping his pitches during his two recent and ineffective starts against the Red Sox. “Sometimes you put [the glove] like this (sideways), sometimes you put it like that (straight up and down),” said Nova. “You don’t try to stay in one position. I don’t know if that was the problem, but I was watching the video and sometimes I do [change the glove] a little bit.”

Chris Stewart agreed Nova could have been tipping his pitches, but yesterday’s complete-game shutout was more about attacking hitters than anything else. “Could have been (tipping pitches in Boston),” said the backstop. “They were spitting on some good pitches. But he also threw a lot more strikes today, it felt like, and he was attacking the hitter a lot more. I think that was the difference … Whether they knew what was coming in Boston or not, who knows, but hopefully we get a chance to play them in the playoffs and he gets a chance to redeem himself.”

Nova, 26, has a 3.13 ERA and 3.42 FIP in 132.1 innings this season while battling an on-and-off triceps issue. It certainly seems plausible that he was tipping his pitches against Boston based on the at-bats they were having against him. As I said in the game recap two weeks ago, they did such a good job laying off his curveball that it seemed like they knew it was coming. Turns out they might actually have. Hopefully Nova and pitching coach Larry Rothschild cleaned up the sloppiness and it won’t be an issue going forward.

Update: Nova feels good following between-starts bullpen

5:06pm: Nova threw his usual between-starts bullpen session and told Dan Barbarisi that he felt fine. He expects to start as scheduled on Sunday but the Yankees have not yet made any kind of final announcement. I don’t think they will make an announcement, actually. The announcement would be come if Nova is not starting. So no news is good news.

12:30pm: Via George King: It is unclear if Ivan Nova will be able to make his scheduled start on Sunday due to the right triceps tightness that forced him to leave Tuesday’s game after only 79 pitches. “It’s not easy to tell if I am pitching [Sunday] … I am letting my arm get refreshed to see where I am at. I want to go,” said Nova while Joe Girardi added the team’s plan “is for him to make his next start.”

Nova, 26, said the triceps has been bothering him for about a month now. He spent about a month on the DL with a triceps issue earlier this season, so this isn’t necessarily something that just popped up. Nova has pitched very well overall (3.17 ERA and 3.36 FIP) but has labored a bit in his last five or six starts, which could easily be due to the triceps problem. The Yankees don’t have many rotation alternatives, so if Nova needs to skip his start or be pushed back, it’ll likely be Adam Warren or David Huff on Sunday. I guess Brett Marshall is in the mix as well.