There’s a lot at stake with Nova’s return to the rotation


Last night, Ivan Nova made his first start in place of the injured CC Sabathia, and it went … okay. Not great, not bad. He was serviceable. One run on six hits and a walk in 4.2 innings isn’t awful, especially since he was on a pitch limit. That’s about as good as you can expect from your sixth starter in his first start out of the bullpen.

“It was a good night for me. I faced the last batter and saw 81 pitches and I knew I was coming out,” said Nova to Dan Martin after the game. Joe Girardi added, “He did a tremendous job. I hated that I had to pull him out. I was hoping he would get a double play with the last batter to get the win, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Sabathia beat out Nova for the fifth starter’s job in Spring Training and he’s been pretty good in the early going. The Yankees hope he can return following the minimum 15 days on the DL, but that’s no guarantee, so Nova is in the rotation for the foreseeable future. There’s quite a bit at stake here in the meantime.

  1. Wins. Duh. If Nova pitches poorly, the Yankees probably won’t win because the offense has been stinky. The team needs all the wins they can get right now.
  2. A Rotation Spot. Nova may be replacing Sabathia, but that does not necessarily mean he’ll automatically go back to the bullpen when CC is activated. Nova wants to make the Yankees think long and hard about sending Luis Severino to Triple-A.
  3. Trade Value. This is more relevant to the Yankees than Nova. The better Ivan pitches, the more the team could get for him in a trade at the deadline if it comes to that.
  4. Free Agent Stock. This is more relevant to Nova than the Yankees. Nova’s going to be a free agent after the season, so the better he pitches, the more he can demand on the open market.

This stint in the rotation, however long it may be, is a big opportunity for Nova. He has a lot to gain as an impending free agent. Ivan has to pitch well to keep his rotation spot and maximize his free agent stock. And, ironically, pitching well could land him in another uniform via trade come July.

Money is a great motivator, and by MLB player standards, Nova hasn’t made much of it in his career. His career earnings check in at a bit under $9M, so you know he’s hoping to land that huge payday after the season. Pitching well during this stint as Sabathia’s replacement is Nova’s first step in building free agent value.

The Yankees tried and failed to trade Nova over the winter and I think that’s a good thing. He wasn’t good last season and his trade value was at an all-time low. I think he is more valuable as a depth arm than anything he could have realistically fetch in a trade. They’re fortunate they have him now with Severino struggling and Bryan Mitchell hurt, and the possibility exists for him to increase his value. Moving Nova for the sake of moving him never did make much sense to me.

For now, Nova is in the rotation and he’s still getting stretched back out. The single most important thing at the moment is winning games. The Yankees dug themselves quite a hole and need Nova to do more than hold down the fort. They need him to thrive to help them make up ground. And if he does thrive, that’s opens a lot of doors, both in the rotation and in terms of trade and free agent value.

Stephen Strasburg’s extension and the Yankees

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg managed to agree to a contract extension in the middle of a start last night. While he was on the mound against the Tigers, news broke Strasburg and the Nats had a seven-year extension in place. The deal is worth $175M and includes opt-outs after the third and fourth years. The contract will be made official later today.

Massive contracts like this change the baseball landscape. Strasburg was on track to become a free agent after the season and pretty much every team with money to burn and a hole in their rotation was going to be interested. The Nationals opened their wallets and paid up. If nothing else, their fans now a least have some hope they will do the same with Bryce Harper in a few years. For now, here are some ways the Strasburg deal affects the Yankees.

Wow Does The Free Agent Pitching Class Stink

Strasburg was, by far, the best pitcher scheduled to become a free agent after the season. I wasn’t expecting the Yankees to make a run at him or any other big name free agent — that might not happen until they reset their luxury tax rate — but you can never truly rule this team out on free agents. What if they win 70 games and finish in last place? Would it surprise anyone if the Yankees respond by spending $400M in free agency? Nah.

The Yankees need pitching the same way every team needs pitching. With Strasburg off the board, here is a quick list of the best starters scheduled to become free agents after the season (full list):

Clay Buchholz
Andrew Cashner
Bartolo Colon
R.A. Dickey
Jeremy Hellickson
Rich Hill
Mat Latos

There are some options and opt-outs that can come into play (Gio Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Derek Holland, Edinson Volquez are the notables) but that’s the list. You really have to squint your eyes to find a difference maker in that group. I’m really surprised Strasburg and Scott Boras decided to forego free agent with that class. He might have gotten $200M on the open market.

The Yankees have quite a bit of money coming off the books after the season and spending on a free agent starter to beef up the rotation seemed possible. Maybe not a huge money deal, but a little something, you know? Now that Strasburg is off the board, there’s going to be much more competition for the mid-range arms. Someone’s going to end up betting a lot of money on Buchholz and Cashner not being enigmas going forward.

The Trade Market: As Buyers

Because the free agent pitching market looks so weak, expect the trade circuit to be busy. No team has too much pitching, but some have more pitching than others, and a few of those clubs figure to cash in an extra arm as a trade chip. The Dodgers, Mets, Nationals, Braves, and Indians stand out as candidates to move a pitcher. Sonny Gray is going to be the big name. Jose Fernandez too. Expect to hear a lot of Gray and Fernandez rumors over the next, I dunno, eight months or so.

The Yankees have exactly one starter under control beyond next season (Luis Severino) assuming Masahiro Tanaka opts out, so they’ll be one of the many clubs looking for pitching this coming offseason. They always are. They were looking for pitching this past offseason, remember. Teams looking for an impact pitcher can’t turn to free agency with Strasburg signed. The Yankees will have more competition on the trade market, which seems to be their preferred way to acquire talent nowadays. Not great, Bob.

The Trade Market: As Sellers

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

On the other side of the coin, the Yankees will potentially be in position to take advantage of the seller’s trade market. Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda will be free agents after next season. The Yankees would be foolish not to see what those two could fetch in trades this offseason. Some team could look at Pineda, see a guy with ace ceiling, and pay big. Same with Eovaldi.

Pineda and Eovaldi are both reasonably young. They both have sexy peripherals, they both have big time stuff, and there’s a chance to get a draft pick when they do become free agents. That makes both very desirable in trades. If the Yankees do not plan to sign either long-term term, they owe it too themselves to put them out on the trade market and try to get a nice return this winter. It’s not necessarily about selling to rebuild. It’s about maximizing assets. Pitching will be at a premium.

The Tommy John Discount?

This past offseason Jordan Zimmermann became the first pitcher to sign a $100M+ deal after having Tommy John surgery. (Shin-Soo Choo was the first to do it overall.) Strasburg is the second, and he blew away Zimmermann’s deal. There is no doubt Tommy John surgery presents certain risks going forward, even for guys like Zimmermann and Strasburg, who have thrown hundreds of innings since having their elbows rebuilt.

Both Strasburg and Zimmermann signed deals that were probably smaller than most expected. Heck, I thought Strasburg and Boras were going to try to eclipse David Price’s pitching record $217M deal because he’s a few years younger and the market was less saturated. So many pitchers are having Tommy John surgery early in their careers that now these guys are hitting free agency in their late-20s and early-30s, their prime years. It’s not just the old workhorses getting new elbow ligaments.

The Strasburg and Zimmermann contracts could indicate there is some sort of discount applied to pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery. That’s relevant to the Yankees because Eovaldi and Ivan Nova are due to hit free agency soon, and both have the zipper. Is it possible elbow reconstruction means it would be cheaper to re-sign those two? Two data points like Strasburg and Zimmermann doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, really. It’s just an observation.

* * *

Like I said, I wasn’t expecting the Yankees to be a serious player for Strasburg after the season. His signing does change the pitching landscape though, both the free agent and trade market, and that will affect the Yankees. Fewer available quality starters means more competition, and it also may represent an opportunity to turn players like Pineda and Eovaldi into other assets.

Yankeemetrics: Oh (no), Canada [April 12-14]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Blast + bloop = win
The Yankees struck first in their 19-game battle with the Blue Jays, grinding out a 3-2 win on Tuesday night. It also was their best run prevention game of the young season as it marked the first time in 2016 they held their opponent under four runs. The only other seasons in the last 65 years that the Yankees allowed four-or-more runs in each of their first five games were 1998 and 2007.

Brian McCann‘s hot bat fueled the come-from-behind win with a game-tying homer in the sixth inning. That was the 10th run he scored this season, joining Yogi Berra (1950) as the only Yankee catchers with than many runs scored through the team’s first six games.

Jacoby Ellsbury delivered the game-winner with an RBI bloop single in the seventh frame. He’s now already matched the number of go-ahead hits in the seventh inning or later that he had in the entire 2015 season. The last Yankee centerfielder with a tie-breaking hit in the seventh inning or later in Toronto was Bernie Williams on the final day of the 2004 season.

Masahiro Tanaka battled through five innings, and was dominant at times (six strikeouts) while also struggling to command his pitches (four walks).

tanaka vs blue jays

Despite his inefficiency, that effort continued a string of solid starts at the Rogers Centre for Tanaka. He’s now allowed no more than two earned runs and struck out at least six batters in three straight road outings against the Blue Jays. Just two other Yankee pitchers have done that: David Cone (1997-99) and Andy Pettitte (1996-98).

Super-Nova meltdown
Based on his implosion in Wednesday’s 7-2 loss, it seems like Ivan Nova is still trying to figure out this whole bullpen thing. After throwing four scoreless innings in his first relief appearance last week, Nova did a complete-180 and suffered through a disaster outing in his second try.

This was the damage: five hits, four runs, one wild pitch, one hit batter. Seems hard to cram all of that in one inning pitched, eh? Yup. Nova became the only Yankee pitcher since at least 1913 to plunk a guy, throw a wild pitch and give up at least five base-hits while getting three outs or fewer in a game.

Pineda’s results – three runs allowed (two earned) in six innings – were good, not great, but the most troubling takeaway was his three walks. The 27-year-old had never walked more than two batters in a Yankee uniform and his last appearance with three-plus walks was August 15, 2011 with the Seattle Mariners.

His streak of 41 straight starts with the Yankees allowing two walks or fewer was the longest by any pitcher in franchise history over the last 100 seasons. And his streak of 46 straight starts overall with no more than two walks was the seventh-longest by any major-league pitcher in that span.

A-Rod wasn’t the only Yankee to go hitless on the night, but his 0-fer performance might be the most notable — though it should have hardly been surprising given who was on the mound for Toronto. He is now 0-for-12 against Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ, his most at-bats (12) and plate appearances (15) without a hit against any pitcher he’s faced in his career.

Nate the Not-So-Great
So maybe the Yankees left their bats at border control. For the third time in this three-game series, the Yankees offense went into hibernation as they were held to two runs on three hits in the 4-2 loss. They are now 4-4 this season, and have scored a total of seven runs in their four losses compared to 35 runs in their four wins.

Nathan Eovaldi started strong, allowing just two hits and no runs the first two times through the Blue Jays order. Then it all fell apart. Five of the final 11 batters he faced reached base, tagging him for four runs on five hits (three doubles, two homers) before he was pulled in the seventh inning.

On the other hand, Eo-nigma (?) did strike out eight batters, his sixth straight start with seven-or-more punch outs dating back to August of last year. The only longer streaks in franchise history are by CC Sabathia (twice, in 2011 and 2009), Mike Mussina (2003) and Ron Guidry (1978).

Blue Jays designated hitter (and Yankee killer) Edwin Encarnacion also etched his name in the pinstriped record books. He’s now reached base safely in 26 straight games versus the Yankees, tied with Alex Rios (2006-08) for the best such mark by any Blue Jays hitter ever against the team.

Checking in on Ivan the Reliever

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

The choice facing Joe Girardi for whom to pick for the fifth starter’s spot was not necessarily an easy choice; however, it wasn’t actually that consequential either; he Yankees’ season will likely not hinge on how the fifth starter performs and the differences between CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova as starters in 2016 are not big enough to make any decision horribly wrong or unequivocally right.  Both pitchers have had one appearance thus far and both have made their manager look pretty wise, small sample size caveats in tow.

Yesterday, Sabathia became the first Yankee starter to complete six innings in his win over the Tigers. Last Wednesday, Ivan Nova took over for a shaky Michael Pineda and earned a save in the Bombers’ 16-6 win over the Astros. He allowed four hits and one walk while striking out five across his four innings of work. As the defacto long reliever/this year’s Adam Warren, that’s exactly the type of performance the team is looking to get out of Nova and he delivered. So, how did he do it? To toot my own horn, he took my advice.

Back in January, I wondered about the possibility of Ivan Nova being highly successful in the bullpen given his repertoire of pitches. I ended the piece saying:

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.

Apparently, Ivan listened. In that relief appearance last Wednesday, Nova relied primarily on his sinker and his curveball; he threw 32 of the former and 13 of the latter. The sinker netted him a 75% grounder per balls-in-play rate and the curve got him an 80% whiff-per-swing rate. I’m a genius, huh? In all seriousness, this approach isn’t rocket science and it’s one that’ll make him successful as a reliever. The fewer pitches he uses, though, the more likely he is to run into trouble if one of them isn’t working. Still, if he’s a reliever, he won’t be turning the lineup over more than once–maybe one and a half times–and that can help mask the problem.

Given his background as a starter, it’s not likely that Nova will be deployed in a mid-inning situation. However, his appearance against the Astros shows that his arsenal makes him well-equipped to handle those situations. Even out of the bullpen, his sinker is still getting ground balls and his curve is still getting swings-and-misses. Ivan the Reliever is an experiment born out of necessity, but after one trial run, it seems like it’s one that could set up both the team and the player for success.

Yankees officially set 2016 Opening Day roster


Tomorrow afternoon — weather permitting — the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season against the same team and in the same place their 2015 season ended: at Yankee Stadium against the Astros. Opening Day is just another game in the grand scheme of things, but it absolutely has symbolic value, and besides, everyone wants to start the new year with a win.

Earlier today the Yankees officially announced their Opening Day roster. The deadline to file the roster with MLB was 12pm ET this afternoon. The Opening Day roster offers no surprises. There were no last minute trades or waiver claims. Nothing like that. The roster is exactly as expected following all the roster moves over the last week or two. Here is the club’s Opening Day roster:

C Brian McCann
C Austin Romine (No. 27)

UTIL Dustin Ackley
2B Starlin Castro
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
1B Mark Teixeira
IF Ronald Torreyes (No. 17)

RF Carlos Beltran
LF Brett Gardner
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
OF Aaron Hicks (No. 31)

DH Alex Rodriguez

RHP Nathan Eovaldi
RHP Michael Pineda
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka

RHP Johnny Barbato (No. 26)
RHP Dellin Betances
RHP Luis Cessa (No. 85)
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP Chasen Shreve
RHP Kirby Yates (No. 39)

1B Greg Bird (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)
LHP Aroldis Chapman (restricted list, 30-game suspension)
RHP Bryan Mitchell (15-day DL retroactive to March 31st, broken toe)
OF Mason Williams (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)

Romine beat out Gary Sanchez and I guess Carlos Corporan for the backup catcher’s job. Torreyes beat out Pete Kozma and Rob Refsnyder for the backup infielder’s job, and Sabathia beat out Nova for the fifth starter’s spot. Barbato, Cessa, and Yates beat out a small army of relievers for spots on the Opening Day roster. They’re on the shuttle though; they could be send down for a fresh arm in short order.

Tanaka will start his second straight Opening Day tomorrow — Sabathia started six straight Opening Days prior to last year — and be followed in the rotation by Pineda, Eovaldi, Severino, and Sabathia in that order. Miller is going to pitch through the chip fracture in his right wrist, which is both admirable and awesome. After spending all winter talking about the team’s super-bullpen, the Yankees were dangerously close to starting the season with only one of their three elite relievers.

Chapman will return on May 9th, in the 31st game of the season. Bird is done for the season, Mitchell will miss a minimum of three months, and I’m not quite sure how long Williams will be sidelined. He’s been hitting and throwing at Tampa, so I assume his return is weeks away, not months. Chapman’s suspension means the Yankees have an open 40-man roster spot. Bird and Mitchell are 60-day DL candidates whenever more spots are needed.

Okay, that was entirely too many words about an Opening Day roster with zero surprises. Hooray for baseball being back. Go team.

Joe Girardi names CC Sabathia fifth starter


As expected, Joe Girardi officially named CC Sabathia the fifth starter this afternoon, according to the various reporters with the Yankees in Miami. Ivan Nova will shift to the bullpen for the time being. Sometimes you can predict baseball, Suzyn.

Sabathia, who last pitched Tuesday, will pitch in an instrasquad game tomorrow in Tampa to stay sharp. He’ll then join the team in New York and start next Saturday’s game in Detroit. The rotation is officially Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino, and Sabathia in that order, not that the order really matters.

Nova did out-pitch Sabathia this spring, but Sabathia out-pitched Nova last year, plus he’s the veteran making $25M a year. Money talks. There were a ton of reasons not to believe the Yankees when they said the fifth starter’s spot would be decided by a true competition in Spring Training.

The way I see it, it’s only a matter of time until Nova winds up in the rotation anyway. Teams never make it through a season with only five starters, and the Yankees have a risky rotation. Tanaka (forearm), Pineda (forearm), Eovaldi (elbow), and Sabathia (knee) all missed time with injuries in 2015.

Girardi confirms Tanaka to start Opening Day; Romine and Cessa make roster


During this afternoon’s game broadcast on YES, Joe Girardi confirmed Masahiro Tanaka will indeed start Opening Day this coming Monday. He’s been lined up to start Opening Day all spring, so this isn’t a surprise. The Yankees dragged out the announcement for whatever reason. It will be Tanaka’s second straight Opening Day start.

The rotation behind Tanaka will be Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Luis Severino in that order, Girardi confirmed. The Yankees will pick between CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova for the fifth starter’s spot. Apparently that decision has not yet been made. Either that or the players have not been informed and the team is not ready to make the announcement.

Girardi also said both Luis Cessa and Austin Romine will make the Opening Day roster. The writing has been on the wall for Romine since Gary Sanchez was optioned to minor league camp last week. He’s had the inside track to be Brian McCann‘s backup for a while now. Romine has had a nice camp, and because he is out of options with a prior outright assignment, he could have elected free agent if he did not make the team.

Cessa, 23, came over from the Tigers this past offseason in the Justin Wilson trade. He allowed three runs on eight hits and two walks in ten innings this spring, and all three runs came in one of his five Grapefruit League outings. Cessa struck out ten. He’s a starter by trade and can give the team multiple innings. Interestingly, Girardi said Cessa made the team even before Bryan Mitchell went down with his broken toe.

In other roster news, Johnny Barbato told reporters in Tampa this morning he has been told he will make the team as well. The 23-year-old came over from the Padres in last year’s Shawn Kelley trade. He surrendered one run in 10.1 innings this spring, with 12 strikeouts and one one walk. Neither Barbato nor Cessa has pitched in the big leagues before, so the Yankees will have two true rookies in their Opening Day bullpen.

Earlier this week we learned Ronald Torreyes has indeed made the team as the backup infielder, beating out Pete Kozma. Here’s the roster at the moment:

McCann Ackley Beltran Tanaka Barbato Chapman (sus.)
Romine Castro Ellsbury Pineda Betances Bird (DL)
Gregorius Gardner Eovaldi Cessa Mitchell (DL)
DH (1) Headley Hicks Severino Shreve Williams (DL)
Rodriguez Teixeira CC or Nova CC or Nova
Torreyes Miller?

Andrew Miller is a question right now because he suffered a chip fracture yesterday when he took a line drive to the wrist. He intends to pitch through his wrist fracture, though we’ll see what happens later today, after he visits a specialist. It might not be a playable injury. Hopefully it is.

Mitchell’s injury created an open bullpen spot, which is that last ??? in the table under relievers. Kirby Yates and Anthony Swarzak are the only bullpeners still in big league camp and not on the Opening Day roster. Yates has out-pitched Swarzak this spring, so we’ll see if that’s enough to land him on the team. The Yankees could always bring someone back from minor league camp as well.