Archive for Vidal Nuno
Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple, straightforward, and totally subjective grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. We’ve already covered the catchers, infielders, and outfielders, so now let’s move on to the rotation.
Masahiro Tanaka — Grade A
I didn’t think it would be possible for Tanaka to meet, nevermind exceed expectations after the Yankees invested $175M in the 25-year-old right-hander this winter. A contract (and release fee) like that comes with ace-sized expectations and given everything he had to adjust to — five-day pitching schedule, new hitters, tougher parks, new culture, etc. — I didn’t think there was any chance he would pitch that well right away. I didn’t think he’d be bad, he’d be really good but there would be an adjustment period, right? How could there not be?
Well, there wasn’t. Tanaka showed up to Spring Training on the first day and looked like he had been wearing pinstripes for years. The transition was seamless, or at least he made it appear that way. He was all business from day one, embracing the five-day schedule and the new workout routines (remember all the running early in camp?). Tanaka was the position player of Hideki Matsui. The guy who fit in so well, so soon that it was like he was born to wear pinstripes.
Tanaka lived up to the hype on the field, of course. That’s most important. He has thrown 129.1 innings in 18 starts, and among the 45 AL pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Tanaka ranks third with a 2.51 ERA, third with 4.1 bWAR,, fourth with a 3.7% walk rate, fourth with a 7.1 K/BB ratio, fifth with a 26.6% strikeout rate, sixth with 3.2 fWAR, tenth with a 3.07 FIP, and 20th with a 45.9% ground ball rate. The only negative in his game is the long ball; he’ll give up some dingers (1.04 HR/9 and 14.4 HR/FB%). It’s a minor nuisance. Other than that though, Tanaka was one of the five best starting pitchers in the league in the first half.
Unfortunately, Tanaka suffered a partially torn elbow ligament in what was scheduled to be his second to last start before the All-Star break. Three doctors recommended he rehab the injury rather than undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery, so Tanaka received a platelet-rich plasma injection earlier this week and is currently resting before starting a throwing program. The expectation is that he will be able to return to the rotation later in the year, but surgery will remain a possibility if the rehab is less than perfect. It sucks but it is what it is. Tanaka managed to exceed expectations before the injury. What a stud.
CC Sabathia — Grade F
I was optimistic about Sabathia’s chances of rebounding this year, though I didn’t have much to base that on other than blind faith and Sabathia’s track record. I’m not even talking about getting back to being an ace. Just being a solid mid-rotation workhorse would have been plenty good enough for me. Instead, Sabathia gave the team a 5.28 ERA (4.79 FIP) in eight starts and 46 innings before going down with a degenerative knee condition. A stem cell procedure apparently did not work and now he’s facing the possibility of microfracture surgery, which could be career-threatening.
Rather than shake off the career worst 2013 season, Sabathia got worse and added in a serious injury this year. Not good. I mean, if you really want to squint your eyes and find a silver lining, know that his strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%) and walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%) rates were outstanding. That … really doesn’t make me feel much better at all. Maybe an incomplete would be a more appropriate grade given the injury (which might have led to the poor performance), but eight starts is one-fourth of the season. That’s not insignificant.
Anyway, Sabathia’s knee injury is very serious and remember, he’s only 33. We’re not talking about some guy approaching 40 here. Sabathia is still relatively young and an ultra-competitive type who leaves everything on the field — remember when he started four games in 12 days for the Brewers on the eve of his free agency? You’re kidding yourself if you think he’s just going to walk away from the game because of the knee injury — and now there’s a chance he may never pitch again. Like, for real.
Hiroki Kuroda — Grade C
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Kuroda coming into the season, specifically his age (39) and brutal finish to the 2013 season. The Yankees re-signed him though, and while he has not pitched as well as he did the last two years, Kuroda has given the team innings every fifth day and is the only Opening Day rotation member not to come down with an injury. His 4.10 ERA (3.91 FIP) can be split up into a 4.62 ERA (3.75 FIP) in his first eight starts and 48.2 innings and a 3.72 ERA (4.02 FIP) in his last eleven starts and 67.2 innings, if you choose.
With Tanaka and everyone else going down with injuries — for weeks too, these aren’t 15 days on the disabled list and you’re good to go type of injuries — the Yankees need Kuroda to remain that reliable innings eater in the second half. Actually, they need him to be better than that, which is a problem because of his late-season fades. The Yankees absolutely can not afford that this year, not if they want to contend. Kuroda is currently the staff ace by default and the team needs him to reverse his recent trends and be better in the second half than he was in the first.
Michael Pineda — Grade D
It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? Two years after the trade that brought him to New York, Pineda was finally healthy enough to help the Yankees, and he started the year by pitching to a 1.83 ERA (2.73 FIP) in four starts and 19.2 innings. He was an ace! An ace on a very strict pitch count (no more than 94 pitches or six full innings in his four starts), but an ace nonetheless. The Yankees were finally getting some kind of return on the trade and it was glorious.
Then it all came to a crashing halt in Fenway Park in late-April. Two starts after the internet caught him with a glob of pine tar on his hand, Pineda was caught with an even bigger glob of pine tar on his neck. Red Sox manager John Farrell did not let it slide this time. He alerted the umpires and Pineda was ejected and eventually suspended ten games. While serving the suspension, he suffered a back/shoulder muscle injury and has been sidelined since. He just started throwing off a mound last week (after the #obligatorysetback). Given his recent history, there’s no possible way the Yankees could count on Pineda to return to help the rotation in the second half. If he does come back, it’s a bonus. But man, those 19.2 innings were pretty awesome, weren’t they?
Ivan Nova — incomplete
I went back and forth between giving Nova an F or an incomplete. He did make four starts this year, after all. Four terrible starts, with 40 base-runners and an 8.27 ERA (6.91 FIP) in 20.2 innings. But he also blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery in late-April. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming the elbow contributed to his poor performance and that he was never really healthy this year. I don’t know, an F just seems too harsh for a guy that barely pitched before his elbow ligament snapped. Maybe I’m being too kind.
The Yankees lost Nova for the season and that’s a pretty significant blow. Not just for this year either, the timing of the injury means he will start next season on the disabled list and the team won’t really know what to expect from him. This is an injury that impacts two seasons, not only one. This was supposed to be the year for Nova to build on his strong second half of 2013 and stop the up and down nonsense, establishing himself as a no-doubt big league starter. That won’t happen.
David Phelps — Grade B
Once the injuries started to strike, Phelps worked his way into the rotation and has remained there ever since. He’s pitched to a 3.94 ERA (4.31 FIP) in 89 total innings, including a 3.96 ERA (4.08 FIP) in 13 starts and 77.1 innings since moving into the rotation. The Yankees have also been able to count on Phelps for innings — he’s thrown at least five full innings in all 13 starts (even before he was fully stretched out) and at least six full innings eight times in his last ten starts. That’s been much-needed.
There were some questions about Phelps and his ultimate role coming into the season — remember, he missed most of the second half last season with a pair of forearm strains — but things worked themselves out and he’s become one of the team’s three most reliable pitchers in the wake of the injuries. He’s been a godsend. You can’t ask anything more of a sixth starter. Now the Yankees need Phelps to keep it up in the second half. He’s in the rotation for good.
Chase Whitley — Grade C
It was definitely a tale of two first halves for Whitley. He came up following all the injuries and was outstanding in his first seven starts, posting a 2.56 ERA (2.75 FIP) in 28.2 innings. Considering he was a full-time reliever as recently as last July and the rotation was in total disarray, getting that kind of production out of Whitley was a minor miracle. The Yankees needed it desperately.
Then everything came crashing to a halt one night in Toronto last month, when the Blue Jays punished Whitley for eight runs in 3.1 innings. It wasn’t just a bump in the road either. He has a 9.43 ERA (6.14 FIP) in 21 innings since. (That includes two scoreless innings in relief.) After allowing eleven runs on 44 base-runners (one homer) in his first seven starts, Whitley has allowed 20 runs on 40 base-runners (five homers) in his last four starts. Those first seven starts were so good that I’m not going to go any lower than a C, especially since we’re talking about a guy who had never started regularly until this year. All things considered, Whitley’s been a plus even if he’ll only be a reliever going forward. He helped much more than I thought he would as a starter.
Vidal Nuno — Grade D
Nuno was actually the first guy to be pulled out of the bullpen and stuck in the rotation, but that had more to do with timing than anything. He was the only one rested and able to make a spot start because of a doubleheader in April, and he lined up perfectly to replace Nova after he blew out his elbow. That’s all. Nuno had a 5.42 ERA (5.18 FIP) in 78 total innings for the Yankees, including a 4.89 ERA (4.86 FIP) in 14 starts and 73.2 innings before being traded away two weeks ago. There were some good starts mixed in there and more than a few duds as well.
These two both joined the rotation last week. I mean literally. Greene made his first career start last Monday and McCarthy made his first start in pinstripes on Wednesday. Throw in Greene’s second start last Saturday and they’ve combined to allow six run (three earned) in 20.1 innings. They also have a combined 57.1% ground ball rate, which is pretty awesome even if it is a super small sample. Greene’s mid-90s sinker and upper-80s slider make me think he has more rotation staying power than either Nuno or Whitley, but, either way, we’ll see plenty more of these two in the second half.
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Any time a team loses four of its five Opening Day rotation members, including three within the first six weeks of the season, they’re going to be scrambling for pitching. No team has enough depth to go nine starters deep. The Yankees have been able to tread water thanks to Phelps and some timely outings from Whitley and Nuno, who have since been replaced by McCarthy and Greene. The team clearly needs another starter in the wake of Tanaka’s injury and, frankly, they could have used another starter before that. This is a patchwork staff held together by Kuroda, Phelps, and McCarthy at the moment, and there’s no telling how much longer the duct tape will hold.
The Yankees have added some much-needed rotation help, and it came very cheap. The team announced they have acquired right-hander Brandon McCarthy from the Diamondbacks in exchange for lefty Vidal Nuno. Buster Olney says Arizona will pay half of the $4.1M owed to McCarthy through the end of the season. The Yankees will pay the $1M assignment bonus in his contract.
Arizona comes into today with baseball’s worst record at 36-53, and GM Kevin Towers has made it clear in recent days that they will look to deal veterans for young players in the coming weeks. The D’Backs traded lefty reliever Joe Thatcher and outfielder Tony Campana to the Angels just yesterday. I’d expect them to make more moves before the trade deadline. McCarthy is due to become a free agent after the season, so this is a pure rental for the Yankees. It seems like a salary dump for the D’Backs more than anything.
“Quality stuff. Pounds the strike zone. Lots of ground balls, which helps at our Stadium,” said Brian Cashman to Joel Sherman when asked about the deal. “[David] Huff was better than we had and McCarthy was better than what we had, so we improve when we can.”
McCarthy, who turns 31 tomorrow, has a 5.01 ERA and 3.79 FIP in 18 starts and 109.1 innings this year. Homeruns have been a big problem (1.23 HR/9 and 20.0 HR/FB%) and that doesn’t figure to change in Yankee Stadium, but his strikeout (7.63 K/9 and 20.0 K%), walk (1.64 BB/9 and 4.3 BB%) and ground ball (55.3%) rates are all solid. Clearly the Yankees are hoping his .345 BABIP and 66.7% strand rate return to his career norms (.296 and 70.5%, respectively) and he pitches closer to his FIP than ERA the rest of the season.
I wrote about McCarthy as a possible trade target just the other day. He is going to give up some homers, that’s inevitable, but the D’Backs are one the few clubs with a worse team defense (.669 defensive efficiency) than the Yankees (.682), so New York’s porous infield and all their shifts might actually be an upgrade for him. Either way, Nuno set the bar rather low (5.42 ERA and 5.15 FIP). All McCarthy has to do is chew up innings every fifth day to be an upgrade, and that’s not necessarily a guarantee given his worrisome injury history. Here’s a wrote I few days ago:
The biggest concern with McCarthy, by far, is his injury history. He has stayed healthy this season but has otherwise visited the disabled list with a shoulder problem at least once every year from 2007-13. Only once since 2006 has McCarthy thrown more 135 innings in a season (180.2 in in 2011) and this year he is already at 104 innings. Maybe he’ll stay healthy, but, given his history, you have to think a disabled list stint is coming at some point.
Nuno, 26, opened the season as the long man and was initially pushed into the rotation by Ivan Nova‘s elbow injury in April. He remained a starter as CC Sabathia (knee) and Michael Pineda (shoulder) went down with their injuries. The Yankees plucked Nuno out of an independent league a few years ago, got about a hundred replacement level innings out of him, then turned him into a half-season of McCarthy. Not bad at all.
McCarthy last started on Thursday and, according to Dan Barbarisi, he told reporters in Arizona he will start for the Yankees on Wednesday. In that case the Yankees will need someone to make Nuno’s scheduled start tomorrow. Bruce Billings, who is currently in the clubhouse after being scratched from last night’s start with Triple-A Scranton, will not make that start according to Joe Girardi. He’s there to help the bullpen. Shane Greene is scheduled to start for Triple-A tomorrow and seems like the obvious choice to make the spot start. Masahiro Tanaka can then start on Tuesday on normal rest.
I think it’s important to note that while McCarthy figures to be an upgrade over Nuno, perhaps a substantial one, this move alone won’t put the Yankees over the top. It can’t be their only move if they truly want to contend. They need help at third base and in right field, plus another reliever to ease the burden on Dellin Betances and Adam Warren would help as well. Another starter shouldn’t be off the table either. Sabathia and Pineda aren’t coming back any time soon and Chase Whitley has hit the wall and hard. The Yankees got better today, but hopefully the McCarthy trade is not the only move they make.
In the span of three weeks from late-April through mid-May, the Yankees lost three-fifths of their Opening Day rotation to serious injury. Ivan Nova is done for the year following Tommy John surgery, CC Sabathia is out for at least another few weeks with a degenerative knee condition, and Michael Pineda has already suffered a setback while battling a muscle problem in his shoulder. The Yankees will be lucky to get either Sabathia or Pineda back before the All-Star break at this point.
The injuries have forced the team to dip deep into their pitching reserves. With Adam Warren entrenched as a late-inning setup man, the Yankees pulled both Vidal Nuno and David Phelps out of the bullpen and called up converted reliever Chase Whitley. Those three plus Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda have made up the Yankees’ rotation for about a month now. Needless to say, Nuno being third on the team in innings pitched (58) through 63 games was not part of the plan.
And yet, despite some ugly bumps in the road, the three replacement starters have actually done a pretty good job for the Yankees. At least on a rate basis. Here’s how the three have fared since moving into the rotation:
|Starts||Innings||IP per Start||ERA||FIP||K%||BB%||Opp. OPS|
Phelps has taken a pounding his last three starts (18 runs in 17.2 innings), but, even with that, the three replacement starters have a 4.13 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 119.2 innings. That’s pretty good. The average AL starter has a 4.08 ERA and 3.92 FIP this season, so these guys are in the neighborhood of league average. League average is good! Especially when taking about a team’s sixth, seventh, and eighth starters.
The issue isn’t necessarily their performance on a rate basis. The problem is the third column in the table, their innings per start. (I guess that’s technically the fourth column. Whatever.) These three are barely averaging 5.1 innings per start, which is a total drain on the bullpen. In their 22 combined starts, they’ve failed complete six innings 14 times. They’ve failed to complete five innings six innings. On average, Joe Girardi has had to ask his bullpen to get 11 outs whenever these guys pitch. That’s too much. We’re talking about three rotation spots here.
The Yankees have gotten 343 innings out of their starters this season, ninth most out of 15 AL teams. Their relievers have thrown the fifth most innings at 191.2, primarily because these three are not taking the ball deep into the game. Part of that is simple ineffectiveness, part of it is getting stretched out (Nuno and Phelps had to build up their pitch count when they first moving into the rotation), and part of it is Girardi’s reluctance to let them face the opposing lineup a third time. It’s all understandable, but it doesn’t lessen the demand on the bullpen.
I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: with three five-and-fly starters in the rotation, the Yankees need a veteran long man Girardi can abuse. Someone he can use for 40 pitches one night, 25 the next, and 55 two nights after that. Alfredo Aceves was that guy for a little while, but he stunk and now it’s Wade LeBlanc. I love Jose Ramirez and want to see him get a chance as much as the next guy, but not under those circumstances. Let someone who doesn’t have a future in the organization deal with that workload. It sounds cruel, but that’s baseball. Aceves and LeBlanc aren’t stupid, they know this might be their last chance to stay in MLB, so they’ll take the ball whenever asked.
The Yankees have gotten generally solid work from Whitley, Phelps, and Nuno, and, more than anything, the best way the team can help them is by scoring more runs. Score some more runs and Girardi will probably be more open to letting them face the lineup a third time, sparing the bullpen a bit. (Remember, the team handled Pineda careful early in the season, so he won’t exactly soak up innings whenever he gets healthy.) It would be nice if these three guys could start recording another two or three outs per start, but, considering the circumstances, they’ve been solid. The rotation situation could have really spun out of control following the injuries. These guys didn’t let it.
Through the first three weeks of the season, the starting rotation has been the clear strength of the Yankees’ roster. The lineup and bullpen have been solid overall too, don’t get me wrong, but the starting staff has really stood out to me. That rotation took a hit yesterday when it became all but official that Ivan Nova will have Tommy John surgery, ending his season. He was not particularly good before getting hurt but those are still some big shoes to fill. Nova has shown he can be excellent for weeks at a time.
The first opportunity to fill those shoes is going to Vidal Nuno, almost by default. The southpaw made a rainout/doubleheader necessitated spot start on Sunday and he lines up perfectly to fill Nova’s spot thanks to Monday’s off-day. Nuno pitched well on Sunday (five shutout innings against the Rays) and I’m sure the rotation outlook would look much different if he got bombed. It might be David Phelps or heck, even Al Aceves making the start if Sunday didn’t go well.
Nuno was part of the four-headed fifth starter competition in Spring Training but I felt he was the long shot. That he pitched so well in camp and was still the first one eliminated from the competition makes me think I wasn’t wrong. And yet, he somehow he is the first loser of that competition to land in the rotation during the regular season. Things just fell into place for him. Adam Warren has taken over as a key setup man and Phelps was needed in middle relief, leaving Nuno for the spot start. He took advantage on Sunday.
Joe Girardi didn’t mince words when announcing the 26-year-old Nuno would remain in the rotation — “He is our fifth starter now,” he said to reporters prior to last night’s game — and we all know Nova isn’t coming back anytime soon. That rotation spot is wide open and it’ll go to whoever performs the best. Nuno gets a head start on the in-house competition and that’s big. He has a chance to not give the other guys chances. If he pitches well, he’ll keep the job no questions asked. It’s the opportunity of a baseball lifetime.
Remember, Nuno is a former 48th round pick who was toiling away in an independent league before hooking on with New York a few years ago. He’s had to overcome some seriously long odds to get where he is — starting pitcher for the New York frickin’ Yankees! — and I doubt the magnitude of this opportunity is lost on him. Can his soft-ish tossing ways allow him to turn over a lineup multiple times every fifth day in the AL East? Maybe, maybe not. He’s going to get a chance to show everyone if it does despite looking like little more than the team’s eighth starter just three weeks ago.
The Yankees got some very bad pitching news over the weekend. Ivan Nova left Saturday’s start with a sore elbow, and a subsequent MRI revealed a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. He will be re-evaluated in New York today and, based on how these things have gone for other pitchers around the league, it’s very likely Nova will need Tommy John surgery in the near future. The procedure would end his season and delay the start of his 2015 campaign as well.
Nova was the team’s least effective pitcher so far this season — that could be the result of the injury, of course — so the Yankees will only have to replace their fifth starter. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a big loss or anything like that, but there’s a difference between losing Nova and losing one of the other starters. This blow is easier to absorb. What can the Yankees do to replace Nova? Several things, actually. Let’s look at this two different ways.
The Yankees have already placed Nova on the 15-day DL, so even if today’s re-evaluation brings best case scenario news, he’s going to miss a minimum of two starts. (Off-days could help the team out a bit.) Vidal Nuno pitched well in yesterday’s spot start (five scoreless innings) and today’s off-day allows him to step right into Nova’s rotation spot, if the team decides to go that way. I have to think they will based on yesterday’s work.
The other options on the big league roster are Adam Warren and David Phelps, both of whom competed for the fifth starter’s job in camp. Warren has settled into a one-inning setup role and even though the season is barely three weeks old, I think he’s there to stay. Even with David Robertson due to come off the DL tomorrow. Phelps has become more of a multi-inning, multi-purpose reliever. He works the middle innings, the late innings, whatever is needed. Kinda like 2009 Al Aceves. Both Warren and Phelps would need to be stretched back out, unlike Nuno.
The Triple-A options aren’t very good. The RailRiders have a mostly veteran retread rotation, and the only guy on the staff with any kind of big league success is, well, Al Aceves. He was last effective in 2011. I can’t imagine others like Brian Gordon, Bruce Billings, and Chris Leroux will get serious rotation consideration. Same with Manny Banuelos. (Billings has been quite good actually, with a 2.74 ERA and 2.67 FIP in 23 innings.) I can’t see any of these guys getting the nod over Nuno or Phelps right now. If anything, Aceves could be called up to fill a bullpen job, but that’s probably it. Nuno seems like the guy right now.
If Nova does indeed go down for the rest of the season — even avoiding surgery and successfully rehabbing the injury will sideline him for weeks if not months — I think the Yankees have to consider making a trade to bolster their rotation. Remember, Michael Pineda is going to have his workload monitored closely following shoulder surgery, plus we don’t really know what to expect out of Masahiro Tanaka late in the season now that he’s starting every fifth day for the first time in his life. Plus Hiroki Kuroda has shown a tendency to wear down late in the year. Adding some rotation help is never a bad idea.
When looking for trade candidates, the easiest thing to do is find impending free agents on non-contenders. There are fewer sellers at the deadline these days because of the second wildcard spot, so the pool of available players really shrinks. Teams like the Diamondbacks (Brandon McCarthy?), Astros (Jerome Williams?), and Cubs (Jason Hammel?) seem like safe bets to be terrible. The Marlins (Kevin Slowey?), Rockies (Jorge De La Rosa?), and Padres (Eric Stults?) are other potential sellers.
The big rotation trade candidate is the same guy it’s been for about three years now: Cliff Lee. We know the Yankees love him, he remains among the game’s truly elite pitchers, and at this point there is only ~$45M left on his contract through next year. It’s not a huge long-term commitment. (His deal does include a vesting option for 2016.) Lee is someone any team would love to add to their staff and he’d be ultra-overqualified to replace Nova. Even if the Phillies decide to sell, do the Yankees have the prospects to compete against offers from clubs like the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Rangers?
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The upcoming rotation situation would have been much murkier had Nuno gotten bombed yesterday. But, because he pitched well, he’ll likely get another chance or three to fill-in for Nova. And who knows? Maybe Nuno is the long-term solution. If not, the Yankees can try Phelps. A trade is something I think they should consider no matter how well those two perform, but that can wait. It’s early in the season and the Yankees can afford to be patient with their internal options. Nova did not pitch well in his first four starts this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be easy to replace.
The bullpen for the start of the 2014 season is set. Joe Girardi announced that Dellin Betances and Vidal Nuno have won the last two spots and will join David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, David Phelps, and Adam Warren in the bullpen. Robertson, of course, is replacing Mariano Rivera as closer. The bench has not yet been finalized.
Betances, 26, moved into the bullpen full-time last May and his career took off after years of command issues. He pitched to a 2.08 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 28 walks in 65 total relief innings between Triple-A and MLB last season, and this spring he’s allowed only one run with eleven strikeouts and four walks in 12.1 innings. Betances, who lives and dies with his mid-90s fastball and hard curveball, figures to cut his teeth in middle relief before possibly assuming greater responsibility.
The 26-year-old Nuno had a 2.25 ERA in 20 big league innings last summer before suffering a season-ending groin injury. He allowed three runs in eight innings this spring, walking one and striking out eight. Girardi could use Nuno as a matchup left-hander or a multi-inning guy, so the bullpen has some added flexibility. I think the best case scenario for Nuno is a lefty version of 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed reliever who can face one batter or throw four innings if need be.
The Yankees start the season with 13 games in 13 days, so having three stretched out relievers in Phelps, Warren, and Nuno allows them to take it easy on Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda out of the gate. Tanaka is transitioning from a seven-day schedule to a five-day schedule while Pineda is returning from shoulder surgery. Girardi, who is very good at getting the most out of his relievers, has insisted they would take the 12 best arms for the bullpen and that’s pretty much exactly what they’ve done.
As of right now, with a little less than two weeks to go before Opening Day in Houston, the Yankees have not tipped their hand about the fifth starter’s spot. One some days it seems Michael Pineda is the frontrunner, on others it seems to be David Phelps. Then Vidal Nuno chucks four one-hit innings against the Orioles’ mostly-regular lineup to re-enter the conversation. Adam Warren has allowed two runs while striking out nine in 8.2 innings this spring. No one has pitched themselves out of consideration yet.
Having four possible starters for one rotation spot is one of those “good problems” people like to talk about. It’s not really a problem of course, pitching depth is a wonderful thing to have. The baseball gods have taken it upon themselves to remind teams and fans of that the (very) hard way over the last week or so. Look at this recent run of pitching injuries:
- Sunday, March 9th: Kris Medlen of the Braves left his start holding his elbow. After getting a second opinion, he is having his second Tommy John surgery in the last four years this morning.
- Monday, March 10th: Medlen’s teammate Brandon Beachy left his start with what is called biceps tightness. Tests show ligament damage and he is likely headed for his second Tommy John surgery in the last three years.
- Friday, March 14th: Jarrod Parker of the Athletics was scratched from his start with a forearm issue. A visit to Dr. James Andrews revealed a torn ligament. He needs a second Tommy John procedure after having his first in 2009.
- Saturday, March 15th: Diamondbacks’ ace and native New Yorker Patrick Corbin left his start with elbow pain and is currently deciding between Tommy John surgery and rehab, the latter of which never seems to work.
Four the game’s best young pitcher are out for the season and it happened in the span of a week. It doesn’t end there though. Luke Hochevar blew out his elbow two weeks ago. The Padres lost lefty Cory Luebke to his second Tommy John surgery last month and are on the verge of losing prospect Joe Wieland to the same fate. Mike Minor’s shoulder is acting up (the Braves signed Ervin Santana because they had so many injuries), Jon Niese has been dealing with shoulder and elbow problems, Cole Hamels has yet to appear in a game because of a shoulder issue, on and on it goes. Pitchers get hurt, we know this, but this recent rash of injuries around the league has been something else.
Last season the Yankees were the ones hit hard by injuries, though most of them hit the position players. The pitching staff has remained healthy this spring, knock on wood, but that tells us nothing about future durability. CC Sabathia has a ton of innings on his arm, Hiroki Kuroda is approaching 40, Michael Pineda is coming off two lost years following shoulder surgery … it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of those guys missed time in 2014. That and all these pitching injuries around the league are a reminder that the Yankees’ pitching depth — Phelps, Warren, Nuno, etc. — is not really expendable. The Yankees have not gotten through a non-strike season using fewer than eight starters since 1975, so all of those guys figure to be needed at some point this year.
It’s easy for us to starting thinking about a trade whenever the team has an extra something, be it pitchers or catchers or whatever. Heck, just last week I wrote about the possibility of the Yankees trading one of their spare arms to the Braves in the wake of their injuries, thinking it would be one way to improve the infield. Pitching, especially potential starters, have to be treated differently though. You know you’re going to need several extras throughout the season, moreso than any other position, so dealing away a spare arm is always risky. I don’t think we needed all the recent injuries to drive the point home, but it’s pretty clear the Yankees are best off holding onto guys like Phelps, Warren, and Nuno. They will come in handy at some point, probably sooner rather than later.
Last year, the Yankees got close to zero help from their farm system. The only player to come up from the minors and establish himself as a big leaguer was Adam Warren, who spent the year as the swingman. Guys like David Adams, Preston Claiborne, and Zoilo Almonte got off to hot starts, but they all tailed off once they were pressed into regular playing time. Austin Romine also failed to impress as the backup catcher. The system offered close to no help as the injuries mounted and the poor stretches turned into poor seasons.
The Yankees were not oblivious to this — Hal Steinbrenner called a staff meeting and essentially had the scouting and player development staff audited to figure out why there were no internal solution. No major personnel changes were made, but some procedural changes were implemented and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. Turning around the system probably won’t happen overnight, but the team did take some steps in the right direction these last few months.
At some point this season, the Yankees will have to dip into their farm system for help. It’s inevitable. Injuries will strike and fringe players will play their way off the roster. When that happens, the first attempt at fixing the problem will come from within. The Yankees have shown they will be patient and not jump right into the trade market when they need help these last few years and I have no reason to think that will change in 2014. Here are the prospects who could come up and help the MLB team this summer.
Catcher: John Ryan Murphy
Murphy, 22, got his first taste of the big leagues late last year, but that was nothing more than a September cup of coffee following a breakout season in Double-A and Triple-A. He hit .269/.347/.426 with 29 doubles and 12 homers between the two levels and has improved so much defensively that he is now viewed as a no doubt catcher long-term. Had the Yankees not signed Brian McCann, the temptation to start Murphy in 2014 would have been be great. Instead, he figures to bide his time in Triple-A and await an injury after jumping Romine on the depth chart. Of course, he might be nothing more than trade bait. Sleeper: Eh, there really isn’t a sleeper behind the plate for 2014.
Infield: Dean Anna
Similar to Murphy, Anna figures to be the first called up whenever injury strikes the infield. The Yankees acquired the 27-year-old from the Padres in a minor offseason deal and he can do a little of everything except hit for power. He can get on base and play both second and short, where the offensive bar is pretty low. I’d say the chances of Anna coming up and being an impact player this summer are remote, but he does enough to potentially help the team both at the plate and in the field if pressed into duty. Sleeper: Jose Pirela, who’s hit .264/.334/.401 and played four positions (second, short, third, left) at Double-A the last three years.
Outfield: Zoilo Almonte
Technically, Almonte had his chance to help the MLB team last year. He came up in mid-June and had five pretty great games to start his career, but it went downhill fast and he finished the year with a .236/.274/.302 batting line in 113 big league plate appearances around an ankle injury. Almonte, 24, offers sound corner outfield defense and a switch-hitting bat, and there’s a case to be made that he’s a better fit for the bench than Ichiro Suzuki right now. Instead of making the Opening Day roster, Zoilo will have to settle for a trip to Triple-A, where he will be the first called up whenever an extra outfield body is needed. He’s the clear first in line. Sleeper: Ronnie Mustelier, who didn’t get a shot last year but could hit his way into the conversation again.
Right-handers: Dellin Betances, Mark Montgomery, Jose Ramirez
Of everyone in this post, the 25-year-old Betances probably has the best chance to crack the Opening Day roster. He finally found something resembling sustained success in the bullpen last year, pitching to a 2.06 ERA with a 93/28 K/BB in 65.2 innings after shifting into a relief role. It feels like a foregone conclusion that Betances will get a chance to not only stick in the big leagues this year, but also assume a high-profile, late-inning role. The time is now for Dellin.
Had Montgomery not gotten hurt last year, he probably would have been called up instead of Claiborne. Instead, the 23-year-old struggled to throw strikes while missing time with shoulder problems. Montgomery will likely have to show he’s back to being the guy he was from 2011-12 before getting a chance to help the MLB team with his wipeout slider. Ramirez, 24, has had trouble staying healthy over the years and sure enough, he’s already been sidelined with an oblique problem in camp. When right, his fastball-changeup combination is electric and could have a huge impact out of the bullpen, assuming the Yankees are ready to give up on him as a starter given his career-long lack of durability. Sleeper: Danny Burawa, assuming he can figure out how consistently throw strikes.
Left-handers: Cesar Cabral, Vidal Nuno
I wouldn’t be a complete shock if either Cabral or Nuno made the Opening Day roster, but, more likely, they figure to serve as up and down arms this season. The 25-year-old Cabral is a pure lefty specialist with a low-90s fastball and a sweepy slider, and his late-season cameo was impressive (nine lefties faced, six strikeouts). Nuno, 26, has a deep enough repertoire to start and we saw him do that last summer before his groin injury. In a perfect world, he’d turn into a left-handed 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed swingman who could come in for one batter or four innings without much of a problem. Sleeper: Fred Lewis, who lacks sexy numbers but has the fastball-slider combination to help as a specialist.
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The Yankees do not have a Xander Bogaerts or a Gregory Polanco in their farm system, that super high upside MLB ready prospect with a clear path to big league playing time in 2014. Any help they get from within this summer figures to come in small doses, from bench players or relievers. Sure, Murphy could take over as the starter if McCann gets hurt or Nuno could grab the fifth starter’s spot and run with it, but that would be a surprise. The system is not a position to provide an immediate impact right now unless it involves trading prospects for a big leaguer.
For what feels like the umpteenth straight year, the Yankees will hold a Spring Training competition to fill their final rotation spot. These competitions have been rigged in recent years — Joba Chamberlain in 2009, Phil Hughes in 2010, Ivan Nova in 2013 — but things feel legitimately wide open this spring. There are four guys vying for that fifth starter’s spot and I honestly would not be surprised if any one of the four walked away with the job. Here are the candidates.
Nuno, 26, jumped from independent ball to the big leagues in less than two years, pitching well (2.25 ERA and 4.50 FIP) in 20 innings spread across three starts and two relief appearances for New York early last season. A groin injury ended his season in early-June but Nuno did heal up in time to pitch in the Arizona Fall League after the season. He started the team’s first exhibition game of the spring against Florida State earlier this week, but that doesn’t mean anything as far as his standing in the competition.
Unlike the other three fifth starter candidates, Nuno is a left-hander, though I don’t think that gives him any kind of leg up. Sure, it would be nice to have another southpaw in the rotation given Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, but the team has to focus on taking the best arm north at the end of camp regardless of handedness. Nuno has gotten results everywhere he’s pitched but his lack of a big league put away pitch is a negative — he threw 314 pitches with the Yankees last summer and batters swung and missed only 20 times, a well-below-average 6.4%. It’s not a big sample but it backs up the scouting report.
Whether he wins or loses the fifth starter job, we’re going to see Nuno in the big leagues at some point in 2014. I’m certain of that. Sixth and seventh starters will be needed — last time the Yankees went a full season with fewer than seven pitchers making at least two starts was 2003, and the last time before that was 1971 — and even if they aren’t, he could always wind up in a bullpen role. Second lefty, middle reliever, long man, you name it. Nuno doesn’t have a big ceiling but he will get another chance to help the team this year.
A few days ago, Joe Girardi confirmed Phelps will make the team in some capacity. If he doesn’t win the fifth starter spot he’ll go to the bullpen and perhaps be a one-inning setup reliever rather than a long man. The 27-year-old has done a little of everything in his relatively short MLB career, making 23 starts and 32 relief appearances these last two seasons. As you’d expect, he’s been better in relief:
Phelps did not pitch well as a starter last season (4.93 ERA in 65.2 innings) but he also missed more than two months with a forearm strain and subsequent setback, an injury that may have impacted his performance. His strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates all held steady from 2012-13, though his homer rate did drop from 1.26 HR/9 (13.6% HR/FB) two years ago to 0.83 HR/9 (8.9% HR/FB) last year, so there was some improvement in his game despite the inflated ERA.
Because he’s bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, Phelps is still something of an unknown heading into 2014. He’s never been a starter for more than two months with the Yankees and we don’t know how well he’ll hold up starting every fifth day over a full season. Obviously he’s done it in the minors, but doing it in the big leagues is a little different. Phelps not only has the most MLB experience of the fifth starter candidates, I also think he is most likely to pitch well in whatever role he’s given. Will he be an ace or a shutdown reliever? No, probably not. But there’s value in being solid and reliable.
If you gave the Yankees — everyone from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff — a truth serum, I’m guessing they would all say they’re hoping Pineda grabs that last rotation spot and runs away with it in camp. The team has spent the last two years waiting patiently as the 25-year-old right-hander rehabbed from shoulder surgery and it finally looks like they will get some return from a trade that hasn’t worked out for either side thus far.
Of course, missing two years following major shoulder surgery makes Pineda a total unknown coming into this season. Sure, he did throw 40.2 innings across three minor league levels last summer, but those were rehab innings and they don’t really tell us anything useful. Early reports say Pineda has looked strong during bullpens and live batting practice session in camp but it’s bullpens and live batting practice. Take that information to heart at your own risk.
I think it’s important to remember that before the injury, Pineda was not a finished product. He didn’t have much of a changeup and he was very fly ball prone, which made him a questionable fit for Yankee Stadium. I highly doubt he developed a third pitch and became a ground ball guy during his rehab, but stranger things have happened. Pineda was a bit of a project at the time of the trade but now he’s a project coming off a major arm injury.
A healthy Michael Pineda can be a very good pitcher but the Yankees have not yet seen a healthy Michael Pineda in their uniform. If he impresses and wins a rotation spot in camp, great. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the team went in another direction either, going with someone who isn’t as much of a wildcard while Pineda gets back into the groove of starting every five days in Triple-A, where results don’t matter. Either way, barring another injury or setback, I suspect we’ll finally see him pitch for the Yankees at some point this summer.
Of the four fifth starter candidates, Warren was the only one to make it through last season healthy. He really seemed to carve out a niche in long relief, pitching to a 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 77 total innings. Girardi used Warren as a one-inning setup man for a bit in September while David Robertson and Shawn Kelley were banged up, and he also made an impressive spot start (five scoreless innings on two days’ rest) in Game 161. Whenever the bell rang, he answered the call.
Warren, 26, was a starter his entire career up until last season. He threw all five of his pitches (four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curveball, changeup) at least 11% of the time in 2013, so he won’t have to put extra work in this spring to regain feel for one of those offerings. Left-handed batters destroyed Warren last year (.387 wOBA and 5.13 FIP) and if that continues, his days as a starter won’t last long. It’s a big negative.
I think Warren is very similar to Phelps in that we don’t really know what he can do starting every five days in the big leagues, but the general sense is that he will help the team in some capacity. In fact, Girardi already confirmed he will be on the Opening Day roster, either as a starter or reliever. Warren might not be an impact starter but I’ve always liked him and thought he could be a very good short reliever. He’s going to play a role this year, that much is certain, it’s just unclear what role that ultimately will be.
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The Yankees have all but confirmed Manny Banuelos will open the season in the minors, which makes sense after missing close to two full years with elbow problems. The 22-year-old still had to iron out some command issues before the injury and I assume that is still the case. Easing him back into things in an environment where wins and losses don’t matter seems best for his long-term development.
There are no other realistic fifth starter candidates other than the four guys above. The smart money is on all four pitching (if not starting) for the Yankees at some point this season, though they aren’t created equal. Pineda has the largest upside but he is also the biggest unknown because of his injury. Nuno seems to have the lowest upside of the bunch but he’s also the only lefty. Phelps and Warren are safe bets to be solid in some role yet we really don’t know what they can as full-time starters.
Remember, Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day. Whoever wins the fifth starter’s spot in camp will have to pitch well in the regular season to keep the job. The Yankees have enough rotation depth that they can quickly pull the plug and try another pitcher if the guy who wins the final rotation spot doesn’t work out right away.
Via Joel Sherman: The Yankees have signed infielder Dean Anna and left-hander Vidal Nuno to one-year contracts for 2014. While in MLB, Anna will earn the $500,000 league minimum while Nuno will earn $504,500. Both guys still have all six years of team control remaining and can not become free agents until after the 2019 season at the earliest. I’m sure we’ll see both Anna and Nuno with the big league team at some point this summer, maybe even on the Opening Day roster.