(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)
While the MSM, the blogosphere, and Yankee fans in general all gear up for the the hype surrounding the CC Sabathia opt out storyline and the “Yu Darvish vs. C.J. Wilson” debate this offseason, there is another potential in-house 2012 rotation candidate who could factor into the discussion as well. That candidate would be Hector Noesi, the 2011 winner of the annual Yankees’ “Top Young Pitching Prospect That We Called Up to Use in The Bullpen Because We Needed a Warm Body” Award. Larry K did an excellent job yesterday of painting an all-encompassing portrait of Noesi’s skill set and 2011 performance, and essentially laid the groundwork for the “Noesi 2012 Rotation” discussion. But beyond his own makeup and 2011 results, there are other outside factors that could play a role in determining the plan for Noesi in 2012. Those factors are Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, specifically the different paths that each of them took in 2011 and how those paths intersect with the path Noesi is currently on and the path he could be on next year.
Nova’s path would be like the yellow brick road for Noesi to follow if he is looking to become a future fixture in the Yankee rotation. After rising steadily through the Yankee farm system over the last couple years, building up his innings workload as a starter, Nova made his Major League debut in 2010 with a handful of spot starts and relief appearances. He was never as highly regarded as Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances, but this past season, Nova got a real shot to show what he could do as a full-time starter and he made the most of that shot, making 27 starts over the course of the 2011 season and along the way displaying very noticeable improvements to his pitching repertoire and pitching style.
The book on Nova was always that he lacked the secondary offerings and consistent command to project as anything higher than a 4th or 5th starter. In 2011, Nova focused on improving both of those aspects of his game, especially when he rejoined the team in late July after a short Triple-A stint to make room in the rotation for Hughes. From that point on, Nova displayed a much improved ability to throw his fastball for strikes, much better command of his offspeed pitches, and also a much better understanding of how to work on the mound and use all of his pitches in different way to navigate through a lineup multiple times. Through August and September Nova bumped his K/9 up into the low 6s while lowering his BB/9 to the 2s, adding up to a 3.70/4.01/4.16 ERA/FIP/xFIP tripleslash, 2.7 WAR, and 16 Wins (yes, a flawed stat) over 165.1 innings of work in the regular season and a spot as the Yankees #2 starter behind CC in the ALDS. We all know how that story ended, but there’s no denying that Nova was damn good in his Game 1 ALDS “relief” appearance, and there’s no denying that his 2011 season exceeded everyone’s expectations and served notice that Nova has the ability to be a solid #2 or #3 starter at the Major League level.
Nova’s 2011 success alone could be reason enough for the Yankees to consider giving Noesi a look in 2012, and that discussion can be steered even more in Noesi’s favor when you consider how similar Nova and Noesi are. The innings totals and order don’t match up, but Noesi’s ascension through the Yankee Minor League system was steady and included stops at every level, just like Nova. Like Nova, Noesi is primarily a 3-pitch pitcher who works off his fastball and has always projected as a back-of-the-rotation starter because his offspeed stuff (slider, curve, change) is considered good but not great. And like Nova, Noesi has faced questions about how his stuff would play at the Major League level and how that would translate into a long-term Major League role.
The one added gift that Noesi has always had that Nova did not is command. Noesi has always been praised for his command and repeatable delivery, and he used both of those and his stuff to miss many more bats than Nova during his MiL career. His 3.17 ERA, 2.73 FIP, 8.69 K/9, and 1.69 BB/9 over 377.2 career MiL innings suggest that Noesi could project as a “Nova 2.0″ type starter at the next level, even if his stuff doesn’t play up quite as much as it did out of the ‘pen in 2011. And a Nova 2.0 type of pitcher would be very valuable in the 2012 rotation, especially considering what Nova 1.0 did in 2011.
On the other, not so shiny side of the comparison coin for Noesi is Phil Hughes. Hughes’ path has been a bit rockier than Nova’s, thanks to a series of injuries and a constant shuttling between roles as a starter and reliever. After being moved to the bullpen in 2009 to make room for a returning Chien-Ming Wang, Hughes found success as a reliever, but threw a total of only 111.2 combined regular and postseason innings that season, 92.1 of them as a reliever. He followed that up by throwing 176.1 regular season innings in 2010, almost all of them as a starter, and tacked on another 15.2 in the postseason over 3 starts, an increase over his previous career high innings total of 146.0 (set back in 2006), and far exceeding his innings total of 2009. This past season we saw Hughes take a major step back in his development as he battled shoulder problems and a major decrease in velocity almost all year, racking up just 88.2 total IP between regular outings and rehab outings in the process and once again being moved from the rotation to the bullpen.
Now there’s no way to know for sure that the major increase in workload from 2009 to 2010 and the switching between full-time reliever to full-time starter were the causes for Hughes’ problems in 2011, but in an age of carefully-monitored innings limitations on young pitchers it would be a good place to start if you were searching for an explanation. And this relates to Hector Noesi in that he just went from a career high 160.1 IP in 2010 almost exclusively as a starter to just 81.0 IP in 2011, the majority of them as a reliever. The Yankees have Noesi pitching in the Arizona Fall League right now, presumably to get his innings total up for the season and get him stretched back out to be able to start again, but he is still going to come in at far fewer innings than he threw in 2010 and he is still going to finish this season up having had to transition from a starter to a reliever and then back to a starter at 3 very different levels of competition in less than a year. Considering how poorly that has worked out for Phil Hughes, and considering the fact that Noesi already has a serious arm injury on his record (TJS in ’07), the Yankees would be wise to consider taking the conservative route with Noesi in 2012. In the “win now” environment that exists in the organization, though, the conservative route likely wouldn’t do Noesi any favors in building a case for a 2012 rotation spot.
Now this is not to say that Noesi absolutely SHOULD be in the rotation in 2012 because Ivan Nova did well this year and it’s not to say that he absolutely SHOULD NOT be in the rotation in 2012 because Phil Hughes did poorly. But the Triple-A rotation is going to be crowded next season (Phelps, Warren, Mitchell, ManBan, Betances) and logic would dictate that Noesi would become the next in line to get bumped up to the Majors. We’ve seen the Yankees mismanage their young pitching prospects enough already (cough, cough, Joba!) to know that they aren’t the best in the world at handling young pitching, and I’d hate to see Noesi be the next casualty.
It would be great to see the Yankees learn from their past mistakes and not repeat the same ones time and time again, but with the uncertainty surrounding CC and the FA market and the uncertainty/straight up lack of faith in A.J. Burnett and Hughes, there is a window of opportunity for Noesi to make an impact in the 2012 rotation. Hopefully the Yankees find the right balance between what Nova and Hughes did in 2011 and the “win now” team attitude to influence their plans with Noesi in 2012.