There’s a saying in baseball that you can never have too much starting pitching. It’s hard to disagree with that statement. Pitchers are highly volatile players when it comes to both performance and health. Ballparks, defense, opponents, and a number of small sample size factors can easily trick the most attentive analyst into thinking a pitcher is more or less effective than they actually are. The rate of injury for pitchers also far outweighs that of position players, and this season pitchers are clocking in around 50% more days on the DL.
In general, it’s good to have excess pitching, but the Yankees are in a circumstance that puts even more emphasis on their young arms. As the rotation stands, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte have been their two most reliable pitchers after CC Sabathia. Kuroda, 38 years old, and Pettitte, 41 years old, just happen to be two of the oldest pitchers in baseball, meanwhile the team’s ace, Sabathia, is fresh off elbow surgery. Though he’s producing with the same consistency after 9 starts, he’s showing a significant drop in velocity. That’s not to say their starting pitching has been anywhere near bad or inconsistent, their team pitching WAR currently ranks 5th in baseball, but if anyone needs a “plan B”, it’s this team.
The Yankees have had some unfortunate luck when it comes to injuries, but the bulk of time missed has come from position players. Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova are the only two starters sitting on the DL, and in comparison to the rest of the league, their days on the disabled list for pitchers ranks only slightly above average. With these two guys missing time, the Yankees have finally allowed their second string starters to see some starts, and we’ve witnessed some very strong performances from unexpected places.
David Phelps has now started 14 games in his career, posted a 3.69 ERA, with a 22.2 K%, and a 9.5 BB%. Adam Warren, who Brad talked about earlier today, has pitched 18.2 innings in 2013 with a 1.45 ERA, a 3.07 FIP, a 20.3 K%, and an 8.1 BB%. Warren has also showed some interesting velocity spikes of late, averaging 92.3 mph in the bullpen, and hitting 94.1 mph. Then there’s Vidal Nuno, a “soft tossing” lefty who’s dominated the Yankees’ minor league system. Nuno got the call a few weeks ago, and after Monday’s start, gave the organization and the fans a reason to be excited. In Nuno’s start against the AL’s highest WAR offense, Nuno held the Indians to just 3 hits and 3 walks over 5.0 innings of work. Nuno isn’t going to blow anyone away with velocity, but his ability to drop down against left-handed hitters, coupled with a strong changeup and slider has proven effective against major league hitting since Spring Training.
Granted all of these numbers are generated by small sample size, but there’s reason to be excited about each of these pitchers. While they may not all become effective starters, they’re emerging as something more than just a backup plan.
But if the Yankees manage to have all their starting pitchers return healthy, we’ll have an interesting problem on our hands. Nova’s return would likely send Phelps back to the bullpen, and perhaps Warren back to Scranton to join Vidal Nuno. Pineda is also approaching rehab starts, and when he makes his Yankee debut, he should bump Nova from the rotation. We’re assuming a rare event here, that all the starting pitchers stay healthy, but if it happens, the Yankees won’t have room for Nova, Phelps, Warren, or Nuno.
Obviously some of these pitchers could remain in the bullpen while the rest go to Triple-A, but that might not be the best plan for their development. As it stands, Kuroda, Pettitte, and Hughes are all approaching free agency this fall, and the Yankees need young starting pitchers to reach that 2014 budget goal. Keeping the best starting pitchers on the field is important for the 2013 season, but going beyond that, the team is potentially looking at a number of young and inexperienced starters in 2014 and beyond. Finding Nova, Phelps, Warren, and Nuno time to gain experience and prove themselves at the major league level will inevitably be a goal for this season. How it’s done will be an interesting juggling act.
The Yankees of the past would probably trade a package of these starters, along with other prospects, for a more experienced player, and thus avoiding the growing pains of a young pitcher. The Yankees can hardly afford giving up on youth and league minimum salaries these days, and seem more apt to accept failure if it’ll net them a young arm or bat.
With two roads in front of them, it becomes a question of too much starting pitching. Does the organization believe that there are simply too many arms to find major league time? If so they’ll probably follow the trade route come July. But on the other hand, the team is obviously in the position where they need young and cheap starting pitching. Finding the four young starters time is perhaps the more complicated and dangerous path, but also the most rewarding.