Ivan Nova’s Injury a Big Blow To Limited Yankee Depth

You most likely heard over the weekend that Yankees righty Ivan Nova walked off the mound in the fifth inning of Saturday’s start in Tampa shaking his right arm, and now we know that he’s got a partially torn UCL in his elbow. While he’s yet to decide whether he’ll rehab or opt for surgery, this is the kind of thing that almost always, always ends in Tommy John surgery, and it seems more likely than not that we don’t see him again in pinstripes before mid-2015.

In and of itself, this is actually smaller news than it seems, if only because we all know by now that this is the year that elbows are popping at an alarming rate, with Nova — assuming he does choose surgery — becoming the 21st professional pitcher (including minor leaguers) to get a zipper this year alone. 14 of those are major leaguers. He is, depending on how you look at such things, only the fifth or sixth or seventh most accomplished of the afflicted. If you could make a starting rotation of 2014 Tommy John pitchers, he might not even be in it. (Why one would do such a thing is another question entirely. That rotation might still be better than Arizona’s, though.)

So this is really less about Nova than it is about what the Yankees will…  oh, hang on:

nova_vertical_release_2014

You can’t always know when a pitcher is going to blow out, and this isn’t to suggest that the Yankees did anything wrong here. (Nova didn’t show much of a decline in velocity and had missed time in each of the previous two years with less serious arm woes.) But when you look at that release point chart, the fact that his swinging strike rate was suddenly among the worst in baseball, and the fact that he was getting lit up regularly in his first few 2014 starts, it was clear something wasn’t right here.

Anyway, back to the Yankees, who now have to replace Nova in what is once again shaping up to be a ridiculously tight AL East. (As the Red Sox and Orioles take the field in this morning’s Patriots Day game in Boston, they’re tied with the Rays for last place, but that’s only one game behind the Blue Jays and two behind the Yankees. You’d think that one of these years this division would stop being ludicrous, but: nope.)

So what this injury means to the team and the pennant race depends largely on your perception of things. Nova was either:

** Arguably the No. 5 Yankee starter, and no team should complain too much about losing a No. 5 starter, or

** A surprisingly valuable starter, with a 3.7 RA9-WAR from 2013 that matched Doug Fister and Mike Minor and can’t be easily replaced.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but leaning closer towards the latter; you could easily make the argument, if you wanted to, that Nova was a better pitcher last year than Matt Moore, another recent elbow case whose loss will affect the AL East. Despite a surprising demotion to Triple-A last May, Nova came back in the second half to become one of the AL’s more effective starters, thanks in part to a change in pitch selection that included leaning less on his four-seamer and slider to focus more on his curve and a sinking two-seamer.

Now, presumably, he’s gone, and the Yankees are left with a uniquely interesting rotation foursome and plenty of questions about who takes the ball every fifth day. Through three starts, Masahiro Tanaka has been fabulous. Through three starts, Michael Pineda has been better than anyone could have possibly hoped for. On the other side, through four starts, 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda has been… okay, despite the fact that as the sport continues to strike out more than ever, he’s currently showing a career-worst 8.4 percent swinging-strike rate, helped in part by the fact that batters are suddenly no longer swinging at his out-of-the-zone stuff like they used to. And CC Sabathia, dealing with an even more marked velocity loss, has an identical swinging-strike rate as he did in 2013, despite a higher overall strikeout rate — and, to date, has allowed the most homers in the American League.

For now, they appear willing to go with Vidal Nuno, a 48th-round pick of the Indians in 2009 who was released by Cleveland in 2011, made two spot starts last year for the Yankees and made it through five scoreless against the Rays on Sunday — getting the start in part because both Tanaka and Pineda had pitched in a doubleheader on Wednesday. The soft-tossing lefty piled up some impressive K/BB numbers in the minors, but also pitched only 45 professional innings in 2013 thanks to a groin injury that ended his season in June.

At the start of camp, when no one had any idea what Pineda would be able to offer after two years on the sidelines, Nuno was part of a four-headed fifth starter competition with Pineda, David Phelps and Adam Warren. All four ended up making the team, though with David Robertson injured and Matt Daley & Cesar Cabral already DFA’d, the Yankees may be hesitant to shake up their bullpen more than it already has been — even with Dean Anna around. Whether it’s Nuno or Warren or Phelps — or, as some fans will probably chime in with, “or Cliff Lee or Jeff Samardzija in July!” — the Yankees may need to get by with what they have, because there’s not have much they have to turn to in the minors. Here’s the current group of starters for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and… that is certainly a list of names:

2014 AAA starts Age MLB IP MLB starts
Bruce Billings 4 28 7.0 0
Caleb Cotham 3 26
Brian Gordon 3 35 14.1 2
Chase Whitley 3 25
Alfredo Aceves 1 31 361.0 15
Chris Leroux 1 30 69.2 0
Graham Stoneburner 1 26

I’d be lying if I said I had any idea who Bruce Billings is — he was apparently a 30th-round pick by Colorado in 2007, later traded to Oakland for three months of Mark Ellis, then signed to a minor league deal by the Yankees in January — but his Wikipedia page notes that “He enjoys watching movies, drawing, listening to music and dancing,” so, now you know something about Bruce Billings, I guess, but only the most minimal something.

Cotham would be entertaining if only for the inevitable New York Post headlines, and Gordon, 36 in August, is a fascinating story just because of how long he’s been around. (He was a 7th-round pick of Arizona in 1997 — yes, before the Diamondbacks even played a game — as an outfielder, switching to pitching in 2007, and popped up briefly for three games in relief with Texas in 2008 and two starts with the Yankees in 2011, while going through seven organizations and two stints in Korea. He didn’t start at all last year, serving as Triple-A Sacramento’s closer.) Aceves, of course, is well known to Yankees fans, having spent the last six years, mainly as a reliever, split between both sides of the Boston/New York rivalry.

No matter how this turns out, it’s a blow for the Yankees, because while Nova was never that good, they don’t have any immediately better options, and they are in an AL East that looks to be a total battlefield once again. It’s difficult to see any of these teams pulling far enough away from the pack to get to 95 wins… or perhaps even 90, as this simplified version of our projected standings shows:

2014 To Date 2014 Proj. ROS 2014
Proj. Full
Team W L W L W L
Red Sox 9 10 77 66 86 76
Rays 9 10 75 68 84 78
Yankees 11 8 73 70 84 78
Blue Jays 10 9 73 70 83 79
Orioles 8 9 70 75 78 84

Imagine an AL East won by a mere 86 victories? Whether it happens or not is less relevant than as we stand here today, it’s absolutely believable that it could happen. That really just could not be tighter — it still includes Nova for the Yankees, so knock them back another bit — and it really goes to show just how important every game in this division is going to be. For Nova, it’s a huge blow in what’s been a career defined by brief flashes of brilliance in between inconsistency and injury. For the Yankees, already struggling with an old and infirm infield, it’s a setback they really didn’t need. Maybe Nuno or Phelps or whomever can step up to be a viable fifth starter, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to give as much as Nova would have, and comes at the cost of bullpen depth as well. In a division like this, every little thing — like, say, walkoff wins on silly throwing errors — matters so, so much. The loss of Nova, far from an ace as he was, matters too.



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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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