The New York Yankees will enter spring training with a virtually set starting rotation. That is a luxury among major-league clubs but there are some concerns about the staff and how effective it will be. Let’s examine each starter individually in a five-part series.
IVAN NOVA (12-8, 5.02 ERA)
Entering the 2012 season it was not surprising that the Yankees believed they had something special in right-hander Ivan Nova. After all, Nova was nothing short of sensational in his rookie season, going 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA.
Despite the fact he was demoted for a month in midseason, Nova came back and refused to lose another game for the rest of the season. At age 25, Nova seemed to have past fellow minor leaguers like Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, David Phelps and Hector Noesi and even was outshining older Yankee young pitchers like Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.
However, Nova’s path to stardom took a long detour in 2012 and he enters 2013 with no guarantee he will even be able to keep his job as the team’s fifth starter.
Nova, now 26, struggled mightily in spring training last season, posting a 1-2 record with a 8.06 ERA in six starts and it did not get much better as the 2012 season unfolded.
In June, Nova posted a 3-0 mark with a 1.26 ERA. But in the other five months his ERAs were: 5.18 in April, 5.87 in May, 5.97 in July, 7.03 in August and 6.23 in September. Nova was so bad that manager Joe Girardi took him out of the rotation entirely in September and inserted the rookie right-hander Phelps in his place.
Command of Nova’s pitches was his undoing in 2012.
At times Nova’s curve would desert him and at other times it was his normally electric slider. On occasion he could not throw either for strikes. So Nova was forced to use his fastball when he was behind in the count and hitters took advantage by blasting him for 28 home runs in just 170 1/3 innings (a home run every 6.1 innings).
For Nova it was a stunning reversal and the doubts about his ability to rebound are swirling even before he reports to spring camp in Tampa, FL. Phelps, 26, who was 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts) last season, is coming into the spring with the expressed intent of taking Nova’s job away from him.
Competition is a healthy thing but Nova has never shied away from it since he came up as cocky youngster at the tail end of the 2011 season and posted 1-2 record with a 4.50 ERA in seven starts.
Truth be told, Nova – scouts will tell you – may actually have the best stuff of any starter on the Yankees’ roster, including CC Sabathia.
Some in Nova’s camp point out that a number of rookie pitchers tend to regress a bit in their second seasons. Tampa Bay Rays rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson beat out Nova for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2011 by going 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA.
Last season, Hellickson was below .500 with a 10-11 ledger.
The previous two A.L. Rookie of the Year winners were relievers Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers in 2010 and Andrew Bailey of the Oakland Athletics in 2009 and neither have had smooth sailing in their years since. The last National League rookie starting pitcher to win the award was Dontrelle Willis of the then Florida Marlins in 2003 and how did his career turn out?
So Nova enters 2013 with some lingering doubts surrounding him but he also has a chance to return to his 2011 form. Spring training will be a pivotal time for him to prove the problems with his command are over and he can be trusted to pitch consistently every fifth day for the Yankees.
In addition, the Yankees would be foolish to give up on Nova so soon. Nova can be downright untouchable when he is on. Who can forget his heroic “relief” performance in the rain-delayed Game 1 in the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers in 2011?
Nova throws a mid-90s fastball and compliments it with an excellent curve. When he was demoted in 2011 he added a devastating slider to the mix and he was unbeatable when he returned. He was the Yankees best pitcher this side of Sabathia.
That is probably why Nova’s 2012 travails were so baffling to Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Physically there was nothing wrong with Nova. But the command of his pitches seemed to elude him throughout the season.
The fact Nova turned in a 12-8 record was a testimony to his competitiveness, which has always been a hallmark for him. Nova is simply not afraid of hitters and he does not back down even when he is getting hit hard. Who can forget after Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays took him deep in his first September 2010 start that Nova buzzed Bautista inside his next time up?
Nope, fear is not in Nova’s lexicon.
That just might serve him well when he battles Phelps for the fifth starter job this spring. Nova ceratinly has to be better simply because it hard to believe he can be any worse than he was last season.
Nova also has a lot of things in his favor. He simply has better stuff than Phelps. His fastball is better and his breaking pitches have more bite. The question will simply come down to that command issue that plagued him.
Phelps is not exactly a marginal starter just trying to hang onto a major-league job either.
After four seasons in the minors in which Phelps was 38-15 and the highest ERA he recorded was the 2.99 mark he posted in 2011, Phelps entered the 2012 season behind Nova, Banuelos, Betances, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell despite the fact he was named the organization’s Pitcher of the Year in 2011.
The ex-Notre Dame star was 0-1 with a sparkling 2.08 ERA in seven appearances last spring, which earned him a surprise spot on the roster in the bullpen.
Phelps immediately impressed Girardi with his ability to attack the strike zone when he was called into games. Though Phelps is considered to have a rather pedestrian assortment of pitches, he proved early on that he was still able to get major-league hitters out using nearly pinpoint control.
He struck out 96 batters in 99 2/3 innings last season and Girardi had no qualms about using him as a spot starter, including his stint replacing Nova in late September.
So if Nova thinks that Phelps is just going to cede that No. 5 spot to him he is in for a big surprise. Phelps has always dealt with scouts doubting his abilities to pitch in the major leagues. That has fueled Phelps and he would love nothing more than to prove those scouts wrong.
The fact that the No. 5 spot comes down to two young right-handers who both came out of the Yankees’ farm system is also a testament to the efforts general manager Brian Cashman has made to invest heavily in scouting, signing the best pitchers he can find and keeping them rather them trading them to other teams.
Teams in the current era have been trying to develop the best young pitching they can find and they try to sign the best of them to long-term deals to retain them up to their 30s. That is why you do not see many young quality pitchers become free agents anymore.
So unless the Yankees either trade for a young pitcher like Michael Pineda or develop a Nova and/or Phelps they are going to have a tough time fielding a pitching staff going forward.
Cashman planned ahead and now Nova and Phelps could both play a big role toward making the Yankees’ 2013 a successful one.
Whoever wins the job will mean the loser more than likely will become the long reliever and spot starter for the team. Nova has much less experience in the bullpen and his command issues could get him sent out to Triple A early of he fails to throw strikes out of the bullpen.
But the smart money is that Nova will keep his role and Phelps will resume his in the bullpen.
Nova has come too far in the Yankees’ minor-league system to let this opportunity slip away from him. Of course, Phelps won’t back down either.
So that means that watching these two compete this spring will be the most fun to watch this spring.
YANKEES 8, PHILLIES 5
Jorge Vazquez rolled a sharp single into right-field to score Cole Garner from second base to break a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning as New York opened its 2012 Grapefruit League season on a wind-swept Saturday with a victory over Philadelphia at Bright House Field in Clearwater, FL.
Twenty-year-old rookie left-hander Manny Banuelos (1-0) pitched two scoreless innings to get credit for the victory. Veteran left-hander Dontrelle Willis took the loss for the Phillies.
Curtis Granderson was 2-for-2 with a double, a solo home run and two runs scored to pace the Yankees’ attack early. Garner added a two-run home run off reliever Chad Qualls in the seventh inning and outfielder Zoilo Almonte, who had four RBIs in Friday’s 11-0 exhibition victory against the University of South Florida, added a pinch-hit, two-run double in the ninth to cap the Yankees’ scoring for the afternoon.
- Granderson is off to fast start this spring. He singled in his only at-bat on Friday against USF and is 3-for-3 with two runs scored and two RBIs. Granderson had a career season in 2011 with 41 home runs, 119 RBIs and 136 runs scored.
- Ivan Nova started for the Yankees and gave up one hit, no walks and struck out two batters in his two innings of work. Unfortunately, two errors (including his own error on a pickoff throw) did not help his cause and the only hit he surrendered was a two-run home run to right-center by Hunter Pence off a 3-0 fastball in the first inning. Nova was still pleased with the outing, particularly his second inning.
- Former Phillie Raul Ibanez got back at his old team by hitting a bloop double on the left-field foul line off the Phillies’ left-handed starter Cole Hamels that scored Granderson with the game’s first run. Ibanez figures to be the Yankees’ designated hitter against right-handers this season.
- Garner, Almonte, Vazquez and Dewayne Wise all came off the bench to drive in runs for the Yankees and all the team’s eight runs were scored with two outs. Vazquez stroked his single off Willis on a 1-2 count and that hit stood up as the game-winning RBI. Garner’s two-run home run was blasted straight down the left-field line and somehow stayed fair. Wise preceded Garner’s home run with an RBI double to right-center. Almonte’s two-run double to right-center came off reliever Mike Stutes.
- The first ball of the spring hit to shortstop Eduardo Nunez off the bat of Shane Victorino skipped past him for an error and Victorino later scored an unearned run on Pence’s homer. Nunez led the team in 2011 with 21 errors in roughly half the playing time of the infield starters.
- Though Banuelos was credited with the win, fellow rookie Dellin Betances and he did not show much in the way of command of their pitches. After a 1-2-3 fifth, Banuelos gave up a single to Tyson Gillis and then walked Laynce Nix and Hector Luna with two out before retiring John Mayberry Jr. to leave the bases loaded, Betances walked the first two batters he faced before retiring Kevin Frandsen on a double play and Freddy Galvis hit a fly-ball out to center to end the seventh.
- Former Met Michael O’Connor got off to a bad start in his quest to make the team as a second lefty in the bullpen. He was tagged for three hits and he walked another batter as he gave up three runs in the bottom of the ninth. The big blow was a two-run homer off the bat of Frandsen.
The game was played under sunny skies and 82-degree weather. However, a 20-mph wind with much higher wind gusts blowing out to left contributed to the two home runs each by both teams and led to some adventurous paths by fielders on high pop-ups. . . . A sellout crowd of 10,539 turned out for the Phillies’ home opener at Bright House Field. . . . When Ibanez stepped to the plate in the first inning, some fans cheered and others appeared to have been booing. However, Ibanez was unsure if the fans were chanting “Raul” and not booing at all. Ibanez, 39, was allowed to leave the Phiilies as a free agent and he was signed a few weeks ago by the Yankees to a one-year contract. . . . The game was broadcast nationally by MLB Network through Comcast Sports of Philadelphia and the Phillies’ television broadcasters described the game.
The Yankees continue their home-away-home three-game series with the Phillies on Sunday at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL.
Veteran right-hander Freddy Garcia will start the game for the Yankees. Garcia, 35, is vying for a spot in the rotation after a season in which he was 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA in 25 starts for the Yankees. As part of the opening ceremonies, the Yankees will wear their pinstripe uniforms and they are scheduled to open with their 2012 projected starting lineup.
The Phillies will counter with 34-year-old right-hander Roy Halladay, who is coming off a season in which he was 19-6 with a 2.34 ERA for the Phillies. Joel Pineiro, David Purcey, Antonio Bastardo and Phillippe Aumont are also scheduled to pitch for the Phillies.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EST and the game will be broadcast nationally by MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
The New York Yankees got some game-condition work in on Friday with a 11-0 exhibition victory over the University of South Florida at George M. Steinbrenner Field at Tampa, FL.
Right-hander Adam Warren pitched two scoreless innings to pick up the victory. Warren, 24, gave up one hit and walked none while striking out two as part of a group of seven Yankee pitchers who limited the Bulls to four hits, no walks and struck out 10.
Manager Joe Girardi started all his regulars with the exception of second baseman Robinson Cano and catcher Russell Martin and the regulars were given only one or two at-bats.
Girardi was pleased with the hitting of outfielder Zoilo Almonte (2-for-2, two RBIs) and second baseman David Adams (1-for-2, one RBI). Outfielder Colin Curtis and Infielder Ramiro Pena added two hits apiece as the Yankees pounded out 14 hits against USF pitching.
The USF Bulls are coached by Lelo Prado, the brother-in-law of former Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, currently a special assistant to general manager Brian Cashman. USF is in fourth place in the Big East standings with a 4-4 record.
The Yankees are 3-0 against USF in spring exhibitions by a combined score of 31-5. Proceeds from the game benefitted the USF baseball program.
Most of Friday’s news surrounded two former Yankees. Former Yankee right-hander A.J. Burnett underwent successful surgery to repair an injury to his right-eye orbital bone in Pittsburgh and the Pirates announced that he will miss about eight to 12 weeks. Bunrett sustained the injury fouling a bunt off his eye during a bunting contest at the Pirates spring training complex in Bradenton, FL. . . . Former Yankee catcher and designated hitter Jesus Montero took two foul shots off his jaw in the fifth inning of the Mariners’ spring Cactus League opener against the Oakland Athletics and had to be removed from the game. Up to that point, Montero, 22, was 1-for-3 at the plate with two runs and two RBIs in the game in Phoenix, AZ. The Mariners have already announced that Miguel Olivo will open the season as the team’s starting catcher and that Montero would be a candidate to DH and develop as a catcher as a backup to Olivo.
The Yankees will open their 33-game spring training schedule on Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Field in Clearwater, FL. Ivan Nova, a 24-year-old right-hander who was 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA in his rookie season, will start for the Yankees. Girardi also said that Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral, Michael O’Connor and David Phelps will pitch for the Yankees. The starting outfield of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher along with Martin will start for the Yankees.
The Phillies will counter by starting left-hander Cole Hamels, who was 14-9 with a 2.79 ERA for the Phillies last season. David Bush, Jonathan Papelbon, Dontrelle Willis, Raul Valdes, Chad Qualls and Mike Stutes are also slated to pitch. The Phiilies willl open their spring slate without three of the top regulars available to play on Saturday. First baseman Ryan Howard has an infection in his left Achilles tendon and has not reported to camp. Second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman Placido Polanco are also being held out of action by manager Charlie Manuel. Utley suffers from a chronic knee condition and Polanco is recovering from sports hernia surgery.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EST and the game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network.