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(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Preparing for Michael Pineda’s Return

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

This year’s Yankees team seems to have the opposite problem than that of last year—instead of all the position players being injured, it’s been the pitchers who have spent the most time on the disabled list. It’s produced a similar result: through this point last season, the Yankees were 4 games over .500 and had been outscored by nine runs. Right now, they’re also 4 games over .500 despite having allowed 29 more runs than they’ve scored (456 and 427, respectively, with 2.8% of this season’s runs coming in last night’s game.) Different cause, similar result.

Despite having given up the second most runs in the major leagues among contenders this season, the patchwork rotation has still been able to keep the Yankees in the playoff race. And it might be getting a little better soon. Michael Pineda has been slowly progressing towards a comeback, and threw a simulated game in Tampa last night. He’s now ready for a minor league assignment. Pineda is, as he has always been, a huge “if”—even if he does somehow make it back to the Yankees rotation, there’s no guarantee he would be effective. However, should Pineda return to his dominant April self—minus the pine tar—the Yankees are going to have to make a decision about whom to drop from the starting five.

Hiroki Kuroda has automatically assumed the position of the staff ace, and while he’s no Clayton Kershaw, he’s still done a pretty good job of keeping his team in the game. Other than the occasional 4-run, 5-inning start he has up every couple of games, Kuroda reliably allows only two to three runs and eats up 6 to 7 innings. He may be 39, but he’s still pitching as well as ever. He’s not going anywhere.

The Yankees next best pitcher may be a product of their own farm system—David Phelps. Phelps was the first to step into the rotation when Ivan Nova hit the shelf with season-ending Tommy John surgery. Phelps has pitched to the tune of a 5-5 record with a 3.89 ERA. He’s had a few fiascos, a few not-so-great outings, but for the most part has thrown pretty well. With a fastball around 90 MPH and a 3.22 BB/9 rate, his velocity and command isn’t wowing anybody. However, he has 6 pitches (fastball, sinker, changeup, cutter, curveball, slider) and he works out of trouble, as he’s held batters to a .237 batting average with men on base versus a .267 mark with the bases empty. Also of note: Phelps has been an above average fielder. He hasn’t made an error yet, and has been worth 3 defensive runs saved, which ties him for 10th among pitchers this season. Phelps will probably remain in the Yankees rotation as well.

That leaves Chris Capuano, Brandon McCarthy, and Shane Greene. On the Monday night’s radio broadcast, Suzyn Waldman pointed out that Girardi and Cashman might want to keep Capuano due to his status as the only southpaw in the rotation. With only one start so far, a pretty decent effort against the Jays on July 26th, I’m reserving judgment on Capuano’s performance and will assume Waldman’s assessment is correct for now. We’ll see how he fares against his weak-hitting former team, the Red Sox, tomorrow.

McCarthy has been dynamite since coming over in the Vidal Nuno trade. McCarthy has credited his improved performance to the expanded use of his cutter. According to the Win Probability Added and Base-Out Runs Saved statistics, McCarthy has pitched much better with runners on base in pinstripes than he did while in the desert. While he wasn’t at his best last night, this has all contributed to his solid  2.55 ERA in 24 2/3 innings since his first start on July 9th.

That leaves Shane Greene. I wrote last week about how Shane Greene could be the next big thing. Since then, he’s had two lackluster starts. There’s no changing, however, that Greene still has big-league quality stuff, but he’s the youngest member of the rotation and has the least experience. Should Pineda make it back to New York, Greene would likely be demoted to AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre, since he does have minor league options left. With his wipeout slider, Greene could be well suited as a reliever in a September callup, but the Yankees would likely send him to the minors for now to continue to gain experience as a starter.

Pineda should never be counted on as a sure thing, given his injury history. However, it seems that the Yankees could be in for an upgrade in the rotation soon. It’s good to know that they have some pitching depth in case they need it down the stretch run– which, judging by the way this season has played out, they probably will.