With Chien-Ming Wang back on the disabled list with a strained right shoulder, Yankees manager Joe Girardi once again faces the task of solidifying an incomplete starting rotation. A constant problem all season, the Yankees had hoped the return of Wang from his first DL stint would provide them with what could have potentially been the best fifth starter in baseball. Instead, Wang was brutal, posting a 5.28 ERA and surrendering 19 runs on 37 hits in only 30.2 innings. Then the injury came, and the starter's struggles became a moot point.
To replace his fifth starter Girardi has a wide variety of uncertain options. The obvious route for Joe would be to simply re-insert former starter Phil Hughes back into the rotation. Hughes began the season as a starter before he was replaced upon Wang's return. Further supporting this line of logic, Hughes has been dominate recently, posting a 1.32 ERA and a 0.68 WHIP in 13.2 innings since moving to the bullpen. With few other options it seems like this would be a no-brainer by Girardi… until you look at Hughes' stats as a starter.
In 34.2 innings starting this season Hughes was essentially not much better than Wang. While he did notch a positive 3-2 record, his 5.45 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, and 37 hits surrendered speak more to the quality of his pitching than the reflection of his record. Joe Girardi has publicly stated that he will not move Hughes back into the rotation and this seems to be the correct decision.
Phil has been completely ineffective as a starter and yet very effective as a reliever. It would also take Hughes, at the very least, two or three truncated starts to get "stretched out." The move makes less and less sense the further it is analyzed. In Hughes, Girardi has a potentially lights-out setup man and a potentially very average starter. While the Yankees do badly need a fifth man in their rotation, Hughes' likely production in that role is not worth destabilizing a bullpen that — especially with the poor health and effectiveness of Brian Bruney — is already stretched thin.
So if the answer to Girardi's current quandary doesn't reside with Phil Hughes in the bullpen the other source of arms would seem to be the Yankees AAA affiliate Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. There are some familiar names on this roster. Leading the rotation with 85.1 innings pitched is the Yankees' failed answer to Dice-K, "No-K" Kei Igawa. In his short time at the major league level, the Japanese import made Yankees fans wonder who the hell ever thought this guy could pitch.
In 71.2 innings at the major league level (over two seasons) Kei owns a 6.66 ERA and has surrendered a ridiculous 54 runs on 89 hits. In short, he is absolutely terrible. The Yankees would be better served to forfeit the starts they would need Igawa for, at least preventing unnecessary injury in an un-winnable situation. Former Toronto Blue Jay pitcher Josh Towers is also hurling for the Yankees' farm team but his career statistics don't lend much credence to an argument for him to take over the role either.
The popular pick with the New York media has oddly enough been former Cub and Marlin Sergio Mitre. Coming back from a 50-game PED suspension, Mitre has reportedly displayed excellent stuff in his five starts at AAA. Even Yankees' GM Brian Cashman has called Mitre "a guy we’re very intrigued with.”
The raw statistics though elicit less enthusiasm. Mitre has been good in some respects in the 30.1 innings he has worked for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. Sergio has posted a 3.26 ERA with only three walks but he has also allowed 29 hits in those 30.1 innings while striking out only 23 for a very average (for AAA) 6.8 K/9 ratio. If he was a young pitcher with no established major league track record, some potential could be anticipated from these numbers – even with the slightly high hit total and low strikeout numbers – but Mitre is a 28-year-old veteran and the time to evolve has largely passed him by.
And it's not like Mitre hasn't had ample opportunities to show off his stuff at the major league level. With five seasons under his belt Mitre has given up 372 hits in 310.2 innings, striking out only 188 to go with his 108 walks for a terrible 1.74 SO/BB career ratio. He's also given up a whopping 199 runs in those 300-plus innings, leading to his horrific 5.36 career ERA. While many in the Yankees' organization seem to believe that Mitre — now back from Tommy John surgery that shut him down for all of 2008 — is the answer to their rotational problems, his minor league stats this season, while seemingly solid on the surface, indicate that Sergio is still a very hittable pitcher.
Otherwise, the Yankees farm system is packed full of starters who are either not effective enough to start at the major league level or are too young and/or inexperienced to be inserted into the thick of a pennant race. So what then, aside from making a deal, can the Yankees do to solve their immediate pitching issues?
While there is obviously no clear-cut answer, the Yankees' best option actually is currently working out of their bullpen but, as previously stated, is not Phil Hughes. New York acquired Alfredo Aceves as a free agent in the offseason before the 2008 campaign. A starter who spent three fairly successful seasons in the Mexican League, Aceves got his first chance to start for the Yankees in 2008 as a replacement for Darrell Rasner. He was very good in '08, starting four games for the Yanks and appearing in 30 innings in total. During his short stint up with the club, Aceves was highly effective, posting a 2.40 ERA with a 1.167 WHIP. He allowed only 8 runs on 25 hits and finished the season with a 1-0 record in six appearances.
Not all was right with Aceves though, as his peripheral stats show. His 10 walks and 16 strikeouts led to a sub-par 1.60 K/BB ratio and a 4.8 K/9 mark, both indicators that the ERA and WHIP might possibly have been deceiving, especially considering his BABIP was only .233. But in 2009 Aceves has elevated his game, taking strong strides in improving those numbers. In about the same sample size — 36 innings leading into Sunday's win — Aceves had struck out 29 batters (7.3 K/9) and walked only seven (4.14 K/BB). He had also shown solid improvements in ERA (2.25), WHIP (1.00) and his record (5-1).
While some of the same draw backs that apply to Hughes also apply to Aceves (i.e. not being stretched out, eliminating a valuable bullpen piece) with Alfredo neither of these factors apply to the degree that they do with Hughes. While it is true that Aceves hasn't started much this season (aside from four starts at AAA) he did finish last season as an effective major league starter, was a high volume innings guy for three seasons in the Mexican League, and has had 12 appearances already this season in which he has pitched two or more innings in a game, including four when he worked three or more innings.
And while it would undoubtedly hurt to lose a quality arm like Aceves' out of the 'pen, he — unlike Hughes — is not being groomed as the Yankees' setup man. The loss of a middle relief pitcher, regardless of how good he is, can be more easily weathered than the loss of a successful setup man. Aceves is arguably one of the best middle relief pitchers in baseball this season but he also has the stuff to be one of the better fifth starters, which is a far greater need for the Yankees at this point in their season. And if the Yanks are that high on Sergio Mitre, or still believe in Kei Igawa enough not to cut him outright, it would more make sense to bring one of them in as a middle relief replacement, although it seems the newly recalled Jonathan Albaladejo will fill that role for now.
On Sunday, Aceves made his own definitive statement that he deserves the Yankees' fifth starter role when he stifled the Toronto Blue Jays over four shutout innings, notching an extended save, and leading his team to yet another comeback victory. After starter Joba Chamberlain was chased out of the game after only 3.2 innings, Aceves entered the contest in the 6th with a two-run lead and never gave it back.
He surrendered only one hit in four innings of work and showed off his improved strikeout ability, sending five Blue Jays back to the bench with their heads hung in shame while walking not a single man. Displaying precise command over all four of his pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup, and cutter) Aceves varied his speed and location, keeping the Toronto hitters off balance all day, and making it clear that he possesses the repertoire, mentality, and ability to start for the New York Yankees in 2009, solving a problem that has vexed Joe Girardi and the Bombers unrelentingly for the entire season.
To find out what decision Girardi does make, Yankee Nation will have to wait until Thursday — pending an early announcement — when the rotation spot comes up and Girardi will be forced to make a difficult decision that will have a massive impact on a very tight pennant race down the stretch.