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Despite Mitre’s Win, Questions Over Yankees Fifth Starter Remain

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The latest character in the Yankees season long fifth-starter saga took the mound on Tuesday night against Baltimore to very mixed results. While Sergio Mitre was able to pick up his first Major League win in two years — leading the Yankees to their fifth straight win and first place in the A.L. East — his stat-line shows the victory can be attributed more to the Yankees' offense than to Mitre's new sinker.

Over 5.2 innings Sergio — back this season from Tommy John surgery and a 50-game drug suspension — gave up three runs on eight hits, although he did strike out four while walking only one. Mitre worked out of trouble all night, pitching relatively effectively in the 6-4 victory over the last-place Orioles, but also showed strong indications that the Yankees still have not found a suitable solution to their fifth starter issue.

Mitre unquestioningly earned a second start with his performance on Tuesday. His AAA stats were very good this season, so despite his poor numbers in previous years in the show, the Yankees will allow Mitre to once again succeed or fail at the Major League level.

The past, though, cannot be totally overlooked and ignored. In five major league seasons (prior to Tuesday's start) Mitre owned a 10-23 record, a 5.23 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP, including 372 hits in only 310.2 innings. But Yankees GM Brian Cashman, enthralled by his work with AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre (3-1, 2.44 ERA, 1.00 WHIP) believes that Mitre could be the proverbial diamond in the rough for the team this season.

And while it is promising that Sergio — now featuring a predominate sinker-ball style pitch — gave up only 40 hits and five walks in his 45 innings at AAA, there is a huge difference in the quality of opponents from the minor league level to the pros; just ask the man "next in line" for the rotation slot, Kei Igawa.

Mitre could possibly prove to be a serviceable placeholder on the Yankees' staff against teams of Baltimore's caliber, but given his massive hittability that hasn't seemingly regressed, it seems probable that squads like the Boston Red Sox or Tampa Bay Rays would find success against the pitcher. New York needs a starter that can keep them in games against even the highest caliber of lineups. And with a second half schedule heavy with divisional play, Mitre will be forced into the position to do just that. The Yanks cannot afford to run a pitcher out against Boston or Tampa Bay that allows the game to slip out of reach early and given the eight hits the worst team in the East were able to collect off of Mitre, it is questionable whether he can be "the guy."

The reality is that the Yankees most likely need to make a deal, and soon. The elephant in the room in this regard is Roy Halladay, but unless a creative deal, most likely involving another large contract (possibly Vernon Wells), can be orchestrated it is unlikely that New York will empty their minor league cache' for the veteran pitcher. Halladay is clearly one of the top five pitchers in baseball — given the statistics he has achieved in baseball's most offensively inclined division — but given the Yankees oft-stated philosophy of developing youth along with the contracts currently on the books for starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, it is unlikely that they would make such a high profile deal with such long ranging effects unless there was a chance Halladay would sign with another AL East rival — which is also highly improbable.

Considering the fiscal environment baseball is currently operating in, there should be plenty of opportunities for the Yankees to make a far less expensive move for a solid pitcher that can consistently keep them in ball games. Jarrod Washburn of Seattle, for example, would be a perfect candidate for the back-end of the New York rotation. Utilizing finite skill and command over power that has declined in the 34 year pitcher, Washburn has seen a resurgence in '09, posting a 7-6 record with a 2.87 ERA (fifth best in the AL). He's given up only 102 hits in 119 innings of work and has notched 75 strikeouts against only 28 walks. His peripherals are no less impressive, with a 1.092 WHIP, a 5.7 K/9 rate and a 2.68 K/BB ratio. For far less expense and sacrifice than would be required for a "high end" pitcher like Halladay, Washburn could be exactly what the Yankees need to finally solidify their rotation and win the second half sprint to the playoffs in the AL East.

For now Mitre will remain the fifth starter. With Phil Hughes (17.2/3 scoreless innings streak) and Alfredo Aceves firmly entrenched in the bullpen by their stellar work, this should stay the case until the first time he gets lit up by a team like the Red Sox. But even if Mitre can pull an Aaron Small circa 2005, it seems unlikely that the Yankees will stand still given the current shallowness of depth with their starting pitching. Even with Mitre in the rotation the Yankees are only one injury away from Igawa Time, and for the team as well as its fans, that is a frightening proposition.

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About Anthony Tobis