It feels like Andy Pettitte has been out of commission about as long as Michael Pineda, but he'll soon be back.
According to a report from Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, Pettitte was able to throw 55 pitches on flat ground in Chicago at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday. Out since June with a broken left fibula, the New York Yankees' 40-year-old lefty is getting closer to throwing pitches from the mound.
After that, the next step may be a simulated game or two before Pettitte is ready for game action. A return sometime in September has been the prognosis for him all along, and it's looking right now like he will indeed be able to make it back sometime in the next few weeks.
But here's a hypothetical: What if Pettitte isn't able to make it back in September? What if he hits a snag in his recovery and is shut down for the rest of the season?
This is certainly possible given Pettitte's advanced age, and it's a scenario that the Yankees had better be prepared for.
It's obviously not a scenario they want to see come to fruition, as Pettitte stands out as the best option to be the Yankees' No. 3 starter in the postseason once they get there. He had a 3.22 ERA and was holding opponents to a .226 batting average when he was healthy.
If Pettitte is taken out of the mix for the No. 3 spot in the Yankees' postseason rotation, they'll have to consider their backup options.
Here's a look at five alternate plans they could consider.
Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Freddy Garcia began the season in the Yankees' starting rotation, and he returned to the rotation once Pettitte was injured in late June.
His starts since Pettitte's return have tended to be just as excruciating as the starts he made before Pettitte's return. Watching Garcia pitch is like watching a gorilla try to stack expensive china plates on top of a turntable.
But you know what the weird part is? Garcia's actually done pretty well since stepping into Pettitte's shoes.
Garcia has made 10 starts since taking over for Pettitte, going 5-3 with a 4.19 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched. He's pitched at least six innings in five of these 10 starts.
His 4.19 ERA in this span may not look like much at first glance, but look at it this way: That ERA would make him an ace in Boston's starting rotation, and it's lower than the ERAs posted by notable American League hurlers like Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish and Gavin Floyd this season.
Those just happen to be three pitchers that Garcia could conceivably find himself matched up against in a Game 3 scenario. If so, the Yankees would actually be in fairly good shape.
Still, one never really knows with Garcia, so the Yankees may want to consider shaking things up a bit if they do choose to use him as their No. 3 starter in the postseason.
And that brings us to the next plan...
Part (or all) of what makes Garcia's starts so nerve-wracking is the fact that some of the kids currently participating in the Little League World Series probably have nastier stuff than he does.
Garcia is the ultimate smoke-and-mirrors pitcher. He obviously knows how to be effective, but it goes without saying that he can't overpower anybody. The best he can do is screw with hitters' timing and hope they don't adjust.
Garcia's ability to get hitters out of sorts with his smoke-and-mirrors act is something that the Yankees could exploit. They can do that by using Garcia for a few innings, say three or four, to start a game before turning it over to a reliever with much livelier stuff.
And since he's basically pitched his way out of the Yankees' plans for their postseason rotation, that's a role Ivan Nova can fill once his shoulder heals up.
Per FanGraphs, an average Nova fastball checks in right around 93 miles per hour, and he can ramp it up higher than that if he needs to. His breaking stuff is electric when he has it working, a big reason why he's upped his swinging-strike percentage from 6.6 percent to 8.7 percent this year.
Going from Garcia to Nova wouldn't be much different than going from Garcia to another one of the Yankees' hard-throwing setup men. The appeal with this combination is that Nova could pitch in three or four innings if need be before turning the game over to David Robertson and Rafael Soriano.
A Garcia-Nova combination would be a gimmick, to be sure, but it's a gimmick that could work.
This isn't the only gimmick combination the Yankees could try, though.
What about Phil Hughes? What about David Phelps?
They're obviously in the running for Game 3 duty as well, and the Yankees could choose to use the two of them in a combination similar to the Garcia-Nova combination.
One way to play it would be to do the exact opposite of the obvious combination: Phelps first and Hughes second.
The reason it should be Phelps first and Hughes second is twofold.
Hughes tends to be erratic early in games. Opponents have a .787 OPS against him in the first inning, a 1.012 OPS against him in the third and a .987 OPS in the fourth. His biggest issue is how he fares a second time through a lineup, as hitters have an .839 OPS in their second plate appearances against Hughes.
Phelps hasn't fared great early in games either, but he's holding hitters to a .599 OPS with a 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio when he faces hitters a second time as a starter. We're indeed talking about a small sample size, but Phelps has made adjustments better than Hughes when he's started this season.
The other reason Hughes should come out of the pen in support of Phelps is because Hughes has shutdown numbers in his career as a reliever. He has a 1.44 ERA and a 4.12 K/BB ratio, as opposed to a 4.69 ERA and a 2.43 K/BB ratio as a starter.
Just as important, Hughes doesn't give up the long ball when he works out of the pen. He's given up only two home runs in 49 career relief appearances.
To be sure, a combination such as this one would also work just as well the other way around, with Hughes starting and Phelps taking over after a couple innings.
But in a situation like that, it would make more sense just to roll with Hughes as long as he's pitching well.
And speaking of pitching well...
The Yankees can try sticking with Garcia and they can try gimmicks. But as always, the simplest solution is the best solution.
Joe Girardi should just go with the hot hand.
Assuming Pettitte is out of the picture and Nova's shoulder issues clear up in the next few weeks, the pitchers trying to impress Girardi in the last few weeks of the season will be Nova, Garcia, Hughes and Phelps.
Of the four, none really have the hot hand right now. Garcia has a 4.50 ERA in four August starts. Hughes has a 4.45 ERA in five starts this month. Phelps has only made two starts this month in place of CC Sabathia, and five starts all season. Nova, of course, is hurt, and was pitching poorly before he got hurt.
If the status quo holds and none of these four pitchers establishes himself in September, Girardi is going to have a tough call to make. He'll basically have to decide which of the four would be his No. 3 postseason starter by default, which is a tricky proposition. He may as well draw names out of a hat (also a possibility).
My guess is that he would choose Hughes. He's unpredictable, but he's capable of putting up six or seven strong innings in a given outing.
Girardi would just have to ignore the 5.40 career ERA Hughes has in the postseason, not to mention the 11.42 ERA he posted in two starts in the 2010 ALCS.
Regardless of who he chooses, Girardi will have to do everything in his power to make things easier for the No. 3 guy.
The hot hand solution is without a doubt the best answer to the question of who should be the Yankees' No. 3 starter in the postseason if Pettitte can't make it back in September. Call it the lesser of about a dozen evils.
Regardless of who earns the job, conventional wisdom suggests that the Yankees will use CC Sabathia first and Hiroki Kuroda second once they get to October. Their postseason rotation would thus feature a lefty, a righty and a righty.
Here's a better idea: How about righty-lefty-righty?
The Yankees can achieve that combination by using Kuroda in Game 1 and Sabathia in Game 2. This would be weird given the amount of money the Yankees are paying Sabathia, but I've already written that Kuroda's performance in the last couple months should overrule Sabathia's monstrous salary.
Kuroda has been the Yankees' best pitcher in the last three months by a long shot. In his last 16 starts, he has a 2.22 ERA and is holding hitters to a .595 OPS. He's become too good for the No. 2 spot in a postseason rotation.
He can match up with any ace in the American League, and Sabathia can certainly match up against any No. 2 starting pitcher. The Yankees will still be on shaky ground as far as their No. 3 starter is concerned, but rearranging Kuroda and Sabathia would make help.
In theory, anyway.
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