Top Long-Term Ivan Nova Replacement Options for the New York Yankees
Heading into play last weekend, the New York Yankees' starting rotation owned the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball. A major piece of the fantastic start: Ivan Nova's seven-to-zero SO/BB ratio over a two-start span against Baltimore and Boston, respectively.
On Saturday night in Tampa, that ratio and Nova's season were lost to an elbow injury that was diagnosed as a partial tear of the right UCL. On Tuesday, the Yankees announced that an MRI confirmed the original diagnosis, and surgery has been recommended for the 27-year-old starter.
With Nova, the Yankees rotation looked to have the potential for greatness. Alongside CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda, a quintet of star-caliber starters took the hill in succession for the current AL East leaders. Although losing Nova isn't a death nail in New York's quest for October baseball, trouble could soon brew.
Considering Nova's age, excellence (2.78 ERA) in the second half of 2013 and upside, it wasn't crazy to expect 200 quality innings from the homegrown Yankees starter this season. With question marks about Sabathia's velocity, Kuroda's age, Pineda's durability and Tanaka's ability to navigate big league lineups for a full season, the Yankees will need Nova's replacement to pitch better than a nominal No. 5 starter.
Now that Nova's season-long loss is a reality, who will replace the enigmatic, yet talented, righty over the long term?
Here are potential options for Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
It's April, folks. Over the next few weeks—or possibly longer—expect the Yankees to fill Nova's rotation spot with a group of in-house candidates that recently fought for the No. 5 role with Michael Pineda during spring training.
Although it's easy to go back to the spring competition between Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren, Pineda and David Phelps, circumstances have changed in the Yankees universe. During the Grapefruit League slate, all four starters were stretching out and preparing for roles as starting pitchers. Over the last three weeks, injuries and vacancies in New York's bullpen have changed the plans.
Upon Nova's injury, neither Warren or Phelps profiled as long-relievers capable of seamlessly transitioning back to a starting role. In fact, an injury to closer David Robertson opened the door for both pitchers to get work as short-stint, high-leverage relievers in late-game situations. Although both could, in theory, stretch back out, the Yankees need both in the bullpen right now.
That leaves Nuno. On Sunday, the 26-year-old lefty made his first start of the season. Although the appearance was due to a rain out earlier in the week, the timing couldn't have been more perfect for a pitcher looking to seize an opportunity.
After tossing five innings of shutout ball against a potent Rays lineup, Nuno impressed manager Joe Girardi, per Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York.
“He was great," Girardi said. "He kept making some big pitches and that’s a big boost to be able to give us five innings like that and to be able to hold that team down, especially the way they were swinging. It’s a big start for him."
In the short term, Nuno showed enough to take Nova's spot, a thought confirmed by Girardi, per Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. His success level will determine if the Yankees look externally for rotation options.
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
It wouldn't be a baseball season without annual Cliff Lee trade rumors, especially pertaining to interest from the New York Yankees.
For years, the Yankees' interest in Lee has been one of the worst-kept secrets in professional sports. From attempting to trade for Lee during his Seattle days to losing out on a free-agent war with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Yankees haven't been able to land one of baseball's most dominant starters.
This, however, could be the year—for two reasons: volatility in Philadelphia and New York's financial commitment to winning big in the present.
First, look to the Phillies. After a predictably dominant start from Lee (8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 10 SO, 0 BB) on Monday night in Los Angeles, the 35-year-old sports a 38-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio through five starts this season. Yet, despite that dominance, the Phillies are 9-10. If the team fails to stay in the race, Lee's $25 million salary could be on the trade block in July.
In recent years, the Yankees' infatuation with Lee would have been trumped by a self-imposed desire to stay under the $189 million luxury tax. Now, that's gone. After blowing past the tax for 2014 by embarking on a $503 million spending spree in the offseason, financial reasons couldn't be used to stop a chase for a game-changing ace.
Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs
When Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein arrived in 2011, a long, arduous rebuilding process commenced at Wrigley Field. Three years into the plan, the Cubs aren't close to competing for a spot in the National League postseason.
Outside of young, ascending players under team control for the long term, no veteran is guaranteed of a spot on the next great Cubs team. That includes current No. 1 starter Jeff Samardzija. Despite one of baseball's best SO/9 marks since 2012, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required)—trailing only Tim Lincecum, Gio Gonzalez, Lance Lynn, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish—Samardzija's days in Chicago could be numbered.
The Cubs ace acknowledged this reality during an appearance on NBC Sports Network's "The Dan Patrick Show," per CSN Chicago.
"I don't know, I think it really depends on how this team turns out this season," Samardzija said. "I think it's looking like it, but I don't want to say anything for sure because I don't want to be traded. I want to win. That's my number one goal. I don't care about anything else but winning."
Sounds like a perfect fit for a a win-now team in need of starting pitching.
Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians
On the surface, it's hard to believe the Cleveland Indians would part ways with a pitcher that has averaged 205 innings and posted a 3.60 FIP from 2011-13, culminating in a trip to last season's AL Wild Card playoff game.
Yet, there's more to the story here. When Masterson and the team failed to reach a contract extension before Opening Day, it seemed clear that the Indians ace would play the season out, pitch well and take his talents to the open market after a successful season in Cleveland.
While that's still possible, the Indians are scuffling early in the season. At 9-10, last year's 92-win contender looks like a squad destined to take a step back. If that occurs, expect general manager Chris Antonetti to recoup some value by auctioning off Masterson to the highest bidder in July.
When looking at Masterson's 2013 statistics, a perfect replacement for Ivan Nova emerges. Last season, both Masterson and Nova allowed less than 0.75 HR/IP, pitched to almost identical FIP (3.35 vs. 3.47) marks and sported ground-ball rates of better than 53 percent, per FanGraphs.
Mark Buehrle, Toronto Blue Jays
Prior to the start of the 2014 season, Mark Buehrle's inclusion on a list like this would have elicited raised eyebrows from baseball fans. After pitching at a below-average level (99 ERA+) for the Blue Jays last season, the 35-year-old workhorse is off to an amazing start (4-0, 0.64 ERA, 2.43 FIP) this season.
Of course, that kind of performance is a catch-22 for Toronto. If Buehrle continues to pitch at a Cy Young level, last year's AL East disappointments could emerge into contenders and stay in the race throughout the summer. In that event, Buehrle and his 200-inning arm won't be moved.
However, if the pitchers around Buehrle crumble or injuries overtake Toronto's roster, general manager Alex Anthopoulos could look to change course and rebuild and unload contracts after a failed two-year try at contention. With an $18 million salary for 2015, few teams could afford Buehrle.
One of those few: the New York Yankees. Beyond financial clout, there was past interest between this player and the Yankees.
Prior to Buehrle signing with the Miami Marlins in 2011, the Yankees showed interest. At the time, Buehrle's agent, Jeff Berry, had this to say about what his client wanted, per Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News: "The biggest thing, for the Yankees or any other team, is to go to a place where he’ll have an opportunity to win.”
Which pitcher is the best long-term option to replace Ivan Nova?
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