Losses of Sabathia and Pettitte threaten to derail Yankees
A great deal of credit for the Yankees’ recent surge to the top of the AL East standings belongs to their rotation. Though the team opened camp with no less than seven candidates for starting spots, at times during April they appeared to have trouble mustering five of major league caliber as Michael Pineda was lost for the year due to a labrum injury, Freddy Garcia was bombed back to the bullpen, and both Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes teetered on the brink of demotions to Triple-A. Catalyzed by the mid-May return of Andy Pettitte from a one-year retirement, the rotation hit its stride; from May 22 through June 26, they put together a 2.97 ERA, with 7.9 strikeouts and 2.1 walks per nine while delivering 22 quality starts in 31 turns, a span during which New York went a major league best 24-7.
On Wednesday, that unit was dealt a staggering one-two punch: After sending CC Sabathia to the disabled list with a groin strain prior to their afternoon game against the Indians, the Yankees lost Pettitte to the DL as well when a comebacker fractured his fibula. General manager Brian Cashman says that he’ll attempt to patch the team from within, and while that’s the sensible move in light of the high cost of dealing for veterans, the falloff from the two southpaws to their replacements could threaten the cushion the Yankees have built in the AL East.
The 31-year-old Sabathia is the undisputed Yankee ace, and one of the game’s most durable pitchers despite (or perhaps because of) his 6-foot-7, 290-pound frame. From 2007 through 2011, he led the majors with an average of 34 starts and 240 innings — virtually all of it high quality, with a 3.09 ERA and 8.1 strikeouts per nine. His 107 innings rank third in the AL, and are 11 2/3 more than any other Yankee, while his 8.8 strikeouts are seventh in the league. His 3.45 ERA isn’t the rotation’s best, but that’s due more to a .319 batting average on balls in play than to the things in his control; his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, an estimate of his ERA based upon his peripherals) is a rotation-leading 3.13.
Sabathia hasn’t served a stint on the disabled list since 2006, when an oblique strain laid him up for four weeks. He apparently suffered what was diagnosed as a Grade I strain of his adductor during the fourth inning of Sunday night’s start against the Mets, an outing in which he seemed to labor in front of a lackadaisical defense. He was pulled after 5 2/3 innings, his shortest start of the season, and was still dealing with discomfort during his Tuesday bullpen session. Rather than exacerbate the injury, he’ll take advantage of the upcoming All-Star break to heal; barring a setback, he would miss just two turns and would be eligible to come off the DL on July 13, the team’s first day back in action.
Pettitte will be shelved for longer. The just-turned-40-year-old’s comeback after sitting out all of 2010 had been outstanding, thanks to a new slider that has complemented his nasty cut fastball, helping him generate a 58 percent groundball rate, his highest since 2000. Over nine starts, he posted a 3.22 ERA while striking out a career-best 9.1 hitters per nine; only in 2004, when he was pitching for the Astros, has he ever been above 8.0.
Pettitte was struck by a ball off the bat of the Indians’ Casey Kotchman during the fifth inning of Wednesday’s game. In obvious pain during three warmups and one game pitch, he was pulled, taken for x-rays and diagnosed with a fracture of the fibula before the game even ended. His injury will take about six weeks to heal, though surgery won’t be necessary. After the game, Cashman said that his initial reaction was to put Pettitte on the 60-day disabled list, with time for a rehab stint incorporated into that absence. The timing for the injury and recovery recalls Pettite’s last go-round in 2010; after the best first half of his career, he suffered a groin strain in his first start after the break, and didn’t return to the rotation for two months.
The Yankees initially planned for Garcia to take Sabathia’s next start on Friday against the White Sox, but manager Joe Girardi needed to call upon him for 2 1/3 innings of spotless relief work on Wednesday. Instead Garcia will be pushed back to fill what would have been Pettitte’s slot on Monday against the Rays. The placement is at least somewhat ironic, in that Garcia, who enjoyed a solid comeback for the New york last season after a few years in the weeds, expressed frustration when the mid-March launch of Pettitte’s comeback created a rotation logjam. The 36-year-old righty then gave the Yankees plenty to be frustrated about when he was torched for a 12.51 ERA over four April starts that totaled just 13 2/3 innings. Confined to a long relief/mopup role and used sparingly, he has rediscovered his form, allowing three earned runs in 15 innings, with a 10/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. After the game, Girardi noted that Garcia’s arm strength was better than in the spring, boosting his velocity while aiding the command of his splitter and slider.
Filling Friday’s spot will be Adam Warren, a 24-year-old righty who was the team’s fourth-round draft pick in 2009. Pitching for the team’s Triple-A Empire State club — their Scranton/Wilkes-Barre home is being renovated, so they’re essentially a roadshow — Warren has pitched to a 3.86 ERA while striking out 6.2 per nine. Despite a fastball that can reach 95 MPH and sits in the 89-93 range, he doesn’t excite scouts tremendously, because his slider, curveball and changeup are in the solid-to-fringy range. Baseball America ranked him the organization’s 15th-best prospect coming into the year, noting that he profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter, while Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein, who ranked him 14th, called him “a battler with average stuff who could start or relieve in low-leverage roles.”
Alas, neither of the team’s two higher-ceiling prospects, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, are in any position to answer the call; the former has been shut down by elbow soreness for the past month, while the latter is walking an unsightly 8.3 men per nine for Empire State. David Phelps, a 25-year-old rookie with 13 appearances, two starts, and 33 2/3 innings of 2.94 ERA ball under his belt, isn’t stretched out enough at the moment; he did yeoman’s work as a utility pitcher for the Yankees in April and May, but the team sent him to the minors in early June to get him back on an every-fifth-day regimen. Having thrown 55 pitches in his most recent turn, he couldn’t be expected to go much further than 70 the next time around, so the Yankees will wait before promoting him. Unless Garcia shines, he may well wind up being the pitcher who takes the bulk of Pettitte’s missing starts, since it’s unlikely he’ll be returned to a long-man role so quickly.
Back in the spring, the Yankees’ seven-starters-for-five-spots logjam created controversy, but once again, the timeless adage that “you can’t have too much pitching” proved true. With a 46-28 record and a five-game lead in the AL East, New York has a bit of breathing room as it sorts out the situation. The Yanks have enough depth to withstand the short-term crisis created by losing one of their two top starters, and a month to assess whether they need to dip into the trade market to replace the other one. If they need to go that route it will be a sure sign that things have tightened up in the AL East race.