Ivan Nova relaunch a success, but questions remain for Yankees rotation

In the tightly-wound American League East, where the top four teams are currently separated by a mere 2.5 games, any small advantage can make a huge difference. The New York Yankees hope that the long-awaited comeback of starting pitcher Ivan Nova can be such an advantage in their bid to return to the postseason. Nova missed virtually all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He took the mound yesterday in a major league game for the first time in 14 months, and he and his team could not have been happier with the results.

Nova held the Phillies scoreless over 6.2 innings of work, allowing only three hits and outdoing opposite starter Cole Hamels. While some might point out the relative weakness of the Phillies offense, they should also remember that this was a team that had just scored 22 runs against the Yanks over the first two games of the series. Nova helped New York salvage the final contest in what should have been a very winnable set of games, and they will hope he can continue to provide that kind of stability moving forward.

The Yankees rotation now finds itself at a crossroads, and the team will have some important decisions to make concerning its pitching staff in the near future. The short-term plan is to go with a six-man rotation, which will give the starters some extra rest as the team navigates a crowded schedule leading up to the All-Star break. While the Yanks could experiment with maintaining that arrangement, smart money has them trimming it back down to five at some point. And when they do so, who will make way?

Adam Warren is a popular candidate, as the former Yankee farmhand has enjoyed considerable success working out of the bullpen in the past. Warren, however, really seems to be hitting his stride as a starting pitcher of late. He has tossed six quality starts out of his last seven, his most recent being an impressive eight-inning showing in which he limited the high-powered Tigers lineup to only two runs. The 27-year-old currently sports a very respectable 3.62 ERA on the year.

Considering the mercurial performances of some of their other starters, perhaps the Yankees should not be so eager to remove Warren from the mix. Nathan Eovaldi, acquired via trade from the Marlins in the offseason, has had a very frustrating first three months in pinstripes. In spite of a fastball that averages 96 mph, the right-hander has struggled with putting hitters away and often finds himself unable to pitch into the sixth inning. His low point came last week against his former club as he was lit up for eight runs and lasted only 2/3 of an inning. Of course, he rebounded from that debacle with a strong start against Detroit (6 IP, 2 ER), further clouding the situation.

CC Sabathia continues to try to make do with diminished velocity, to sparse success. The veteran southpaw owns a 5.65 ERA and has surrendered the most earned runs (55) and home runs (17) among American League pitchers. Many assert that the Yankees are unlikely to relegate Sabathia to the bullpen due to his large salary, but they should really consider it if he remains the weak link. ESPN’s Buster Olney recently lauded the Giants for their “merit-based culture,” highlighting how the team has not hesitated to change players’ roles regardless of how much or how little they are paid. If the Yankees are serious about contending, they need to reward their top performers, not their top earners.

At the front of the rotation, Masahiro Tanaka has pitched quite well when he has been on the field. The Yankees have their fingers crossed that the month he missed with a strained forearm will be his only significant absence this season. Michael Pineda has been absolutely dominant at times (see 16 Ks against Baltimore on May 10), but a handful of rough outings has pushed his ERA up to 4.25. New York will hope to see more consistency from him, and a healthy and contributing Nova could alleviate some of the pressure.

It remains to be seen how Nova fares throughout the rest of the campaign. Most pitchers returning from elbow reconstructive surgery will experience a few bumps along the way. But the Bronx Bombers will feel nothing but encouragement from yesterday’s start. If he continues to pitch well, Nova can be a solidifying force on what has been a streaky team to date.

Fans often roll their eyes at analysts who claim getting a player back from an extended DL stint is sort of like making a midseason trade acquisition. In the case of Ivan Nova, he was away for so long that it really does feel like the Yankees have a new weapon at their disposal.