Chien-Ming Wang headed back to the disabled list and Joba-To-the-Bullpen became Joba to Nowhere, but winning trumps everything. Adding to the sweetness of the proceedings was the fact that the victories came at the expense of an AL East opponent, pushing the Yankees to one game under .500 against divisional rivals. They kept the pressure on the Red Sox, who dropped two of three to the Mariners, and put some distance between themselves and the rest of the competition. The Rays, swept by the Rangers, are now six games behind the Yankees in the loss column, the Jays eight behind. The wild card standings remain close, with AL West co-leaders Texas and L.A.-Anaheim just two games back of the Yankees.
How long this happy situation persists will depend in part on how the Yankees choose to compensate for the loss of Wang. This seems a bit odd to say, “compensate for the loss of Wang,” because the Yankees haven’t really had Wang all season long. For all their patience, prodding, and pushing, Wang has yet to record a quality start. Now, quality start is just a made-up statistical category (heck, they’re all made up) denoting a starting pitcher having done certain minimal things in his games — throw six innings, allow three or fewer earned runs. It’s not a crazy high standard, as all it asks a pitcher to do is post a 4.50 ERA. Wang is 0-for-9, and whatever achievements exist in the past, they clearly don’t have much bearing on this season.
Since returning to the starting rotation on June 4, Wang’s ERA is 6.43 in six tries. His rate of home runs allowed per nine innings is a career high, and it didn’t dramatically improve during Wang’s latest sting. He allowed four home runs in 28 innings, which doesn’t sound like much, but it works out to 1.3 per nine. The career rate for the sinkerball artist coming into this season was 0.5. Wang’s latest injury is just the latest clue that anything the Yankees need to cultivate a solid alternative and view anything they get from Wang this year as a bonus.
That alternative is almost certainly not Sergio Mitre. While you can never preclude a team catching journeyman lightning in a bottle (see Aaron Small ’05), Mitre seems a long shot to click. Frequently injured, Mitre is a heavy ground ball type who has never found consistency in the Majors due in large part to control problems — a pitch-to-contact type can’t walk three or four batters per nine innings and expect to succeed. There are simply too many balls in play with runners on base for the pitcher to succeed, even with the enhanced double play rate of the sinker ball pitcher.
One intriguing note here is that Mitre has done great things with his walk rate in the Minors this year, passing just five batters in 39.2 innings. If Mitre can carry that kind of control back to the bigs, it will be almost as if the Yankees were trying a brand-new pitcher, not a 28-year-old retread. Even then, success is not assured. This is a pitcher against whom Major League batters have averaged about .300 — they’re not fooled, and while Mitre might cut down on the number of free passes he gives out, he will still have to keep the batters from simply banging their way on base.
With the All-Star break coming up, the Yankees will have a few days to reorder their rotation and figure out what they want to do with Wang’s spot over the longer term. As much as Alfredo Aceves and Phil Hughes are overqualified to be relievers, they’ve done so well in that role that it’s understandable that the club would be reluctant to pull them from the pen at this juncture, not without some kind of viable alternative to take the spot (the problem of “stretching them out” into a starting role is transient, especially given that Aceves threw 43 pitches on Sunday).
Here is yet another occasion to point out the way the Yankees have hurt themselves by perpetuating Brett Tomko in the Majors at the expense of Mark Melancon, lefty Zach Kroenke, or practically anyone else in the organization. Tomko’s trash-time work could have been developmental time for any number of virginal relievers, relievers who might now be promotable to more important roles, something that clearly isn’t going to happen with the 36-year-old, home run-happy Tomko. That theoretical pitcher might have enabled the Yankees to feel more comfortable about elevating Hughes or Aceves. Instead, they have blocked themselves. Much as with the bench space wasted on Angel Berroa until quite recently, Tomko demonstrates that there are no small roster spots, only small players.
To put the matter in proper perspective, one sentence: The loss of Wang expresses itself as a bullpen problem, not a starting pitcher problem. Corollary to the foregoing: the Yankees need to do more to solve their bullpen problem.
In the long term, one interesting starting option within the organization might be right-hander Zach McAllister, currently of Double-A Trenton. If you take his work from the second half from last season, spent at Tampa of the Florida State League, and add it together with that of this season, from Double-A Trenton, you get a stunningly good line: 28 starts, a 13-9 record, 169.1 innings, 139 hits, 36 walks (1.9 per nine), 128 strikeouts (6.8 per nine), just nine home runs, and an ERA of 1.81. The strikeout rate should be a clue that McAllister is not a 95 mph burner. He’s actually somewhat Wang-like, getting by on a sinking fastball. It seems unlikely that a jump to Triple-A, or over it, would be much of an impediment. McAllister may seem like a long shot, and given the organization’s nervousness about the untested, he probably is, but the Yankees owe it to themselves to investigate these possibilities before they start throwing out good players for the detritus of other organizations.
MORE TO COME…
With the Yankees having reached the 81-game mark, the PB hands out the dreaded midterm report cards.