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Yankees rotation: Ivan Nova a legit sleeper

2/15/2011

Most people look at what the New York Yankees have assembled for their starting rotation and view it with skepticism, a reason this team cannot win World Series No. 28 this season. Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre? Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon? Why not see what David Wells and Hideki Irabu have been up to lately?

But here's my question: Why can't the Yankees win with Nova, Mitre, Garcia and maybe even Colon?

Of course they can. We've seen World Series winners win with less, a lot less. The fact is that although I wouldn't have chosen quite this approach to filling out a rotation in terms of free-agent signings Garcia and Colon -- Let's take the DeLorean back to 2005! -- I don't see what all the panic is about. Garcia was serviceable last season, winning 12 games for the Chicago White Sox. Mitre delivered a 3.33 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 54 innings for the Yankees. Colon is a fine anchor if you're in a tug-of-war. And Nova is one of the team's top pitching prospects. He's the one I like the most of the rotation contenders because he possesses that magic fantasy baseball word: upside.

Keep an eye on how the Yankees' starting pitchers handle the spring because they're all interesting to some degree. I have no concerns about Sabathia, or what's left of him after exhaustive winter weight loss, because he's durable and pitches deep enough into games to be an annual 20-win threat. I think Hughes will pitch better in home games in 2011 -- 20 of his 25 home runs in 2010 were allowed at Yankee Stadium, as well as two-thirds of his runs -- and improve, though it might not seem that way if he wins only 14 times. I even think A.J. Burnett can knock a run off his torturous 5.26 ERA. It's all about his catcher, you know.

Of the remaining options, I'd call Nova attractive for AL-only formats and deeper mixed leagues right now, and I bet he'll be a popular free-agent addition even in standard leagues by May for teams desperate for wins. One of his few problems in what was an often-impressive rookie season was getting deeper into his starts, deep enough to fully enjoy the team's offense and actually win some games. I saw nearly all of Nova's Yankees starts -- as well as a few at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre -- and he was better than most people realize ... at least until the third time through opposing lineups.

For the record, Nova's ERA in innings 1-3 was 2.57. In innings 4-6, it rose to 8.04, and most of that problem can be traced to the fifth inning, and one particularly awful outing Sept. 14 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Nova faced a first-place team in its own stadium and tossed four shutout innings; in the fifth, things went poorly and he allowed six runs, two of them after he left the game. I don't blame manager Joe Girardi for a Grady Little-like slow hook, though; a starting pitcher should be able to make it through at least five innings, but let's not presume Nova cannot overcome this malady.

He's 24. He doesn't give up many home runs. He appears to be durable, and even with the rough fifth innings, his WHIP as a starter in New York was 1.36. For a rookie thrust into the pressure cooker, that's not at all terrible. Heck, Burnett's WHIP was 1.51. Nova made seven starts, six against AL East foes. Remove that sixth inning in Tampa Bay and his ERA drops from 4.50 to 3.61. If Nova stinks this spring, he'll head back to the minors. In the fantasy world, that means he has less downside.

However, I think Nova will have a consistent spring, though we might not see him pass the five-inning threshold until mid-March, and I say he'll end up as the Yanks' No. 4 starter. On a team that scores as many runs as the Yankees do, and with an improved and deeper bullpen, that's attractive enough. There's always the risk the Yankees will upgrade at some point, but I think Yankees fans and fantasy owners are underestimating the current situation. Nova was listed as a top-20 Yankees prospect by Baseball America a year ago, and he moved up a bit for this year. He's not a force in the strikeout category, but 30 starts, a 4.25 ERA, and 12 or more wins is worth taking a shot on.