When a talented player comes back from a long-lasting injury, there is usually quite a bit of buzz about it. Sure, fans have no way of knowing whether or not he can be as exciting as he was prior to getting hurt, but the possibilities are normally worth some intrigue. However, the Yankees will get Ivan Nova back from Tommy John surgery on Wednesday afternoon, and it seems like no one is batting an eye.
Nova experienced one of the more unheralded rises to the Yankees rotation in recent memory. Technically, he's the longest-tenured homegrown Yankee, as he was signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 17-year-old in 2004. He was never really listed as a "Top 10 Prospect" or anything like that, but he simply worked his way up through the system until he posted a 2.86 ERA and 3.60 FIP while recording a solid 2.4 K/BB ratio in Triple-A Scranton in 2010. With Javier Vazquez 2: Electric Boogaloo proving to be a woeful disaster, Joe Girardi sought some reinforcements beyond the normal punching bags of Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre./
Enter Nova--the young right-hander was called up to make seven starts down the stretch, and while he didn't set the world on fire like Stephen Strasburg did earlier that year, he fared just fine. Granted an opportunity to begin the season in the majors in 2011, Nova was strong from start to finish, starting 27 games while pitching 165 1/3 innings of 3.4 WAR ball and finishing fourth in voting for AL Rookie of the Year. It looked like Nova was a rising star, but his 2012 was so maddeningly inconsistent that he was left off the playoff roster and after a 6.48 April in 2013, he was placed on the DL and unceremoniously demoted to Scranton.
While Nova was away from the team, minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson encouraged him to be more aggressive on the mound, as he felt that Nova wasn't pitching with enough energy. The fastball became sharper and the curveball turned into an even more potent weapon than ever before:
Nova pitched the best baseball of his career upon his return to the rotation, recording a 2.59 ERA with a mere .639 OPS against in his 15 starts, essentially reducing opponents to 2013 Vernon Wells at the plate. He even demonstrated a remarkable ability to pitch deep into games, recording two shutouts and three complete games. In those outings he looked dominant, and such an impressive finish to the season had spectators looking forward to his progress in 2014. That February, Grantland's Jonah Keri listed Nova among baseball's finest young starters predicted to take the next big step.
As Yankees fans know all too well unfortunately, the infamous Jonah Keri Curse slammed Nova hard, as he did not look the same at all early in the season. In the midst of another blowout loss in Tampa, Nova noticeably wiggled his arm around on the mound in obvious discomfort. Bench coach Tony Pena caught it, quickly alerted Joe Girardi, and Nova was gone from the game. Shortly thereafter, the diagnosis was what everyone feared: a torn UCL, one that was far worse than the one Masahiro Tanaka experienced later in the year. Nova hasn't returned to the mound since that awful night at the Trop.
It's been a weird 14 months in the wake of Nova's injury. When Nova was placed on the DL, the vast majority of Yankees fans had no idea who Shane Greene was, Vidal Nuno was in the rotation, and the entire Brandon McCarthy Experience was still months away. Now, Nathan Eovaldi and Adam Warren are Yankees starters, and a number of fans are ambivalent about Nova's return with the rotation already "full" at five starters.
Nova's main critics point to his inconsistency at the big league level as a reason for not wanting to bother with a six-man rotation, but here's the dirty secret that's not so secret: the entire rotation is inconsistent. Eovaldi's a crapshoot, fans are demanding for CC Sabathia to move to the bullpen (which the Yankees just aren't going to do with their big, pricey southpaw), and even Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda have experienced rocky starts at points in 2015.
Warren is probably at the peak of his popularity among Yankees fans thanks to a 2.93 ERA in his last seven starts, but is it really that wise to be pointing to a guy only a few months younger than Nova and in his first season as a big league starter as a cornerstone of consistency? Warren's first six starts of the season led to a shaky 4.65 ERA and throughout it all, his strikeout rate has only been a 5.8 K/9, exactly the same as the ugly 2015 Tigers version of Greene. Warren certainly deserves points for limiting the hits to somewhat weaker contact than Greene, but the .240 BABIP he's posted over the recent seven-start stretch is unlikely to continue. He's going to need to start missing bats more, and as a first-year starter, it would not be shocking at all to see the league improve against him the second time around. I do think there are signs that Warren could be a fine long-term starter, but he's still not anyone I would be altering the regularly scheduled 2015 plans around.
It's reasonable to downplay expectations about Nova's performance simply because it's been so long since he last pitched in the majors and pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery often have to work a little bit to build up strength and their first seasons back can be somewhat erratic. If they never let Nova try to come back though, then when is it going to happen? Even if they did have options left on him, Triple-A starts are not the same as the major leagues at all. (Minor league numbers during rehab starts aren't important either, as recovering players are working on certain aspects of their game, much like spring training.) There are likely sentiments of prospect fatigue going on with some Yankees fans. No one is ignoring the fact that Nova has had a weird career to date, but if the Yankees' can get a boost by someone remotely close to what Nova did in the second half of 2013, then they would sign up in a heartbeat. Even at Warren's best lately, he's never been quite as tremendous as Nova was then. Remember how excited people were for Pineda in 2015 after his sensational 13-start appetizer in 2014? People were just about as thrilled to watch Nova begin last year after his sampling in 2013.
The bottom line is that the Yankees don't really have to make a decision on who gets removed from the rotation when they shift back to regular rest anytime soon. LoHud's Chad Jennings estimated that their hand won't be forced until July 1st. That's a full week from now, and so many things could happen to the rotation by then. These situations will resolve themselves, and if the Yankees still have six healthy starters by the beginning of July, it's the cliche "good problem." Nova had to be demoted to Triple-A for about a month in 2011 due to a full rotation, so even if Warren spends a little time in the bullpen, it really won't be the end of the world for his development. Fans will probably have to be a little patient with Nova as he gets back into rhythm as well.
The Yankees need to hoard all the potentially talented starters they can gather. At his best, Nova is a hell of a nice asset to keep in the back of the rotation as he returns to form.