When news broke yesterday via WFAN's Sweeny Murti that Nathan Eovaldi will miss at least the next two weeks with severe elbow inflammation, it was a hard blow to a Yankee rotation that hasn't been fully intact all year. With Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia all missing time with one ailment or another, Eovaldi had been the Yankees' steadiest presence, leading the staff in starts with 27 and innings pitched with 154.1. Since the all-star break, the 25-year-old right-hander had been arguably the team's top arm, posting a 3.11 FIP and 7.99 K-per-nine rate in the second half.
So it goes in modern-day baseball. Pitchers are never sure bets, always teetering just one tweak away from Dr. James Andrews' operating table. Hopefully Eovaldi's elbow woes are nothing like that and he'll be back in the Yankee rotation by the end of September, but in the meantime Joe Girardi will need to walk a fine line between getting his starters adequate rest and giving his team a chance to win every game in an air-tight division race. With only one off day remaining on the schedule, that'll be no easy task.
The Yankees had hoped to run with a six-man rotation the rest of the year, but that probably won't happen now. It's arguably too late to stretch Adam Warren back out into starting shape, and Bryan Mitchell or (gasp!) Chris Capuano can't be trusted in multiple big games.
Here's a rough draft on how things will look going forward: Tanaka will take the hill tonight followed by Sabathia on Wednesday when the hefty lefty looks to bury the Orioles on wounded knee. That sets up Luis Severino as the starter for Thursday's series opener vs. Toronto on five days' rest, followed by Nova, Pineda and Tanaka on four days. The last part of that isn't ideal rest-wise, but at least the Yankees will be throwing four righties against the Jays' predominantly right-handed murderers' row.
On Monday the 14th, Sabathia figures to pitch against Tampa Bay, assuming all has gone well on the 9th. He'll be on four days' rest, as will Severino and Nova following him, so that three-game Rays series may be when Girardi chooses to slot in his sixth man, who will most likely be Mitchell. If he does, it'll push Nova back past the September 17th off-day, giving the manager some options on how to set up the following six games on the road against the Mets and Blue Jays. It would make sense to avoid pitching Sabathia at Rodgers Centre like the plague, and to use the opportunity to get an extra day's layoff for Tanaka and Pineda as they face the only two winning teams left on the docket. Going Nova-Pineda-Sabathia in Flushing and Tanaka-Severino-Nova in Toronto would get that done.
After they finish their season series with the Blue Jays on September 23rd, the Yankees close out the year with eleven more games in eleven days. By that time the picture should be somewhat clearer as to whether they're gunning for the division or the top Wildcard spot. Four games at home against the weak-hitting White Sox between the 24th and 27th would be the proper time to slot in Mitchell again if Eovaldi isn't yet recovered. Girardi may begin to set things up to get the pitcher he wants - probably Tanaka - in rotation for either a one-game Wildcard playoff or a game one Division Series start. Once they've concluded with Chicago, the Yankees end with a four-game set in the Bronx vs. Boston and three more vs. the Orioles at Camden Yards.
The loss of Eovaldi, especially if he's not able to return for the season's final two weeks and the playoffs, is a tough pill to swallow, but it's not something the Yankees can't manage. Even without the luxury of off-days they can spot start Mitchell strategically and keep their top guns on five or more days' rest more often than not. Winning with that approach, though, will hinge on representative efforts from CC and Nova that give the offense and bullpen a chance, and on Sabathia not breaking down again.