No one ever believed that Yunesky Maya was the second coming of Stephen Strasburg, but when the Nationals signed the Cuban righthander to a four year $6 million contract, they believed they were getting more of a finished product than has shown up in his first four starts. Maya has struggled and the once “major league-ready caliber pitcher” (a phrase the Nats once used to describe Maya) has slowly shifted: he’s now a “work in progress.” That the Nats have trimmed their outlook on Maya was clear after yesterday’s 5-0 loss to the Braves. Maya pitched well early, but ran out of gas in the sixth, and emerged from the contest with an 0-3 record. Nats’ pitching guru Steve McCatty was quick to defend Maya, emphasizing the difference between pitching in Cuba and in the minors — and in major leagues. “He is getting better at understanding how to play here,” McCatty said in the wake of yesterday’s loss. “This game is not easy. This jump from the Minor Leagues to the big leagues — other than a few exceptions — is not easy. There is stuff that he has to learn and he is doing the best that he can to make strides every time out.”
Well, we’re sure that’s right, but doubts have begun to surface about whether Maya will actually learn quickly enough, or make the requisite “strides,” to be a part of the Washington rotation next year. The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore’s view of Maya’s outing in this morning’s paper was sobering. “After Maya’s fourth start, a 5-0 loss to the wild card-chasing Atlanta Braves . . . a new question has emerged: Is this all?” The “is this all” question focuses on what Maya actually brings to the mound: he’s not overpowering, he tends to nibble at the strike zone, he walks a lot of batters and he gives up big innings. The result? He’s not nearly as effective as Nats fan thought he would be. Which is not to say that we should judge the Cuban righty a big league failure — he’s a long ways from that. But it’s clear now that Nats fans should not expect Maya to be as dominant as Strasburg, or Lee, or Halladay, over even Danny Haren, for that matter. Rather, Yunesky Maya will have to do what other finesse pitchers do: he’ll have to identify a hitter’s weakness and exploit it; he’ll have to throw strikes early and low in the zone and learn how to pitch out of tough situations.
There’s reason to believe he’s capable of doing just that. While we’re only able to judge him on four outings, Maya seems unflappable, patient and willing to take advice. He has good command and good control. He can throw strikes. Prior to yesterday’s outing, according to Kilgore, McCatty told Maya to “trust” his stuff, and Maya did — throwing eight consecutive strikes in the first inning of yesterday’s outing, and retiring the Braves on 11 pitches. When it all came undone, in the 6th (when Maya gave up a walk, a double, a single and a home run) Maya not only remained unfazed, he issued a post-game assessment that reflected his experience as a savvy veteran who knows the difference between pitching and throwing. “I’m not mad at the home run,” he said after the game. “I’m mad at the walk.” Will Yunesky Maya succeed? Did the Nats make the right decision in signing him? We don’t know yet — and we probably won’t know for quite some time.