Last week, I took a look at one of the primary concerns facing the Yankees as they head into the dog days of summer, the suddenly fragile state of the starting pitching rotation. In the subsequent games since my article, we have been treated to a well-diversified display of the myriad issues facing the Yankees' starting pitching.
In the week of games since the Tampa Bay series, the rotation has had its share of ups and downs, which is certainly not an uncommon occurence for any rotation. The timing of this recent run however, helps to magnify the uneasy feelings regarding the starters.
With exactly one week left before the July 31 trading deadline, the Yankee brass must soon decide if they are comfortable sticking with the rotation's current configuration: Sabathia, Burnett, Mitre in place of Pettitte, Vazquez, and Hughes.
Mitre showed Saturday, via his batting practice session that he tossed to the Kansas City offense, that he may be better suited for the bullpen than for a starting role. Granted, he just returned from over a month on the disabled list, so being thrust into a start as the replacement for a thus-far stellar Andy Pettitte is not as simple as us fans would like it to be.
Phil Hughes, in his last start against the Angels, continued on his downward trending path that he has embarked upon since mid-June. Showing little command of most of his pitches, Hughes walked three and was pounded for nine hits, including two home runs, as he allowed six runs in five innings, en route to his third loss of the season.
Just Sunday, Hughes again trudged through five and a third innings, allowing two more home runs, but left the game in line for the victory.
Javy Vazquez showed further signs of personal improvement against the Angels, only to regress in effectiveness as the start wore on, eventually allowing five runs on nine hits over only five innings. Fortunate to pitch on a day that the Yankee offense provided ample run support, he was able to pick up the win, but it didn't mask the inconsistenct of his outing.
As of Saturday, Andy Pettitte was already reporting that his groin strain is improving quickly and that he doesn't expect to be sidelined for the previously estimated four to five weeks. Of course, players are often difficult to gauge when trying to predict injury recovery times, as they are usually eager to return to action as soon as possible and may not always consider the long-tern consequences of rushing back from injury.
The team will likely employ the cautious approach with the 38-year-old veteran and it should be noted that he has yet to throw from a mound, so although he may be feeling better, he hasn't truly tested the injury to know whether it may be ready to withstand the rigors of game action.
It has been widely reported that the Yankees have been in contact with various teams regarding a variety of starters who may be available via trade over the next week. The Andy Pettitte injury seemed to heighten the possibility of the Yankees exploring starting pitching options in the trade market.
Even if Pettitte won't be out as long-term as the team doctors initially postulated, a trade for a starter could serve to bolster the Yankees pitching staff in multiple areas.
As the baseball world is well aware, the Yankees intend to limit the wear on Phil Hughes' young arm by closely monitoring his innings total as the season progresses. Hughes is now entering uncharted territory as a major league pitcher, as he is now at 106 innings, 14 more than his 2009 total, which includes his postseason outings.
Although it has never been explicitly stated by the team, it is widely believed that the Yankees intend to limit Hughes to the 150-160 inning range.
Considering the fact that Hughes may only have 40-50 more innings before he reaches his intended cap for this season, some creative thinking may become necessary to achieve that predetermined goal.
At this point, the Yankees may try to tinker with his routine and skip a start or two, but just as recently as last year, the team faced trouble when applying the same strategy to Joba Chamberlain. Many in the game view that as the reasoning behind Joba's unraveling down the stretch, and the team may be reluctant to revisit the same strategy with Hughes.
This is where the trade deadline options come into play. In light of the Pettitte injury, the Yankees were already exploring their potential trade options, whether in the form of Oswalt, Haren, Lilly, Sheets or a few others. Any of these veteran hurlers could have possibly helped cover for Pettitte as he makes his way back from his groin injury.
Now though, even if Andy returns sooner than expected, the addition of a veteran starting pitcher could help to address two of the team's most obvious needs with one personnel transaction.
With the continuing struggles of Joba Chamberlain, and his inability to confidently stake claim to the eighth inning setup role, there is clearly a glaring void in the ranks of the team's late bullpen arms, as well as in the starting rotation.
Considering the absence of Alfredo Aceves, the slow return to 2009 form of David Robertson, and the fact that Damaso Marte is most suitable for a left-handed specialist role, there is not a clear in-house favorite to assume ownership of the critical primary setup job.
If the Yankees were inclined to enter the fray of the pre-deadline trading market, a move for a veteran started could help cover for the injured Pettitte in the short-term, while allowing Phil Hughes to also make a few more starts.
Once Andy Pettitte returns from his stint on the disabled list, having another veteran arm could then allow Phil Hughes to return to the eighth inning role, allowing him to get closer to his proposed inning limit while still continuing to pitch out of the bullpen.
Phil Hguhes thrived in the setup role last season, one of the keys to the 2009 Yankee Championship run in the eyes of many observers. Returning him to the familiar role for the remainder of the 2010 season could serve to once again solidify the bridge to Mariano that has been sorely lacking thus far.
It would also give the Yankees an easier way to maintain Hughes' innings limit without venturing into the awkward territory of attempting to skip his starts or truncate his outings, a la the bizarre Joba Rules experiment of late last year.
I can't imagine anyone in the Bronx or the Yankees' Tampa complex feeling comfortable heading down the stretch relying on the current bullpen configuration to help successfully defend the World Series title. I don't want to lay it all on Joba, but his wild, pendulum-like swings from dominance to utter ineffectiveness clearly are not the answer for now.
We have witnessed over the last decade that trying to import bullpen arms can be a risky proposition, as relievers tend to be volatile in their performance. By trading for a guy for two months, you could easily catch him right at the beginning of an ineffective streak, making the entire move seem worthless. Numerous releivers, from Damaso Marte, Kyle Farnsworth, Mark Wohlers and others have been brought into a similar role, only to meet with varying degrees of difficulty in solidifying the Yankee bullpen.
Of course, if you have the opportunity to trade for an upper-tier reliever such as Kansas City's Joakim Soria, that may alter the equation significantly. The cost in prospects for acquiring such a quality arm may be too rich for the Yankees' tastes though, in addition to the question of whether he would even be willing to serve as a setup man, while biding his time until the great Mariano River decides to retire.
Soria would seem to be a near-perfect solution for the Yankees, as he would likely have no difficulty thriving in a setup role, considering he has been a top-five closer in baseball for the last few seasons, even while toiling for a less-than stellar Royals team. Once the dreaded day comes where the seemingly-immortal Mariano Rivera actually retires, the young Soria could step into the closer's role seamlessly, providing the Yankees with another dominant ninth inning savior.
It cannot be assumed that Kansas City would necessarily even be willing to move their brilliant 26-year-old closer, and even then, they certainly are not going to part with him easily. They would almost assuredly want the Yankees' most highly-coveted prospect, catcher Jesus Montero as part of a package of players in any deal. Potentially losing the 20-year-old Montero cannot be taken lightly, as his young bat has been compared at times to such greats as Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez. The thought of such a young slugger plying his trade in the Bronx surely tantalizes Yankee management and their fans, but so do dreams of back-to-back World Series once again.
You can be sure that Brian Cashman and the Yankee brain trust are diligently exploring all potential options as the trading deadline swiftly approaches. There will be plentiful alternatives as most teams have now determined whether they still have legitimate hopes for 2010, or are better off turning their eyes toward 2011 and beyond. While the temptation of an additional bullpen arm may prove difficult to resist, making a move for a starting pitcher is imperative and could allow Cashman and the Yankees to kill the proverbial "two birds with one stone."