There’s been a lot of eye rolling and hand wringing about the fact that Sergio Mitre has been chosen to take the injured Chien-Ming Wang’s start against the Orioles tonight. I’ve seen Sidney Ponson’s name tossed about as a comparison, a short-cut for the sort of proven major league failure the Yankees should no longer need to resort to given the depth of pitching in their system and the presence of two quality starting pitchers in their bullpen in Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves. I would, of course, much prefer to see the Yankees stretch Hughes back out should Wang’s current DL stay project to be a long one, but with regards to Ponson, I’m here to say that Mitre is not that.
Sidney Ponson had posted a below average ERA in 235 major league starts before joining the Yankees for the first time in 2006 and arrived in the Bronx in July 2006 having just posted a 5.24 ERA in 13 starts for the Cardinals during the first half of the season. Mitre, by comparison, has made just 52 major league starts and just once made more than nine in a single season. He has not thrown a major league pitch since 2007 due to Tommy John surgery and was just 26 in that, his only full season as a major league starter. Mitre’s career line in the majors is certainly unimpressive (5.36 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 5.4 K/9), but he was rushed to the majors in just his third professional season at age 22, jerked between the majors, minors, rotation, and bullpen in each of his three seasons with the Cubs, and came down with shoulder problems in May of his first season with the Marlins in 2006. Given all of that, I’m tempted to just toss out those first four partial major league seasons in which Mitre went 5-15 with a 6.01 ERA in 25 starts and 26 relief appearances.
Instead, I look at what Mitre did with a healthy arm and a rotation spot in the first half of the 2007 season under manager Joe Girardi. In 16 starts (not counting one aborted start in which he tore a blister during the first inning), Mitre posted a 2.82 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and a 3.1 K/9. Ten of those outings were quality starts and two others were scoreless but cut short by a tight hamstring. Mitre’s season fell apart in late July due to the elbow problems that led to his Tommy John surgery and wiped out his 2008 season.
As you can see, Mitre’s problems have had far more to do with health than effectiveness. That’s a red flag when a team throws $80-million, five-year contracts at a pitcher, but when the pitcher in question comes in on a make-good minor league deal, health concerns don’t concern me as there’s nothing there but upside. Mitre will make a pro-rated portion of a $1.25 million salary while in the majors this year, well worth the gamble that he can recapture the effectiveness he had in the first half of 2007.
Like the pitcher he replaces, Mitre is a groundballer, which makes him well-suited to the Yankees’ homer-happy new ballpark. In his minor league rehab work this year, Mitre has induced roughly three groundouts for every fly out, a rate comparable to Wang’s at his peak. Mitre has also shown tremendous control, walking just seven men in nine starts or 1.16 per nine innings, a rate that recalls another ex-Cub Tommy John rehab project that worked out well for the Yankees, Jon Lieber. In those first 16 starts in 2007, Mitre’s walk rate was 1.76, compared to 3.7 in his first four partial major league seasons, another indication that the Mitre we see tonight is more likely to be the early 2007 model. Six of Mitre’s seven starts for Triple-A Scranton have been quality starts, and his work for Scranton has yielded a 2.40 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 7.00 K/BB.
It’s entirely possible that Mitre will pull a Kei Igawa upon returning to the major leagues, but given that Triple-A performance and his decided lack of a meaningfully poor major league history, I think he deserves at least this one chance to prove he won’t. Unlike with Ponson, the Yankees won’t know what they have in Mitre unless they give him a chance to show them.
That said, if the pain Wang felt in his shoulder during his throwing session yesterday does indeed indicate a longer-than-anticipated DL stay and Mitre is anything less than excellent tonight, the Yankees should immediately begin stretching Hughes back out as a long-term solution to the hole in their rotation.
Mitre’s opposition tonight will be another ex-Cub, lefty Rich Hill. Hill had an excellent season in the Cubs’ rotation in 2007, but lost the strikezone last year, pitching his way off the team and out of the organization. Picked up by the Orioles in February, Hill has been wildly erratic for Baltimore this season, swinging from seven shutout innings with seven strikeouts against the Mariners on June 1 to three runs on a hit, four walks, and a hit batter and a first-inning hook his next time out. Anything within that range is possible tonight.