There wasn’t much variation in their performances to this point in spring training. That Chad Gaudin had pitched his way to the bottom of the list of the five “starters” competing for the last four spots on the Yankee pitching staff was clear, as was the fact that Sergio Mitre had simultaneously pitched his way out of that elimination spot. Exactly what the Yankees were going to do about that was less clear until the Yankees placed Gaudin on waivers on Tuesday, effectively removing him from the 40-man roster.
Gaudin, who pitched relatively well down the stretch last year (3.43 ERA, 7.3 K/9 in 6 starts and 5 relief appearances), was actually the Yankees’ (unused) fourth starter in the 2009 postseason, earning that distinction over Joba Chamberlain, who instead made ten appearances out of the bullpen. In January, Gaudin avoided arbitration with the Yankees by signing a one-year deal worth $2.95 million, but the contract was not guaranteed, meaning that the Yankees will owe him just $737,500 if he clears waivers and they release him (if they send him to Triple-A, they’ll still owe him the entire amount, but if he’s claimed, they’ll be off the hook entirely). Given that all they sent the Padres for Gaudin last August was cash, there will have been little waste involved in Gaudin’s brief time with the team.
With Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Jason Hirsh, and Zach McAllister all on hand and to different degrees ready to step into either the rotation or the bullpen, Gaudin is no great loss. Rather, Gaudin’s removal from the roster places increased emphasis on what Sergio Mitre has to offer.
With Gaudin out of the picture, it now seems likely that Mitre will be the twelfth man on the Yankees’ Opening Day pitching staff. His primary rivals are potential second lefties Boone Logan and Royce Ring, but Ring is a non-roster player and Logan has an option remaining, whereas Mitre is, like Gaudin was, a member of the 40-man roster on a non-guaranteed contract who would have to be passed through waivers to be sent to Triple-A. Mitre’s contract is small enough at $850,000 for the Yankees to eat the $212,500 they’d owe Mitre if they released him, but the club seems legitimately enthusiastic about how Mitre has been pitching this spring, and not without good reason.
I know that the prospect of Sergio Mitre on the Opening Day roster is anathema to a large part of the Yankee fanbase and the Bronx Banter readership in particular, but I still can’t completely hate on the Yankees interest in Mitre. I shrugged off the Mitre signing entering camp a year ago, remarking in my 2009 campers post that, “Mitre was never a high-ceiling starter, but rather a moderately successful sinkerballer, who had yet to put it all together in the majors prior to his [July 2008 Tommy John] surgery. He’ll be 29 next February and hardly seems worth even the minimal commitment.” Five months later, after Chien-Ming Wang had blow up twice and Phil Hughes had begun to establish himself as a dominant set-up man, I took a different view:
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 posted a 6.79 ERA in nine starts and three relief appearances for the Yankees after I wrote the above, but his solid 2.46 K/BB, swollen .333 opponent’s batting average on balls in play, and absurd 22.2 percent home-runs-per-fly-ball rate (the major league average is around 8 percent) all suggested that bad luck played some role in that poor performance. Clearly Mitre was getting hit hard, but he was also unlucky and, theoretically, still building his arm back up after rehabbing from his TJ surgery.
In my campers post this year, I repeated much of the above about Mitre, but described Mitre’s 2009 K/BB ratio, which was a single-season career best for the right-hander, as “mildly encouraging,” later adding, “there’s some small hope that being two years removed from surgery could allow him to recapture some of his form from 2007, when over his first 17 starts he posted a 2.82 ERA with just five home runs allowed and a 3.10 K/BB.”
I don’t want him to be the fifth starter, and I don’t think there’s any real risk of that unless another starter suffers a significant injury, but I just can’t completely trash the Yankees continued interest in Mitre. I realize that spring training statistics are about as predictive as campaign promises, but Mitre really has been throwing the ball better this spring. Ignore his ERA, or even his slim hits total, and look at his 14 strikeouts in 14 innings against just three walks and one homer. Better yet, read the comments from Mitre, his manager, and catcher collected by Chad Jennings:
. . . what might have tipped the scales in Mitre’s favor?
He’s further removed from surgery: “Last year I felt good early when I was coming back from Tommy John and toward the later months of the year, I just kind of fatigued,” Mitre said. “The offseason really helped. Nothing hurts right now.”
His sinker is moving more: “I think the pitches are the same,” Mitre said. “I think the only thing that’s different is there might be more life to it as opposed to being flatter.”
He’s throwing harder: “His velocity is better,” Joe Girardi said. “He doesn’t seem to fatigue as easily. There is a difference.”
His command is better: “He’s a different guy,” Jorge Posada said. “You can tell that he’s healthy and the ball is just coming out of his hand a lot better. He’s throwing strikes. Location, that tells you that he’s back on track… He’s putting it wherever he wants.”
Mitre is a year younger than Chien-Ming Wang, further removed from injury, walked just 2.3 men per nine innings in his awful 2009 season, and now reportedly has more velocity and movement on his top pitch and is proving it with impressive spring training peripherals. There’s only one thing that upsets me about the Yankees taking another chance on this guy as the last man on the pitching staff, and it has nothing to do with how Mitre might pitch.
Going back to my campers post, I concluded Mitre’s entry by saying, “there are better, younger arms who deserve a shot at that last bullpen spot should it open up.” Gaudin’s struggles have opened that spot up, and 25-year-old fellow Tommy John survivor Mark Melancon, who has struck out eight in 6 1/3 spring innings against one walk and no homers, is more deserving than Mitre of that last spot, though I’m pretty well convinced at this point that Mitre will claim it.
I’m also convinced that Melancon will find his way into high-leverage work out of the the major league pen during the upcoming season the way David Robertson did last year, but there’s not as clear a path for Melancon as there was for Robertson last year when Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez seemed ready to cough up their spots. Maybe Mitre is that guy this year, but right now the Yankees seem to think he could be the new Ramiro Mendoza, and I’m not particularly motivated to argue with them.