Going into this past offseason, the New York Yankees had far more questions than answers with regards to their starting pitching. Their ace, C.C. Sabathia, was coming off the worst year of his career, a troubling sign for a starting pitcher in his 30s. Hiroki Kuroda fell apart after four stellar months to start last season, a collapse attributed to him being nearly 40 years old.
Michael Pineda, the young pitcher with tremendous potential, had been on the shelf with a major arm injury for the last two seasons. Other young arms like Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, and Adam Warren, showed promise but none had enough experience to rely on. Even Masahiro Tanaka, the young Japanese star who the Yankees signed to a massive contract, was a relatively unknown quantity who the Yankees hoped would be able to make the transition to Major League Baseball.
The one pitcher the Yankees thought they could count on this year and for years to come was Ivan Nova, who had a brilliant comeback season in 2013 after an exciting rookie year in 2011 and a disappointing sophomore campaign in 2012. But after an inconsistent spring training and beginning to this season, he felt a pop in his arm during a start against the Tampa Bay Rays, ending his season and putting next year in doubt as well.
Tommy John had a lengthy and succesful pitching career with seven teams, notably the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees, but he is far more famous for the revolutionary surgery that was performed on his left arm than his 288 wins. Tommy John surgery replaces a torn ligament from a pitcher's throwing elbow with a tendon from his non-throwing forearm. Since it was first performed on John, it has extended the careers of hundreds of starting pitchers, and in some cases, pitchers have come back more effective and stronger than they were before the surgery.
However, the recovery period is lengthy. Pitchers generally don't return for at least a year and most don't aren't fully recovered for 18 months. Even though the success rate of the surgery ranges between 85% and 92%, any pitcher who undergoes the surgery becomes a huge question mark for the next year or two until their performance answers those questions.
It was bad enough for front offices when established pitchers were losing a year a two of their prime in the midst of lengthy and expensive contracts, but in recent years, pitchers have been suffering UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) injuries earlier and earlier in their careers. The spike has been attributed to significant increases in the number of innings that young pitchers throw in their early years as baseball seasons for elite youths have expanded from the two to three months per year to the six to nine months they've become. Whereas kids could rest their pitching arms decades ago while playing other sports, the age of early specialization has led to top talent adding more wear to their arms while attending baseball camps, joining traveling teams, and even moving to warm-weather states where they can play baseball year-round.
The question mark
Matt Harvey of the New York Mets and Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals are recent Tommy John poster boys, but both are superstars, leaving little doubt about their futures even as they recovered from the procedure. With two very good seasons and one very bad one under his belt, Nova clearly had a place in the Yankees rotation before his injury, but his future with the team is not nearly as clear as his pitching counterparts.
In fact, the Yankees will have a very tough decision to make this off-season. Nova will probably not be completely recovered from his surgery until his walk year season of 2016, giving the team only one year of affordably priced team control before he becomes a free agent prior to the 2017 season. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, MLB teams have six years of major league control over the players that they develop through their minor league systems. During the first three years, they can pay players as little or as much as they choose.
During the last three years, teams can either negotiate on a year-to-year basis, offer arbitration, or sign players to long-term contracts. Players and teams both like to avoid the arbitration process -- it's a contentious process where the player states what he wants to be paid, the team states what they want to pay, and the sides make their cases to an arbitrator, often requiring teams to criticize, downplay, and minimize the value of a player whom they still want to have on their team performing at a high level.
This year was Nova's first year of arbitration eligibility, but he and the Yankees were able to avoid this process by agreeing to a one-year, $3.3 million contract. If the Yankees decide to continue investing in Nova's future on a short-term basis, it will most likely cost them between $7 million and $8 million for the next two years, at least one of which is unlikely to be productive ... which leads to the conundrum facing the Yankees' front office.
Pay for no play?
If they decide to pay Nova for the next two years, he recovers fully, and is productive for part of 2015 and all of 2016, he will be in a position to get a very lucrative long-term contract when he reaches free agency. Depending on how productive he is during these last few years of team control, he could realistically get as few as three years or as many as six years and anywhere from $8 million to $20 million per year, with the most likely contract being four years and $15 million per year. If the Yankees wind up signing him for this amount, his total cost over the next seven years will be somewhere around $70 million.
That said, since recovery from Tommy John surgery is never guaranteed, the Yankees could try to use the uncertainty surrounding the health of Nova's elbow to their advantage and try to sign him to a relatively inexpensive long-term deal right now. If they were to offer Nova a six-to-eight year contract worth between $30 million and $40 million, it might be tough for him to decline. It would be a risky investment on the part of the Yankees, but like most high-risk investments, the potential reward is often much higher. This could be true for Nova as well.
If the Yankees take a wait-and-see approach with Nova, they could wind up paying him anywhere between $30 million and $130 million over the next six to eight years. But if they lock him up long-term now at an average annual value of $5 million per year, they will either have a very effective and inexpensive starting pitcher on the team during that time or a somewhat overpaid middle reliever and spot starter. The only way that this investment truly burns the Yankees is if Nova cannot pitch effectively at all in any capacity -- unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility.
Another, albeit far less likely, possibility is that the Yankees could bail on Nova altogether and refuse to tender him a contract for 2015 and 2016 and watch from afar as another team makes a short- or long-term investment on his future. Non-tendering Nova would save them the $7 million $8 million that they would most likely have to pay Nova to give them a season-plus of hopefully productive pitching, enabling them to use it on other needs.
What makes this scenario less likely for the Yankees than some other clubs is that in the grand scheme of a $200 million payroll, give or take, $8 million is not going to make the front office sweat. If anything, they would be far more likely to wait and see on Nova, simply because they can afford the extra cost that it could incur. That said, their financial capacity is also why they could afford to take a risk right now on an inexpensive long-term contract.
If the Yankees were to go the high-risk/high-reward route, it would be the first time in the history of this surgical procedure that a player was given a long-term contract during their recovery period. However, because so many pitchers are experiencing UCL tears prior to becoming free agents, more teams, especially those lacking the financial capacity of the Yankees, are going to have to go down this road if they want to have a chance of being competitive in both the short and long run.