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(Originally published at IIATMS/TYA)
Before January 22nd, Ivan Nova was a, perhaps THE, critical part of the starting rotation for 2014. The Yankees' top 2 starters were older and both coming off varying degrees of tough seasons. CC Sabathia was downright bad for most of 2013 and Hiroki Kuroda stumbled to the finish line after another heavy workload. With a bunch of unproven back end guys behind him, Nova was going to be expected to carry a much bigger portion of the rotation load if one of the top 2 faltered again or got hurt, and he was going to have to pitch really well if the Yankees were going to have any chance of making it back to the postseason.
After January 22nd, and the addition of Masahiro Tanaka to the rotation, it's almost as if Nova has become an afterthought. Tanaka has cast a much brighter glow over the entire rotation, turning Sabathia into a fit, trim former ace ready to bounce back and reclaim his title, Kuroda back into the reliable #2 he's really always been, and making the 5th starter competition much less important than it was on January 21st. And sitting there penciled into the 4th rotation slot is Nova, the now 27-year-old right-hander coming off a career year whose importance to the Yankees' success is no longer as crucial as it was 3 weeks ago.
Or is it? It's easy to dismiss Nova as a luxury item in the rotation now, a wild card even. If we're being honest, he's more than earned that title with his yo-yo performance in his 3+ years in the Majors. He's really only put up 2 extended periods of success in that span, the final 2 months of 2011 and the final 3 months of last season. Other than that he's been mostly bad, bordering on horrible at times, and he got to the point before he got hurt last year where Joe no longer had faith in him. The latest transformation he underwent in the Minors seemed to take though. More sinkers, more curveballs, more strikes with the fastball, it's a formula that should be easy to repeat and allow Nova to get the most out of his stuff. And while Tanaka may be taking all of the spotlight, that doesn't make Nova any less important to the rotation this year or in future years.
As much as we're all hoping for a rebound year, there's a non-zero chance that the CC we saw last year or some similar version of that CC is representative of the type of pitcher he's going to be moving forward. That kind of production isn't going to cut it at the top of any rotation, and the Yankees will have to start moving him down the pecking order if that's what he's going to be for the next 4 years. Hirok probably won't be back next year, Tanaka is a completely unknown commodity as a Major League pitcher, and Michael Pineda, not that anybody needed to be reminded of this again, has yet to throw his first regular season pitch in pinstripes.
Looking around the projected 2014 rotation, wild card Nova may very well be the biggest certainty of the bunch. The stretch of starts he made to close out last season was the best and most consistent he's looked in the Majors and a repeat of that performance over a full season's worth of starts would be incredibly valuable. It's worth noting that Nova has never made more than 30 starts in a season and never pitched more than 170 innings. Not only does he need to stay consistent and productive this year, he needs to stay healthy and prove he can hold up over 30+ starts and 200ish innings. If he does, suddenly he becomes a very key part of the Yankee rotation equation going forward.
The Yankees are going to need more top-of-the-rotation pitching soon regardless of how good Tanaka turns out to be. Nova can be one of those pitchers. He's got the size, he's got the stuff, and he's under team control for another 2 seasons after this one. Mike Axisa recently touched on the idea of extending Nova before he gets too expensive or hits free agency and it's something the Yankees should seriously consider if Nova pitches well in 2014. They can re-up him for a lot less money than it will take to sign someone like Scherzer, Masterson, or Bailey next offseason, if those guys are even available, and give themselves a solid top 2 with Pineda and ManBan in the mix as well. He's no longer the #3 starter and he's no longer the "next man up" if CC or Hirok go down, but Nova still is and should be a big part of the Yankees' future.