(Welcome to the show, guy. Courtesy of the AP)
The lone bright spot in last night's absolute stink pot of a game was the Major League debut of Vidal Nuno. After being released from the Cleveland Indians' A-ball affiliate following the 2010 season, Nuno has worked himself up through five levels of the Yankee MiL system in just a little over two seasons and put himself in a position to capitalize on an opportunity when Ivan Nova went on the DL. While so many people focus on what Nuno isn't when labeling him an automatic non-prospect, I put more stock into what he is when I evaluated him and included him in this year's AB4AR Top 30 (30th spot). He might not be big, he might not throw hard, and he might not have devastating offspeed stuff, but he's still before his prime at age 25, he throws strikes, he has outstanding command, and his offspeed stuff is just good enough to strike a fair amount of batters out. As a lefty, that's not a bad skill set to possess.
Nuno's greatest quality, at least as it relates to the current Yankee roster, might be his flexibility. That ability to pitch in multiple scenarios, paired with the aforementioned left-handedness, could make Nuno a very versatile bullpen piece for Joe to use as he sees fit.
That Nuno got called up on the day he was scheduled to pitch was no coincidence. He's been the unquestioned best pitcher on the Triple-A SWB staff so far this year, with just 4 ER allowed in 23.1 IP over four starts and a 26/2 K/BB ratio. With the Yankees losing their prime long reliever in David Phelps to the rotation, and Joe not giving Adam Warren much burn in that role, there's an obvious need for more middle relief. Nuno's early starter workload makes it easy for him to transition to that role for a few innings, as he did last night, or for longer appearances like we've seen from Phelps and Warren without concern for his pitch count. The fact that he's a high strike thrower and relatively efficient in his approach (28 strikes out of 38 pitches in 3 innings last night) only makes that fit better.
That starter workload and high pitch count threshold also puts Nuno in the mix for a spot start should another starting pitcher go down. The Yankees are a bit thin on viable spot start candidates at the moment, and have gotten thinner as a result of the Phelps-for-Nova swap. With Joe being unwilling to use Warren regularly out of the 'pen, I can't see him being the first in line to get the ball for a start, especially after his bomb job against the White Sox last year. Chien-Ming Wang is still building up arm strength and pitch count in Triple-A, and should really only be used in case of emergency, Michael Pineda is still only pitching short rehab sim games, and Brett Marshall has looked pedestrian at best in his early Triple-A starts. Nuno, as a guy who's healthy, with no pitch count concerns, and who's been very good in his starts so far, would be the natural next man up in the rotation.
The most interesting possibility for Nuno might be as the 2nd LOOGY in the bullpen, a role the Yanks have gone without so far this season because of Clay Rapada's injury and one that still carries some importance due to the desire to not burn out Boone Logan. Nuno started as a reliever in High-A Tampa last year, and was very good before being converted back to a full-time starter in Double-A. He also worked exclusively as a reliever in the Venezuelan winter league, pitching to a 2.52 ERA with 24 K and 6 BB in 25.0 IP over 22 appearances. Pitching to Major League hitters is a big step up in competition, but Nuno's makeup as a strike thrower and his delivery make him tough for lefty hitters to face, and he brings the added benefit of not having to come out against righties because he can pitch to them too. Based on what Rapada was able to do last year without all-world stuff, there's reason to expect that Nuno can replicate that success.
While he's never going to vault to the top of any prospect ranking lists, and he's an extreme longshot to stick as a full-time Major League starter, Vidal Nuno does bring a lot to the table and gives Joe a multitude of options for how best to use him. His plus command, role flexibility, and track record of success as a starter and a reliever makes him almost two pitchers in one, something the back end of the 'pen could use right now. Nuno gave a sneak peek of that flexibility and command last night, and he's certainly worth following in these next few weeks just to see how often and in how many different situations Joe goes to him.