Contreras, Mussina real concerns

The Yankees are in a collective slump, but the real worry for New York resides in its starting rotation.

Originally Published: April 26, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

It's easy to boo the hitters making all the money when they don't hit. But the Yankees are going to score a lot of runs this season. While I did think the preseason talk about them scoring 1,000 runs was a tad overheated, I also thought the Yankees probably would lead the major leagues in runs scored, and I still think that. Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter ... it would be very difficult to have all these guys in your lineup and not score a ton of runs.

The pitching, though, I'm not so sure about.

Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez have combined for nine starts -- nearly half of the Yankees' 19 games -- and a 2.53 ERA. Remember, this pair of newcomers replaced Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and some wondered if they could handle the pressure in New York. So far, so good.

Mussina
Mussina

Contreras
Contreras

The non-Brown/Vazquez starts, though, have been a collective disaster. Four other Yankees have started games this season: Mike Mussina (5), Jose Contreras (3), Jorge DePaula (1), and Alex Graman (1). That quartet has combined for one win (Mussina), seven losses, and a 7.64 ERA.

Is help on the way? DePaula is the Yankees' best pitching prospect, or at least he was before going on the DL last week with an elbow injury that will require surgery. When DePaula went down, the Yankees summoned a couple of other young pitchers from Columbus, and both are impressive in their own ways. But Scott Proctor hasn't started a game since 2002, and Alex Graman has a 4.42 ERA in 48 Triple-A starts. Granted, Proctor might eventually get a chance to start games again and Graman might be better than his numbers. But young starters suffer from growing pains, and it's been quite some time since anybody working in Yankee Stadium had the patience for growing pains suffered by young starting pitchers.

Everybody knew that the Yankees' fifth starter was a question mark entering the season. There was much optimistic talk about Jon Lieber, but how much can you reasonably expect from a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery? Lieber figures to be part of the mix, as do Graman and DePaula and maybe Donovan Osborne. That's not the problem. Everybody's got issues at the No. 5 slot.

No, right now the Yankees' biggest problems by far are Mussina (1-4, 6.67) and Contreras (0-2. 10.64!), and there's really not much to be done about them. Mussina's been as consistent as any pitcher in the game over the last five years (and more), and unless he's hurt you just have to assume that he's about to pitch like he always does. Contreras, on the other hand, doesn't have Mussina's track record so we can't just assume he'll be a Cy Young candidate. If you weren't paying attention last season, though, it was easy to miss how well Contreras actually pitched. In 71 innings with the big club, Contreras allowed only 52 hits (four home runs) and struck out 72 batters.

Ron Shandler wrote, "From a skills perspective, this debut justified last winter's bidding war. ... Assuming good health, he will emerge as an elite-level SP."

Baseball Prospectus wasn't quite so enthusiastic. Here's the entire comment from this year's book:

Contreras showed electric stuff at times, but also had some trouble commanding it, a flaw that caused him to struggle against the more patient teams he faced. Fortunately for him, six of his nine starts were against the Devil Rays, Tigers, Orioles, and Reds, and he had a 1.48 ERA against those teams. He misses bats, which is a big plus in front of a defense that misses balls. Contreras will likely settle in as a mid-rotation starter, but an inconsistent one, mixing game scores of 91 and 19 with frustrating frequency.

Well, Contreras hasn't pitched against the Devil Rays, Tigers, Orioles, or Reds this season (not that all those teams are pushovers this season, anyway). Instead he's pitched against the White Sox and the Red Sox (twice). All those Sox are patient, and Contreras has walked nine batters in 11 innings. More damaging, though, have been the 17 hits, including four home runs.

I know the Yankees will score plenty of runs, I'm almost sure that Mike Mussina will pitch like he always has, and I think that Jose Contreras eventually will earn all that money he's making. I'm rooting for the story, though. And won't it be a great story if the Yankees don't win?

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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