Joel Sherman | New York Post
AN EYEWITNESS from another organization who watched Jose Contreras strike out eight in 52/3 innings Wednesday called the Cuban “filthy. He had it all: command, presence, composure, stuff, pitchability, variety.”
A Yankee official who viewed the same Legends Field performance in which Contreras allowed one run to the Indians described the righty’s stuff as the best by any of the team’s starters this spring. Another club official flat out said, “It is not the kind of stuff you put in the bullpen.”
Yet, that is exactly what the Yanks should do. Not forever. Maybe not for more than a few weeks. But there is an opportunity here for the Yanks to be prudent in breaking in Contreras and yet potentially gain a competitive edge by using him in a meaningful relief role. Privately, a few Yankee decision makers think Contreras’ 97 mph fastball, immobilizing split and array of arm slots would make him dominant in the seventh and eighth innings akin to the 1996 Mariano Rivera in front of John Wetteland.
“The Orioles used to break starters in from the pen to get their feet wet,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. “But that remains to be seen and it is up to Joe [Torre]. But what he showed [Wednesday], it is tough to keep him out of the rotation.”
But this is not about depriving Contreras of the rotation. It is about possibly keeping him in it longer. Contreras comes with a workhorse rep. But while he might have been abused with high pitch counts in Cuba, he has no experience starting every fifth day during a six-month season because the Cuban schedule has more regular off-days and is not as long. And the likelihood is Contreras will be needed for a seventh month here because the Yanks are such a near playoff certainty.
Is it possible the strapping Contreras could handle 32 starts and 220 innings plus a postseason in 2003 without diminishing returns this year and in the future? Sure. But why risk it? He is signed for four years, not one. If he is as good as advertised, he will start plenty, including this season with the dubious health of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells.
So why not limit Contreras to the 150-175 inning range as an apprenticeship toward 200-plus innings in 2004-2006? Make it about quality of innings, not quantity. Make sure you learn for sure in 2003 how durable he is while he educates himself on competing in this system. Many see his $32 million contract as a reason to put him in the rotation now. I see it as a reason to make sure you get your money’s worth over the long haul.
“I think he needs time to break in and he would be real dynamite as a set-up guy,” said Milton Jamail, one of America’s foremost experts on Cuban baseball and a lecturer at the University of Texas. “People keep comparing him to Orlando Hernandez, but El Duque was from Havana, which is like New York City. Contreras is from the Pinar del Rio province, which is like Albany. So he also might need time to acclimate himself off the field.”
Just look how Contreras, 31, needed a few weeks to adjust to starting in the Grapefruit League (16.88 ERA in his first three outings). So for the regular season, he could benefit from being eased in from the bullpen at first. After all, it is not as if the Yanks are aching in the rotation. Jeff Weaver has earned the fifth spot, refining his changeup to provide more weapons against lefties. He should join Clemens, Mike Mussina, Pettitte and Wells to form the starting five.
In fact, with Steve Karsay to begin the season on the DL, the Yanks’ greater need is in the pen. There will be a temptation early to relocate Contreras to long relief. But Torre should see if Contreras could warm up quickly enough to go after 6 to 9 outs twice a week in front of Rivera. That would be a particular asset in April as starters are still not fully stretched out. Plus, Torre always has the fallback position of Juan Acevedo and Antonio Osuna if Contreras can’t handle the job, at least until Karsay returns.
In his last two starts - albeit against the feeble Devil Rays and Indians - Contreras has hinted strongly at what the Yankees were so excited to purchase. But they were buying for more than 2003. Which means that even now they should be thinking how to get good use from Contreras while safeguarding their investment.