By Barry Millman
Another week has passed and another 12 innings has been rung up on the odometer of the Yankee's best long reliever for the last two years.
The problem with that is Adam Warren's no longer a long reliever. A bigger problem is the Yankees don't have one. But perhaps the biggest concern should be how much longer the Yankees can expect him to be effective in any role.
The rotation is still short of reliable starters, the bullpen is in dire need of a long man, it looks like he's not going to be replaced by the returning Masahiro Tanaka and the discussion about which role is best for him and the team has revved up a notch. But it's all going to become a moot point soon because he's quickly approaching an innings wall that will likely require some serious brake-tapping on his usage if they want him around in any role through the second half of the season. And that strategy hasn't gone particularly well in the past for the Yankees.
More by accident than design, the Yankees now find themselves with a successful relief pitcher who has just made three successive starts lasting six innings for the first time in his MLB career and shown adequate competence (a sub-4.00 ERA as a starter, also a first) to have earned a place in the Yankees' -- and likely many other teams' -- rotation. With Chris Capuano and CC Sabathia struggling, Ivan Nova 's return near but still not scheduled and Tanaka's near-term effectiveness and future health a question mark, the lure to keep him starting is strong.
On the other hand, his absence from the pen as a long reliever -- his most effective and valuable role by far over the past two seasons -- has been keenly felt. Esmil Rogers, the pen's other long man, had a decent April, but has since self-immolated under the increased workload and been reduced to a janitor who can only be trusted to mop up zero-leverage situations. Likewise, the rest of the pen which started the season strong has been frayed by increased usage due to short starts because Warren -- the escape artist of yesteryear who used to safely deliver abbreviated outings to the safety of the back end of the bullpen -- has been absent from the job and, truth be told, has actually fanned the flames of the problem in many of his own starts until only recently.
The choice of what to make of Warren is further complicated by the fact that his new career as a starter has put mileage on him at a pace he hasn't seen in years.
Since Opening Day, Warren has thrown 50 innings on an arm that threw a total of 78 last year and 77 the year before. Once upon a time, Warren was a young farmhand who threw 152 innings in back to back seasons. But that was before the team told him to forget about being a starting pitcher and going for length; just get in the the pen and pound the zone when the bell rings.
So regardless of whether they decide to keep penciling him into the lineup card or give him back his chair in the pen, as he approaches that high 70-innings threshold you can be sure the organization that authored Joba's Rules will convene its best minds to decide upon a theory that gives them the most production from him for the longest possible time before his arm goes dead (we'll call them the Warren Commission) and then put that theory into practice through a system that will involve documenting full details of every pitch of every inning he throws, with printouts to be added daily to a new chapter in Joe Girardi's binder (call it the Warren Report) and from that a formula for mandatory days off, pitch counts and other limits will be implemented. They'll have no choice and wouldn't be able to help themselves even if they did.
Absent any limits as a starter and assuming his current pace of roughly 5 2/3 innings per start, he only has five more games before he'd reach those totals. That would get him to the end of June.
As a reliever, assuming his regular usage of the past two years, he'd make it to the All-Star break before he reached it.
How he'll respond to innings limits and additional forced rest days after working all winter, spring and early summer to stretch himself; how he'd respond to a swingman role bouncing between the bullpen and dugout if the team chooses to go that route; and how far past his innings threshold of the past two season he can pitch effectively is anyone's guess.
But as anyone who witnessed firsthand the roller coaster wreck of Joba Rules and bullpen/rotation bingo can tell you, those are ventures fraught with great risk, to say the least. They can reduce an amazing asset to a painful liability with an astonishing efficiency one would not want to witness twice in a lifetime.
And that's the haunting specter that now looms ahead for Warren and the Yankees. He spent the entire winter, spring and early summer stretching himself to be a successful starter and now he's become one. He's a back-end rotation starter on the right side of 30 whose trade value has never been higher and is going to be out of that job in a matter of days or weeks at most. In a season that quickly became plagued by abbreviated starts crying out for a solid long man in the bullpen -- the role he performs best -- the team chose to keep him in the rotation and expend his most productive innings there.
And as a result of those conflicted choices, he may well have become more valuable to other teams looking for rotation and bullpen help over the next three years than he is to his own.
With Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Nathan Eovaldi and CC Sabathia locked in, he has virtually no future in the Yankees rotation for the remainder of his contract. There's no guarantee how long or how effective he can be returning to the bullpen, and the team's farm system has impressive young guns Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino already lining up to audition for his former role there. He doesn't own it anymore and it's not his to lose anymore.
So it may not be the Yankees' intent right now, but he has potential trade bait written all over him -- and if they aren't thinking about it already, perhaps they should.
Because with the Warren Commission convening soon to Joba-Rule him, you have to wonder if the window is opening or closing on the Yankees' best long reliever.
You can email Barry Millman at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @nyyankeefanfore.