2014 Season Preview: Fifth Starter Candidates

Mariano Rivera says there's "no chance" he'll pitch in Panama games
Spring Training Game Thread: Baseball's Back
Does Phelps want the job? Yes. (Presswire)
Does Phelps want the job? (Presswire)

For what feels like the umpteenth straight year, the Yankees will hold a Spring Training competition to fill their final rotation spot. These competitions have been rigged in recent years — Joba Chamberlain in 2009, Phil Hughes in 2010, Ivan Nova in 2013 — but things feel legitimately wide open this spring. There are four guys vying for that fifth starter’s spot and I honestly would not be surprised if any one of the four walked away with the job. Here are the candidates.

Vidal Nuno
Nuno, 26, jumped from independent ball to the big leagues in less than two years, pitching well (2.25 ERA and 4.50 FIP) in 20 innings spread across three starts and two relief appearances for New York early last season. A groin injury ended his season in early-June but Nuno did heal up in time to pitch in the Arizona Fall League after the season. He started the team’s first exhibition game of the spring against Florida State earlier this week, but that doesn’t mean anything as far as his standing in the competition.

Unlike the other three fifth starter candidates, Nuno is a left-hander, though I don’t think that gives him any kind of leg up. Sure, it would be nice to have another southpaw in the rotation given Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch, but the team has to focus on taking the best arm north at the end of camp regardless of handedness. Nuno has gotten results everywhere he’s pitched but his lack of a big league put away pitch is a negative — he threw 314 pitches with the Yankees last summer and batters swung and missed only 20 times, a well-below-average 6.4%. It’s not a big sample but it backs up the scouting report.

Whether he wins or loses the fifth starter job, we’re going to see Nuno in the big leagues at some point in 2014. I’m certain of that. Sixth and seventh starters will be needed — last time the Yankees went a full season with fewer than seven pitchers making at least two starts was 2003, and the last time before that was 1971 — and even if they aren’t, he could always wind up in a bullpen role. Second lefty, middle reliever, long man, you name it. Nuno doesn’t have a big ceiling but he will get another chance to help the team this year.

David Phelps
A few days ago, Joe Girardi confirmed Phelps will make the team in some capacity. If he doesn’t win the fifth starter spot he’ll go to the bullpen and perhaps be a one-inning setup reliever rather than a long man. The 27-year-old has done a little of everything in his relatively short MLB career, making 23 starts and 32 relief appearances these last two seasons. As you’d expect, he’s been better in relief:

Innings ERA FIP K% BB% HR/FB GB% Opp. wOBA
as SP 123.0 4.39 4.15 20.4% 9.0% 10.7% 42.7% 0.323
as RP 63.1 3.55 3.95 25.6% 9.8% 12.9% 42.7% 0.298

Phelps did not pitch well as a starter last season (4.93 ERA in 65.2 innings) but he also missed more than two months with a forearm strain and subsequent setback, an injury that may have impacted his performance. His strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates all held steady from 2012-13, though his homer rate did drop from 1.26 HR/9 (13.6% HR/FB) two years ago to 0.83 HR/9 (8.9% HR/FB) last year, so there was some improvement in his game despite the inflated ERA.

Because he’s bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, Phelps is still something of an unknown heading into 2014. He’s never been a starter for more than two months with the Yankees and we don’t know how well he’ll hold up starting every fifth day over a full season. Obviously he’s done it in the minors, but doing it in the big leagues is a little different. Phelps not only has the most MLB experience of the fifth starter candidates, I also think he is most likely to pitch well in whatever role he’s given. Will he be an ace or a shutdown reliever? No, probably not. But there’s value in being solid and reliable.

Michael Pineda
If you gave the Yankees — everyone from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff — a truth serum, I’m guessing they would all say they’re hoping Pineda grabs that last rotation spot and runs away with it in camp. The team has spent the last two years waiting patiently as the 25-year-old right-hander rehabbed from shoulder surgery and it finally looks like they will get some return from a trade that hasn’t worked out for either side thus far.

Of course, missing two years following major shoulder surgery makes Pineda a total unknown coming into this season. Sure, he did throw 40.2 innings across three minor league levels last summer, but those were rehab innings and they don’t really tell us anything useful. Early reports say Pineda has looked strong during bullpens and live batting practice session in camp but it’s bullpens and live batting practice. Take that information to heart at your own risk.


I think it’s important to remember that before the injury, Pineda was not a finished product. He didn’t have much of a changeup and he was very fly ball prone, which made him a questionable fit for Yankee Stadium. I highly doubt he developed a third pitch and became a ground ball guy during his rehab, but stranger things have happened. Pineda was a bit of a project at the time of the trade but now he’s a project coming off a major arm injury.

A healthy Michael Pineda can be a very good pitcher but the Yankees have not yet seen a healthy Michael Pineda in their uniform. If he impresses and wins a rotation spot in camp, great. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the team went in another direction either, going with someone who isn’t as much of a wildcard while Pineda gets back into the groove of starting every five days in Triple-A, where results don’t matter. Either way, barring another injury or setback, I suspect we’ll finally see him pitch for the Yankees at some point this summer.

Adam Warren
Of the four fifth starter candidates, Warren was the only one to make it through last season healthy. He really seemed to carve out a niche in long relief, pitching to a 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 77 total innings. Girardi used Warren as a one-inning setup man for a bit in September while David Robertson and Shawn Kelley were banged up, and he also made an impressive spot start (five scoreless innings on two days’ rest) in Game 161. Whenever the bell rang, he answered the call.

Warren, 26, was a starter his entire career up until last season. He threw all five of his pitches (four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curveball, changeup) at least 11% of the time in 2013, so he won’t have to put extra work in this spring to regain feel for one of those offerings. Left-handed batters destroyed Warren last year (.387 wOBA and 5.13 FIP) and if that continues, his days as a starter won’t last long. It’s a big negative.

I think Warren is very similar to Phelps in that we don’t really know what he can do starting every five days in the big leagues, but the general sense is that he will help the team in some capacity. In fact, Girardi already confirmed he will be on the Opening Day roster, either as a starter or reliever. Warren might not be an impact starter but I’ve always liked him and thought he could be a very good short reliever. He’s going to play a role this year, that much is certain, it’s just unclear what role that ultimately will be.

* * *

The Yankees have all but confirmed Manny Banuelos will open the season in the minors, which makes sense after missing close to two full years with elbow problems. The 22-year-old still had to iron out some command issues before the injury and I assume that is still the case. Easing him back into things in an environment where wins and losses don’t matter seems best for his long-term development.

There are no other realistic fifth starter candidates other than the four guys above. The smart money is on all four pitching (if not starting) for the Yankees at some point this season, though they aren’t created equal. Pineda has the largest upside but he is also the biggest unknown because of his injury. Nuno seems to have the lowest upside of the bunch but he’s also the only lefty. Phelps and Warren are safe bets to be solid in some role yet we really don’t know what they can as full-time starters.

Remember, Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day. Whoever wins the fifth starter’s spot in camp will have to pitch well in the regular season to keep the job. The Yankees have enough rotation depth that they can quickly pull the plug and try another pitcher if the guy who wins the final rotation spot doesn’t work out right away.

Mariano Rivera says there's "no chance" he'll pitch in Panama games
Spring Training Game Thread: Baseball's Back
  • Eddardo Nuney

    Nuno – I think he’s got a bright future. Could be a replacement for Andy someday. I think this year he should be in the pen.

    Phelps – He’s my guy as 5th starter. I thought he did well last year with an anemic offense behind him. Give him the job to start the season and we’ll see where it goes.

    Pineda – Start him in AAA and if Phelps falters or there’s an injury bring him up. Cashman made a good deal on this one. Pineda has a much brighter future than the fat, overweight Montero.

    Warren – Another guy with a bright future. He served them well in the pen last year as the long man and I think that’s where he should be again this year.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Nuno – I think he’s got a bright future. Could be a replacement for Andy someday.

      I want whatever you’re smoking.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mattpat11 Matt DiBari

    I think unless he completely falls on his face in the Spring you have to give Pineda the ball

  • http://panamahitek.com Antony García

    Where is the obligatory “Carl Pavano is retiring” post?

    • mitch

      The Yankees should give him a one day contract and put him on the DL so he could retire a Yankee

      • Darren

        (for length of DL stint)

      • Lurch

        Could his buttocks handle the strain?

  • LarryM Fl

    Warren as the 5th starter, Phelps as long guy, Pineda sent to minors to work his way back. Nuno with a 7% swing and miss can be scary. The fact that he is a lefty means little IMHO as a starter with that rate of misses. Wish them all well. It is nice to see young guys getting a chance.

    • Folley of the pre-determined outcome

      I’m rooting for Warren big time. If that change-up improves, its not that bad now, he will be better against lefties. He has a better pitcher’s frame than Phelps and he has some pretty good pitches.

  • John C

    How hard does Nuno throw? Does his fastball get above 90?

  • stuckey

    “Phelps did not pitch well as a starter last season (4.93 ERA in 65.2 innings) but he also missed more than two months with a forearm strain and subsequent setback, an injury that may have impacted his performance.”

    Or could be because he doesn’t yet have 150 innings logged as a ML starter yet.*

    *Very inexperienced pitchers often improve with ML experience, just FYI.

    • Mr. Roth

      Or it could be because of the injury. Sometimes forearm injuries in the pitching arm can make it hard to pitch well.

      • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

        just FYI

    • pat

      Not sure why you’re giving such a bitchy reply when you’re both speculating.

  • gageagainstthemachine

    My totally unscientific prediction? Phelps.
    Warren goes to the pen. Nuno becomes a second LOOGY who can eat up multiple innings (unlike Cabral). Pineda starts in AAA. At some point, when they think they can manage Pineda’s innings to include the rest of the regular season and (dare I hope this early?) postseason. Phelps transitions to the pen and becomes a solid one-inning guy.
    Of course, all of this assumes that Pineda is healthy and ready to go, but simply has to have his innings managed appropriately for the good of the team and himself. I wish he had more innings of rehab on that shoulder because I think, despite the two year hiatus, he is EASILY the best option IF healthy. If healthy, they just need to manage him right (something the Yankees have a spotty history of in recent years).
    Should be a fun competition to watch regardless and I can’t wait to watch the game on mlb.tv after I get off work. Either way, Yankees’ baseball has been put on the shelf for way too long this winter!

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      “Nuno becomes a second LOOGY who can eat up multiple innings (unlike Cabral).”

      This is admittedly being stupid and nitpicky on my part, so I apologize in advance, but a LOOGY who eats up multiple innings is not a LOOGY by definition. They’re a left-handed middle reliever.

      • gageagainstthemachine

        Very true. And doesn’t bother me at all that you clarified that. I guess I should’ve simply said “another LEFTY out of the pen and one who can at least eat up multiple innings (unlike Cabral)”. That was my meaning. Although Cabral is probably better than Nuno purely against lefties, I would rather have a more versatile lefty out of the pen if they were to add another rather than have a second true LOOGY like Matt Thornton. Hope that makes more sense.

        • Jorge Steinbrenner

          Depends on how good a LOOGY he winds up being. I think there’s immense value to a true shut-down guy, even he pitches no more than 2/3 of an inning.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thewallbreakers Scully

    I’m really excited about all these candidates to be honest. None of their track records are bad, and all have shown an ability to get major league hitters out at least on an inconsistent to good level (of course with small sample sizes).

    Basically, I’m excited for Baseball!

    • Mykey

      Yeah, I agree. The fact that we’re in a position that we’re discussing these guys as options for the fifth starter and not some bigger role is rather comforting too.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    I thought the Pineda blurb, in particular, was a pretty good reminder as to what he truly was before the injury. 25, with two years out, does mean a lot of work to get back, or even get to, what many still expect from him.

    That being said, yeah, I hope Pineda wins this, and not by a small amount, because he looked so good. Phelps and Warren would probably be solid hands in the bullpen, and anything that comes from an indie overachiever like Nuno is always a bonus.

    I also hope ManBan blows every non-Pineda guy on this list out of the water by July and becomes the defacto sixth starter this season.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

      I also hope ManBan blows every non-Pineda guy on this list out of the water by July and becomes the defacto sixthsecond starter this season, after Sizemore.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        Imagine how confused hitters will be when both CC and Sizemore are pitching to them at the same time, from different angles.

        This may be a problem when hitters are in the left side of the box, though. High HBP potential. We need to talk to Scott about this. Perhaps he can whip out the gyroball.

  • Bobby Swink

    Personally, I will be glad when Pineda either wins a starting position or he is let go. I enjoy 99% of the articles posted on this site, but I know that every time I see Pineda in the headlines or mentioned in any article that I am going to be reminded of just how much Axisa disapproved of the trade that brought him here. I can’t ever remember reading anything really positive about the guy. It really seems unfair because injuries happen to everyone, and I feel like Pineda really takes a beating on here because he turned out to be just as human as Derek Jeter, who spent most of last season on the DL with an injury of his own. Also in Pineda’s defense, I’m sure that although he was excited to come to New York, he didn’t ask to be traded here. There really doesn’t seem to be a winner in the trade to send him here yet, but honestly if you were to ask me who I would rather have on my team, I’d take the guy who suffered an unfortunate injury and may provide something in the future over the guy who is an obvious head-case, showed up 40lbs overweight to spring training (again) and who’s own manager has admitted that he expects to get nothing from this year. Pineda really doesn’t deserve to take such a beating on here. If he never does one thing good it will be better than a headcase who provides nothing positive for the team or his teammates.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      We’re all here to protect Michael Pineda’s feelings.

      Except Scott Sizemore. He has no time for this.

    • hogsmog

      How does Pineda get a beating here? It’s not like anybody is rooting for him to fail, he’s just a big question mark this season and there’s no getting around that.

      And when the trade gets criticized, it isn’t that they’d rather have Montero here- I think we can all agree that it’s lucky we got him out of New York when we did. What bothers people is that he could have been traded for many other players at the time who would have contributed more than Pineda up to this point.

      • Bobby Swink

        There is the same chance that anyone that they traded for could have gotten hurt. And that wouldn’t have necessarily been their fault. I would say that you are correct that no one is rooting for him to fail, but I’ve never read an article on here that ever seemed to be rooting for him to succeed, either. I agree with you, he is a huge question mark, and may never be good, but let’s give him a fair chance. After every compliment and good statement made about him in this article, there is a “but” immediately afterwards. He “wasn’t a finished product”, “doubt” that he has developed a third pitch or turned into a ground ball pitcher, he was a project, and now he’s an even bigger project. Maybe it’s just me, but I just feel no love for this guy.

        And you are right, we can all agree that it’s a good thing that Montero is gone. Maybe there is never a winner in this trade, but it’s hard to call the Yankees a loser, either. They really haven’t lost anything. They could have made a different trade, but you can’t say that one would have turned out any better. That’s just another unknown.

  • The Great Gonzo

    I have no idea why we’re having this conversation, since there is no reason for ranking players or labeling anyone a “number-anything” pitcher is completely pointless. Its just another pointless conversation we have had 85 times with nothing new to contribute. Seriously Mike, stop mailing it in…

    /Stucky Voice’d

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      I think Big John Stud, under nickname #45, made that argument popular.

  • The Great Gonzo

    OK, now that we got that out of the way… I completely agree with The Esteemed Mr. Steinbrenner above. Hoping Pineda blows everyone out of the water, and Man Bam blows everyone else away by mid-June…

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

      Rotation at year’s end:


      All prospect or traded-prospect-for rotation! And everyone says the Yankees have a terrible minor league system.

      Note: There is a 0% chance of this happening. And it would mean CC and #HIROK are hurt/terrible, which would make me a sad panda.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        You forgot Scott Sizemore.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

          Scott Sizemore will have been so good by September that he’ll give everyone else a shot in the interest of being a great guy.

    • I’m One

      Gotta agree that this would seem to be best case scenario, as it points to Pineda and Banuelos moving towards their expected ceilings.

      However, I’m just glad there seems to be so many young(er) guys that appear to be able to contribute this season. Looking forward to seeing what they can do this season and hopefully see them build on that even more (2 starters from this group?) next season.

  • Mike HC

    The competition could be rigged this year too for Pineda. And maybe it should be too.

  • Farewell Mo

    Unless Pineda is brutally bad, I think he should get the spot.

    He can work things out in the majors just as easily in AAA and if he’s not pitching significantly worse than the other 3, he easily has the most upside of the group.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      I want him to earn it a bit more than that, to be honest. I want him to win it, but I also want the pitcher giving the team the best chance this season to win it.

  • Eselquetodolosabe

    Uh-oh, fresh off the presses….., Mariano says he already misses baseball. Make the call Jeter……oh, that’s right, I forgot he doesn’t recruit.

  • Get Phelps Up

    Honestly, I’m really intrigued by all these guys. Each one of them has their own unique thing to be excited about.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

      Mostly agreed. I’d be more excited if one were more proven and we didn’t have these questions; but since we do, it’s nice to have 3-4 realistic, young guys who could earn the spot, rather than having to give it to someone by default.

  • Darren

    One hour and forty minutes until first pitch!!!
    So optimistic that right now all I have to say is I just want everyone to do well. Hope Pineda, Warren, Phelps, Nuno and Manny all just kill it, pitch lights out and leave Joe with many tough decisions.

  • Bryan

    I would bank on Pineda winning the spot. He has the highest ceiling and, if healthy, is likely the best. I would put Warren as the middle relief and Phelps as long. Nuno in AAA as the next starter up after Phelps.

    Although, if I were the GM. I would package Warren/Phelps and Romine/Cervelli/Murphy in a package for one of the Arizona shortstops they have. Ideally for Chris Owings but I would gladly accept Didi as well. Both can play 2b and take over for Jeter at SS next year. This would make it so Pineda as the starter, Warren/Phelps as the long man, and either use Nuno out of the pen or keep him in AAA as the 7th starter.

  • LK

    Obviously, best case scenario is that Pineda looks like a boss and wins this thing going away.

    Warren and Phelps don’t look like long-term starters to me. They’re fine to have as the 6th and 7th guys making a few starts if someone gets hurt, but I can’t see either of them getting 30+ starts in a season, at least not for a contending team. They should be decent in the bullpen though, and there will definitely be opportunities there.

    I’d be legitimately pretty surprised if Nuno makes the team if everyone’s healthy. I think he’s an up-and-down guy at best. Stranger things have happened though.

  • adjusts batting gloves

    For some reason, reading the Nuno comments here just reminded me that I saw Alfonso Pulido pitch for the Yankees when I was ten years old. I think Nuno has already exceeded Pulido’s career Yankee totals. Happy spring training!

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Nuno is more of a True Yankee than Ray Fontenot. Yes.

  • JohnC

    I still think the Yanks will be very cautious with Pineda. I see him staying behind in Tampa when Yanks head north to protect his shoulder from the early season cold weather. I bet Phelps wins the 5th spot out of ST, with Pineda coming up in May, when the weather warms up a bit.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    Game on radio today?

    • JohnC

      Yep. On WFAN

  • Dicka24

    I think Nuno is that fringy AAAA guy, that bounced up and down, fills in here and there, but ultimately is good enough to contribute when called upon. I know his stuff is less than what you’d expect from the standard major league pitcher, but he seems to know how to pitch with it. I think he’s in the minors, and sees action in the majors throughout the season.

    Phelps is best served on this team, by pitching in the pen. I’d feel more comfortable with him in a set-up role. I think he can be Drob lite. He’s got good stuff, and seeing batters once at the end of the game, with a couple extra ticks on the heater, serves him well. I like Phelps, and was impressed the first time I saw him pitch in the minors.

    Pineda is the 5th starter I hope. His future is in the rotation, so long as he’s healthy.

    Warren is the long man for now. Just like last year. Another guy with good stuff, who knows how to get outs.

  • http://riveravenueblues mississippi doc

    Isn’t it great to be even having this discussion? Who cares who wins the job? Girardi knows his business and will manage them just fine. I think that they all have a place, even if it is a potential trade for a SS, and will all be valuable assets.

  • Long-Past-His-Day-Rod

    My gut tells me Phelps has a leg up on other guys just because of prior experience.

    I’ve never thought of Warren as a Major League starter. He was good out of the pen last year and I think that’s the best place for him this year.

    Obviously Pineda has the highest upside (and I’m personally rooting for him) but I think the Yankees will take their typical extremely conservative approach and leave him behind when they break camp no matter how well he pitches in ST.

    Looking forward to the competition and may the best man head north with the 5th starter’s job!

  • Mykey

    Am I getting carried away hoping for a game thread?

  • AndrewYF

    Pineda has the highest upside by far, so people should be rooting for him to blow away the rest of the competition.

    If Pineda can cement a spot in the rotation and be relied upon in 2015, the Yankees could be looking at:


    To start 2015, which is pretty awesome. Average age of that rotation would be 27, and could be outstanding for years to come.