Yankees send David Phelps to Double-A Trenton

Via Josh Norris and Mike Ashmore, the Yankees have sent right-hander David Phelps down to Double-A Trenton. The move clears a 25-man roster spot for Darnell McDonald, meaning New York will have an 11-man pitching staff and a five-man bench during the four games in Boston. Phelps will start for the Thunder on Monday, his regular turn. Expected and smart move, plus it keeps him away from the traveling Triple-A circus.

Phelps tuning up for the second half

Plenty could change between now and month’s end. Despite their stated lack of intention, the Yankees could make a play for Cole Hamels. They could look into Matt Garza or Ryan Dempster. But if their behavior at the past few deadlines is any indication, they’ll probably make minor moves at most. That means riding out internal options. David Phelps, then, could play a significant role in the second half.

Sent down in order to stretch back out as a starter, Phelps got recalled a bit prematurely. He was scheduled to throw 50 pitches in a minor league game last Friday, but the Yankees decided they’d rather have him as a caddy for Adam Warren. That proved a prescient move, as the Yankees leaned on Phelps for 3.1 innings. He wasn’t exactly great, allowing two runs, but he did strike out five. It was pretty clear that he was going to take the ball again in five days.

Again on a pitch limit, Phelps tossed 4.1 quality innings against the Rays yesterday, allowing just two hits to go with three walks and eight strikeouts. Chances are he would have pitched considerably deeper if not for the pitch count — hew was at 81 pitches through those 4.1 innings. Next time out, chances are Phelps will be ready to go the distance. As Mike mentioned earlier Phelps will likely get sent down before tomorrow’s game. The All-Star break gives the Yanks a chance to rework the rotation, and also gives Phelps to get a start in the minors. He can likely go 100 pitches, which will take off the reins when he returns to the majors — probably July 17th vs. the Blue Jays, so he can make a start any day from the 9th through the 12th.

If Phelps has any one thing to improve on as he enters the second half in the rotation, it’s his pitch efficiency. He’s been top notch in terms of results, a 3.05 ERA in his 41.1 innings. He’s also been serviceable by peripheral-based stats: 4.38 FIP, 3.90 xFIP, 3.54 SIERA. The problem is that he’s getting himself pulled from games prematurely. In his three starts he’s pitched just 13 innings. Part of that has been based on usage limits, but in some ways it has been based on his own performance. He’s used nearly 20 pitches per inning and 4.4 pitches per batter as a starter. That’s just not going to work if Phelps is going to remain in the rotation.

As a reliever Phelps has been a bit more efficient. He’s used 17 pitches per inning and 3.99 per batter. Those still aren’t great numbers overall, though. Yet if he can get even to that level as a starter, it will be a much-needed improvement for the second half. If Phelps is going to stay in the rotation until Andy Pettitte returns, the Yankees need him to eat at least six innings per start, lest they overtax the bullpen. At 17 pitches per inning he’d be over 100 pitches by the time he finished six. At his current 20 pitches per inning as a starter, he’d be at that threshold after five.

The good news is that this seems to be Phelps’s most significant issue. He has good stuff, and he doesn’t, or at least hasn’t yet, let innings get out of hand. His strikeout rate is well above league average, and his walk rate isn’t quite too high. Those seem like tougher areas on which to improve mid-season. Phelps has this one task in front of him, to put away batters with fewer pitches, and he can get cracking on it in the no-pressure environment of the minors. His success will make the Yankees’ lives much easier as they approach the deadline and home stretch.

Scouting The Trade Market: Ramon Hernandez

As I wrote this morning, the Yankees have gotten next to nothing out of their Russell Martin-Chris Stewart catching tandem this year, meaning it’s only logical to explore potential trade options for help behind the dish. Unfortunately the crop of catchers around the game consists of elite backstops (Yadier Molina, Joe Mauer, etc.) or absolute garbage (Kurt Suzuki, Miguel Olivo, etc.). There seems to be no middle ground, though one name caught my eye when MLBTR published a list of potentially available catchers earlier this week: Ramon Hernandez of the Rockies.

Hernandez, 36, is currently on the DL with a left hand strain but he started a minor league rehab assignment last night. He was off to a slow start this season — .216/.260/.398 with four homers (58 wRC+) — but it was only 101 plate appearances and his hand was barking. The Rockies are going nowhere fast (31-50) and Hernandez’s injury has allowed catcher of the future Wilin Rosario to emerge as an everyday option (100 wRC+), so it seems likely that they’ll look to move the veteran backstop for prospect depth. Frankly, they should be selling off anything not nailed down. The Yankees need catching help and Hernandez is a catcher, but it’s not that simple. Let’s see what he has to offer…

The Pros

  • Despite this year’s numbers, Hernandez can still hit a little. He posted a .282/.341/.446 batting line with a dozen homers (111 wRC+) in 328 plate appearances last year for the Reds and has hit .280/.341/.432 (105 wRC+) in nearly 800 plate appearances since Opening Day 2010.
  • Most of that damage has come against same-side pitchers. Hernandez has tagged right-handers to the tune of .279/.338/.450 with 21 homers (109 wRC+) in 538 plate appearances over the last three seasons. He’s held his own against southpaws as well: 95 wRC+ in 186 plate appearances.
  • Beyond the raw production, Hernandez’s best offensive trait is his ability to put the bat on the ball. His career strikeout rate is a miniscule 12.7% and he’s never deviated too far from that number in any season, even as he’s crept up into his mid-30s.
  • Beyond the Box Score rated him as one of the game’s better defensive backstops in both 2010 and 2011. Click through for the full analysis. Hernandez has also been consistently above average at stopping the running game, throwing out a hair more than one-third (33.8% to be exact) of attempted basestealers since the start of 2010. League average is generally in the 27-29% range. As an added bonus, Hernandez has started 30 games (44 appearances total) at first base in recent years. Versatility is always nice.
  • Hernandez spent three years with the Orioles so he’s familiar with the AL East and all that stuff. I don’t put a ton of stock into that but I do think it’s worth mentioning. Knowing the lay of the AL East land is better than coming in blind. Hernandez has always been considered a strong clubhouse guy — that’s one of the primary reasons why Colorado signed him in the first place — and again, always a plus.

The Cons

  • Catchers get hurt, it comes with the territory, but Hernandez has been on the DL five times in the last six years. His injuries include an oblique strain (2007), a groin contusion (2007), knee surgery (2009), knee soreness (2010), and now the hand issue. Hernandez is no longer an everyday backstop and has been unable to top 85 starts behind the plate or 360 plate appearances in a single season since 2008.
  • We can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from his performance this year, but Hernandez’s ground ball and line drive rates have been trending in the wrong direction for a few years now. The same can be said of his once strong walk rate. This isn’t atypical of older hitters.
  • Mike Fast’s now famous study on pitching framing rated Hernandez as one of the game’s worst at turning borderline pitches into strikes in recent years.
  • Hernandez is no rental. The Rockies signed him to a two-year deal worth $6.5M this offseason, and he’s still owed approximately $1.6M for the rest of this year plus $3.2M next year. Tying up future payroll with a midseason trade is not ideal.

On paper, Hernandez seems like a pretty good fit for the Yankees. He could split catching duties with Martin down the stretch and since he’s under contract at a reasonable price next year, he could serve as a nice veteran caddy for a young kid like Austin Romine. His contract then expires right as the 2014 payroll plan takes effect. Simply put, he’d be a stopgap for next season.

That said, we are talking about a 36-year-old backstop who probably should have turned into a pumpkin two or three years ago. His slow start this year could just be small sample size noise or the sign of impending doom. Catchers do fall off quickly and drastically without warning, so any team that trades for him could be stuck with a dud backstop eating up future payroll. There’s quite a bit of risk here but the cost — both financially and in terms of players in the actual trade — shouldn’t be exorbitant, plus the benefits could be compounded since Martin tends to play better with extra rest. The catcher pickin’s are slim and Hernandez just may represent the best of the bunch.

Manipulating the roster around the All-Star break

The Yankees enjoy a much needed — for the bullpen, anyway — day off today before heading to Boston for a four-game set this weekend. They’ll play one tomorrow, two on Saturday, one on Sunday, then will have four days off for the All-Star break. Everyone will get to recharge the (physical and mental) batteries before getting into the dog days of summer and the stretch drive. The break gives everyone a rest and just as importantly, it gives the Yankees a chance to manipulate and optimize their roster in the short-term.

Embedded Red Sox? Hope not. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Darnell McDonald
It seemed like a curious move at the time but the picture became clear once we had a second to sit back and think about it. The Yankees claimed outfielder Darnell McDonald off waivers from the Red Sox yesterday, adding a right-handed bat known for hitting lefties (career .345 wOBA vs. LHP) and capable of playing all three outfield spots. He’ll be in uniform at Fenway Park tomorrow.

The move wasn’t made to replace Dewayne Wise or Andruw Jones, the move was made to add McDonald to them. Although the team has not confirmed their plans, they’re almost certainly going to option David Phelps to the minors and roll with a five-man bench over the weekend. Phelps started yesterday and wasn’t scheduled to pitch this weekend, so the Yankees won’t miss him. With Boston scheduled to thrown three southpaws — Franklin Morales, Felix Doubront, and Jon Lester — in the four games this weekend, expect to see McDonald in left and Jones at DH with both Wise and Raul Ibanez available off the bench.

CC Sabathia
Once Phelps goes down he is ineligible to return for ten days, but that won’t be an issue since Sabathia is expected to come off the DL right after the break. The big left-hander played catch yesterday and will throw his first bullpen session since hitting the DL tomorrow, and so far all indications are that he’s a go once his 15 days up. Phelps will be able to continue to work as a starter in Triple-A, accumulating innings and threatening to take Freddy Garcia’s roster spot.

The Yankees can push Sabathia back to the fifth game after the All-Star break, which is Tuesday the 17th. They play three games against the Angels and will likely see C.J. Wilson at some point, so McDonald should be useful for at least one game that series. They’ll then play the Blue Jays, who have three lefties — Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, and Aaron Laffey — in their rotation. Odds are in favor of them seeing one of those guys in the series opener, which McDonald could start before being released to clear a roster spot for Sabathia in the second game, getting the Yankees back to a 12-man pitching staff and four-man bench.

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

The 26th Man
Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Yankees (and Red Sox) will be allowed to carry a 26th man for both games on Saturday. It has to be the same player for both games and he must be sent back to the minors the next day. George King says the Yankees will bring back Cory Wade for the day, giving them seven available relievers on Saturday. Wade threw a perfect inning on nine pitches in his first Triple-A outing yesterday as he tries to get his location back to where it needs to be.

The Yankees will still have the option of swapping out a regular 25-man reliever between games if they want. Say Cody Eppley ends up throwing 30 pitches in the first game, they could then send him down before the second game for someone like Justin Thomas — who was going to be recalled prior to the Chad Qualls trade — for the nightcap. The third lefty reliever could come in hand against the Sox, but it also may be overkill. It is an option though, and I figure they’ll at least have an extra Triple-A arm waiting at the hotel in case they need to make a between-games move.

* * *

These four games in three days against the Red Sox are happening in isolation, at least as much as any early-July series could happen in isolation. Both teams are off today and the All-Star break follows next week, so both clubs will be rested with the opportunity to manipulate their roster. It’s almost like a little playoff series, but between a first place team and a last place team. The Yankees added a right-handed bat to combat Boston’s three lefties and won’t have to worry about the pitching staff being short-handed this weekend, which is pretty sweet. There would also be something deliciously ironic about McDonald getting a big hit or two this weekend after Boston him cast him aside.

Williams, Sanchez, Austin among BA’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects

Baseball America published their midseason Top 50 Prospects list today, led by RHP Dylan Bundy of the Orioles. The best pitching prospect in the game owns a 1.74 ERA with 74 strikeouts and 13 walks in 62.2 innings down in Single-A this year. SS Jurickson Profar (Rangers) and OF Wil Myers (Royals) round out the top three. The list is free for all but the write-ups are subscriber-only.

The Yankees placed three prospects in the top 50: OF Mason Williams (#28), C Gary Sanchez (#30), and OF Tyler Austin (#39). LHP Manny Banuelos ranked 29th on the preseason Top 100 but fell out of the midseason list due to his elbow injury, though he was one of three players in the “Also Receiving Votes” section. Both Banuelos and RHP Jose Campos made the All Disabled List Team, unfortunately (subs. req’d). Williams (#85) and Sanchez (#81) made significant jumps from the preseason list, as did Austin, who was unranked this spring. The Yankees don’t have that surefire top-five prospect like Jesus Montero anymore, but three top-40 guys makes for a really strong top of the system.

The Catching Problem

(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

I think we all knew that the post-Jorge Posada era would be a shock to our system, at least initially, but I’m not sure we expected it to be this bad. Posada was one of the greatest offensive catchers in history and as of right now, the Russell Martin-Chris Stewart catching tandem has combined for a .204/.295/.340 batting line. That’s a combined 73 wRC+ which ranks 23rd among the 30 clubs. Catchers across baseball are averaging .247/.315/.398, which seems Ruthian compared to New York’s backstops.

As the starter, Martin gets the majority of the blame. He proclaimed that he was “starting to feel dangerous at the plate” after hitting two homers (including a walk-off) in a game against the Mets last month, but he’s followed up that statement with four (!) hits and four walks in his last 58 plate appearances. He hasn’t reached base in his last 27 (!!!) trips to the plate. That’s dragged his season line down to .178/.297/.347 through 81 team games, a lowly 77 wRC+. Dating back to May 25th of last season (an admittedly arbitrary endpoint), Martin is hitting .203/.330/.353 in 554 plate appearances. This isn’t a small sample.

Stewart has hit an empty .270 as Martin’s backup, slapping singles off infielders’ gloves and dunking bloops into shallow left seemingly once a start. He doesn’t walk or hit for any power, which is why his batting line sits at .270/.295/.311 in limited playing time. For all the talk about his clutch hits, Stewart has six singles in 29 plate appearances with runners in scoring position this year (.222/.214/.222). The guy has never really hit before, hasn’t hit this year, and there’s no reason to expect him to hit in the future. He is who he is.

Offense is obviously not the team’s strong point behind the plate, but defense supposedly is. Stewart has allowed the fifth most passed balls in the league (five) despite being a backup, and he’s only thrown out four of 14 attempted basestealers. That’s a league average 28.5%, hardly what you expect from someone touted as a defensive standout. Stewart seems like a classic Nichols Law of Catcher Defense guy, frankly. Martin has allowed four passed balls of his own and has only thrown out 12 of 51 attempted basestealers (below average 23.5%). The Rays showed him no respect by stealing seven bases (in seven attempts) over the last two games. Anecdotally, I consider the two to be about average or maybe even slightly above averageon defense, underwhelming compared to expectations and reputations.

I can’t remember the last time a team won the World Series without an above average offensive catcher. I suppose the 2006 Cardinals with a young Yadier Molina, but then you have to go back to the Joe Girardi era mid-1990s Yankees. It’s not early anymore, the season is officially halfway complete and the Yankees have gotten little production from their catchers. You may disagree and feel Martin and Stewart have been very good on defense, but I have a hard time believing their glovework has made up for the limp bats. I don’t think calling up Frankie Cervelli — 86 wRC+ in Triple-A — is the answer, but he’d probably be an upgrade at this point. Either way, the Yankees need to serious consider going out and addressing their catcher situation at the trade deadline. These two aren’t cutting it at all.

Yanks come from behind, escape Tampa with win

Source: FanGraphs

The streak is over. For the first time in nearly a full calendar year, the Yankees won a game at Tropicana Field on Wednesday. If that’s not a great way to celebrate the birth of our nation, nothing is. Let’s recap…

  • Comeback: The Rays had a 3-1 lead through seven, but the Yankees put together a three-run rally in the eighth when Kyle Farnsworth walked the bases loaded before walking in New York’s second run. It’s easy to make a “that’s a Farnsworth we know!” joke, but c’mon. The Farnsworth we know would have walked two men then given up a three-run homer. Anyway, Alex Rodriguez took ball four to force in a run then one batter later Robinson Cano laced a two-strike single to center that scored both the game-tying and go-ahead run. It was a thing of beauty.
  • Spot Start: David Phelps definitely had the strikeout pitch working against Tampa, whiffing eight guys through 4.1 innings of work. He also walked three and hit two batters, so let’s call it effectively wild. Phelps hit his pitch count before the end of the fifth and allowed just one run, an little flare single to right by noted Yankees killer Sean Rodriguez. He threw a first pitch strike to 14 of 19 batters faced and only six guys put the ball in play. Hopefully he can tighten up the pitch count and be more efficient in the future, assuming he gets another start with CC Sabathia due to return after the break.
  • Bullpen: Boone Logan was the team’s least effective pitcher — he surrendered a two-run, go-ahead homer to Carlos Pena in the seventh — but he ended up with the win. Hooray for that. The unsung hero was Cody Eppley, who picked up two enormous strikeouts to escape a jam in the fifth before chipping in a scoreless sixth. David Robertson (one walk) and Rafael Soriano (no baserunners) worked scoreless eighth and ninth innings, respectively. Between Phelps and the various relievers, the Yankees struck out 16 Rays on Wednesday. Those last two or three innings were nail-biters, but outside of Logan the relief corps was pretty stellar.
  • Leftovers: I saw my first ever umpire’s interference call in this game as Jose Lobaton hit the home plate ump with his hand as he threw down to third on A-Rod‘s steal attempt, a (correct) call that looked huge when the Yankees were unable to score in that seventh inning … speaking of that inning, Alex effective stole third twice but Nick Swisher didn’t bother to steal second as the trail runner, which is doubly knuckle-headed on his part … Curtis Granderson didn’t put the ball in play once, walking twice and striking out thrice … Mark Teixeira tied the game with a solo shot in the seventh after David Price completely manhandled the Yankees for the first 6+ innings … Cano made a great lunging catch in the first that saved at least one run and most likely two, a huge and easy-to-forget moment in the game … the 3-4-5 hitters went a combined 5-for-12 with three walks while the rest of the lineup went a combined 3-for-22 with four walks … Jeter and Granderson combined to see 60 (!) pitches, or one-third of all pitches thrown by Tampa.

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerd score, and ESPN the updated standings. We’re officially halfway through the season and the Yankees are five games up on the Orioles in the loss column, six up on the Rays, and seven up on the Red Sox. Pretty great place to be. The Bombers will take Thursday off before heading up to Boston for four games in three days against the Sawx in the final series before the All-Star break. Hiroki Kuroda and Josh Beckett get things started on Friday night.