What can the Yankees reasonably expect out of David Phelps?

(Beverly Schaefer / For the Times)

Note: This post was initially written prior to the Big Trade. With the Yankee rotation depth chart now seven deep at the Major League level, the likelihood of seeing David Phelps starting for the big league club at any point in 2012 has probably shrunk to nonexistent. Though in Phelps’ favor, with the recent departure of Hector Noesi he and rotationmate Adam Warren have become the de facto “next in line” at AAA should the Yankees indeed simultaneously lose three starting pitchers to injury.

Last winter, most of the non-“Killer Bs” buzz regarding Yankee prospects surrounded Ivan Nova and Hector Noesi, both of whom acquitted themselves rather well during their first full seasons in the big leagues. With Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances both expected to need further seasoning in AAA before getting the call to contribute at the MLB level full time, the two pitchers that we started hearing a fair amount about last offseason and who now appear to be next in line in the rotation pecking order when one of the Yankees’ presumed starting five inevitably goes down with an injury are David Phelps (who Mike profiled a little over a year ago) and Adam Warren (Axisa profile). Today I’m going to take a look at what the Yankees might reasonably expect out of the former.

I found myself intrigued by the now-24-year-old right-hander — who most prospect mavens have pegged as a back-end-of-the-rotation guy at best — after seeing John Sickels recently rank him aggressively at #7 on his list of top 20 Yankee prospects, saying the following:

“I like (Phelps) more than most people do. Has developed the secondary pitches needed to off-set the fastball, and was one of the few pitchers who didn’t get killed in the Arizona Fall League. Could be a fourth starter if given a chance.”

While “fourth-starter-upside” isn’t anything to get terribly excited over — and from what I gather, I get the sense that people aren’t terribly enamored of Sickels’ evaluations as it is — I don’t know that I’d automatically thumb my nose at a guy who could hypothetically settle in as a #4 starter in an MLB rotation.

Phelps was drafted by the Yankees out of Notre Dame in the 14th round of the 2008 draft, and was immediately put to work in short season Staten Island. Here’s a chart of his progression:

While I don’t think Phelps is expected to generate an overwhelming number of strikeouts should he make it to the bigs, it’s still decently impressive that he’s managed to sustain a 7.00+ K/9 ever since moving up to Charleston, while never allowing his walk rate to rise above 3 men per nine. Reasonable strikeout and walk rates combined with a HR/9 that’s never eclipsed 1.0 — even this past fall in the notoriously hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League — has helped Phelps keep his FIP below 4.00 every season. Based solely on his raw numbers, there’s a fair amount to like from this picture.

The other reason I wanted to examine Phelps is that, by virtue of playing in the aforementioned AzFL, we have access (albeit limited) to PITCHf/x data, which is installed in two of the league’s six parks. Poring through the data, I found the two games on the Phoenix Dirt Dogs’ schedule that had them playing in Peoria and Surprise and also coincided with two of Phelps’ eight starts.

On November 7 Phelps threw 5 innings of two-run, three-hit ball with three strikeouts, one walk and one home run. On November 17 Phelps threw 5 innings of two-run, five-hit ball with six strikeouts, no walks and no home runs.

Here’s a breakdown of the 134 pitches he threw:

So based on this data Phelps is a fastball-slider righty, who also won’t shy away from throwing a changeup ~8mph slower than his fastball, or dropping in a curve. In Mike’s profile from December 2010, he noted the following about Phelps:

“Once a scrawny kid that would sit in the low-90’s on a good day, Phelps has filled out his 6-foot-3 frame (190 lbs.) and now throws his fastball at 93-95 mph consistently. Minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras made some minor adjustments soon after Phelps signed, leading to the improved velocity. He also throws a two-seam fastball right around 90 mph, a good curveball, and both a below average slider and changeup. The curve is the closest thing Phelps has to a strikeout pitch, but it still needs some more improvement. At the moment he’s a ground ball pitcher, but that can change if one of the offspeed pitches takes that step forward.”

I saw a lot of 89-91mph fastballs in the PITCHf/x data, and so I’m guessing Phelps’ arm was somewhat tired by the time he got to the AFL after throwing roughly 114 innings in 2011 in both rehab and Scranton (Ed. Note: Phelps missed close to three months this summer with shoulder fatigue, so that could have contributed to the diminished velocity as well). If Phelps actually does usually sit at ~93mph with his fastball, a strong early showing at AAA could make him a valuable trade chip come July. Ultimately, I don’t know that anything about Phelps screams dominance, but it also doesn’t seem crazy to think that he could contribute as a starting pitcher at a league-average level in MLB.

For more on Phelps, be sure to check out TYA’s Brad Vietrogoski’s Top 30 Yankee Prospects capsules over at An A-Blog for A-Rod. Phelps checks in at #8.

Mailbag: Hughes, Dunn, Lee(s), 2014, Scouts

We’ve been getting DH-related mailbag questions pretty much non-stop all week, so Joe and I already answered a bunch of them: Domonic Brown, Jayson Heyward, David Wright, Ross Gload, Kyle Blanks, Jim Thome, and Kosuke Fukudome. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send us anything, even if it’s not a mailbag question.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Anna Moony via Creative Commons license)

J.R. (and a few others) asks: Does Phil Hughes have an option left? I remember last year that he preferred a stint on the DL rather than a demotion and use of his last option to AAA. Did he accrue too much service time to be sent down without being exposed to waivers?

Hughes does have at least one minor league option left as best I can tell, and the optional waivers thing isn’t really a problem. Apparently there’s a league-wide gentleman’s agreement in place preventing claims from being made. Hughes is roughly ten weeks away from having five full years of service time, at which point he’ll be able to refuse a trip to the minors. I’m not sure that a trip to Triple-A will benefit him at all, he’s got face the challenge of big leaguers to make progress. Then again, Ivan Nova did make tangible progress with his slider following his demotion last summer, so who knows.

J.A. asks: What about Burnett for Adam Dunn?
Antony (and a few others) asks: What about Carlos Lee for the DH? Burnett for Lee?

Might as well kill the two A.J. Burnett trade with one stone. I’m going to give an emphatic no to Dunn, even though I think he’ll rebound (at least somewhat) from his abysmal inaugural season with the White Sox (.266 wOBA) just because he’s too good to do that again. The problem is his contract, which will pay him $14-15M in each of the next three seasons. That’s one-year and $11M more than Burnett’s contract, and will impact the 2014 austerity budget. If he wasn’t so terrible last season, I’d probably say yes. Now there’s so much risk to assume for those three years.

Carlos Lee makes some more sense, even though he’s dangerously close to falling off the cliff. He’ll make $18M in the final year of his contract, and his value is increasingly tied to his batting average as his power continues to decline. Yankee Stadium might be a hitter’s park, but it’s perfectly league average for dead pull right-handed hitters according to StatCorner. Lee doesn’t walk all that much (career 7.3 BB%), so it’s batting average or nothing if the power continues to go. The difference in contracts is significant, so that would have to be worked out somehow. Also, I’m not sure why either the White Sox or the Astros would want Burnett.

Anthony (and a few others) asks: What about Derrek Lee as a DH?

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The last two years have been tough on Lee physical, specifically with regards to his hands. He had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb late in 2010, then missed close to four weeks last season due to a left wrist fracture. Lee managed to hit 19 homers in each of the last two seasons, so he has some power left, and unlike the other Lee he can actually hit the ball to all fields with authority. He’s also has a reputation as strong clubhouse guy, and the Yankees have been emphasizing that of late.

My biggest concern is his walk rate, which dropped to a career-low 6.9% last season after six straight years of walk rates north of 10%. Lee’s strikeout rate (23.1%) also climbed for the third straight year. That’s all a result of him swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone than every before, and that’s tough to reverse at age 36. Lee is said to be considering retirement if he doesn’t find “the perfect situation,” and I don’t know if being a DH and seven-hole hitter for the Yankees qualifies as the perfect situation. He already has a World Series ring (’03 Marlins), so I doubt he’s desperate to win. I am intrigued, but I’m not sure it’ll happen.

Paul asks: $189M or bust. With all the talk of getting to $189M for 2014, am I correct that in 2015 they can go back to, shall we say, less conservative spending habits? Or is this going to be a cyclic thing? Every few years dipping below a threshold and then going back up?

I’m with you there, and Dave Pinto is as well. The Yankees will not only not have to pay $12M+ in luxury tax that year, they’ll also get a rebate on their revenue sharing payout, somewhere between 25-50%. They paid north of $100M in revenue sharing in 2010, so adjust up for inflation a then realize they’re getting a huge chunk of that back by going under the tax, and it’s easy to understand why they’re aiming to do so. They could end up saving themselves $50M+ in 2014 alone.

That money could easily go right into the Steinbrenners’ pockets, that’s always possible, or they could pump it right back into the team in 2015. Given the team’s annual payroll, I’m guessing it’ll be the latter. Remember, they only need to get under the luxury tax threshold once for all the savings to kick in, they can go right back over in 2015. If you want to start looking way ahead, players like Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Yovani Gallardo, and Clayton Kershaw are all scheduled to become free agents after the 2014 season. Isn’t that convenient?

Bob asks: Love your site! This question actually comes from my wife and came up during the playoffs last fall. When the talking heads were talking about advanced scouting, she asked me, “How does somebody become a scout?” I really had no idea. So: what makes one qualified to be a scout? What different types of scouts to teams employ? (This probably would have been a better question for the early off-season – sorry I took so long to sent it). Keep up the good work!

From what I understand, the easiest way to get into scouting is to have played the game at some point. That’s true for pretty much any job in baseball, really. MLB runs a scout school in Arizona and the Dominican Republic each year, which is basically a ten-day crash course in scouting. They teach you how to scout pitchers, scout hitters, fill out reports, the whole nine. The only kicker is that you have to be sponsored by an MLB team to attend, so a club basically has to agree to hire you before you can attend. It’s not like anyone can enroll, and that’s why the easiest way in is by having played at some point. Baseball America and MLB.com wrote features on scout school a few years ago.

As far as different types of scouts, teams usually employ amateur scouts (for the draft and international free agents), pro scouts (for the majors and minors), and advanced scouts (scouting teams the big league club will soon play). There might be others, but those are the three I know. When it comes to amateur players for the draft, area scouts are assigned a specific region (like the northeast), cross-checkers verify reports (they’re responsible for a larger area), and the scouting director is the head honcho. Many of the area scouts are essentially freelancers, going from one one-year contract to the next, and changing teams pretty regularly.

Scouting The Waiver Market: Adrian Cardenas

(Photo via The Sacramento Bee)

Aside from a designated hitter and an Eric Chavez replacement, the Yankees don’t have much left to address this offseason. Pursuing depth is a year-round thing though, and a player who could potentially upgrade the 40-man roster hit the market on Thursday, when the Athletics designated Adrian Cardenas for assignment to make way for Jonny Gomes. A former supplemental first round pick (37th overall in 2006), Oakland acquired him from the Phillies as part of the Joe Blanton trade a few years ago.

There’s nothing flashy about Cardenas, but Baseball America did rank him as the team’s 12th best prospect in their 2012 Prospect Handbook (that was before the Gio Gonzalez trade, however). As a middle infielder, all he has to do to represent an upgrade for the Yankees is be better than Ramiro Pena. That’s not exactly a high standard. Let’s break his game down…

The Pros

  • Offensively, Baseball America says he “makes consistent hard contact” and “has an innate understanding of how pitchers are trying to attack him … Cardenas has a fluid, effortless swing, and sprays the ball all over the field.”
  • The stats back up the scouting report. Cardenas has a career 12.6% strikeout rate (11.5% in Triple-A) and 9.3% walk rate (8.2% in Triple-A), both of which are above-average. He’s a .303 hitter in the minors (.290 at Triple-A) with a .368 OBP (.349 at Triple-A).
  • A second baseman by trade, Cardenas also has plenty of experience at shortstop and third base. He also spent a fair amount of time in left field last season. Versatility is always a plus.
  • Since he was added to the 40-man roster after the 2010 season and spent all of last year in the minors, Cardenas has two minor league options remaining. He has never spent a day in the big leagues, so he has zero service time and is under team control for another six years.

The Cons

  • Cardenas as no power whatsoever. I’m talking a career .110 ISO in the minors and .097 in Triple-A. The five homers he hit in 2011 were his most since hitting five in 2008. His career high is nine dingers back in 2007.
  • He’s also a poor base stealer, going just 27-for-48 (56.3%) in 392 games above Single-A. So offensively, the only thing you can count on Cardenas to do is put the ball in play and draw walks. I can’t even guarantee he’ll hit it out of the infield.
  • Unfortunately, all that defensive versatility just means Cardenas will be shaky at more than one position. Baseball America said his “speed, quickness, and range are all fringy,” and his outfield routes “aren’t perfect [but] he catches what he gets to and has an average arm.” They project him as a “line drive hitting utility man.”

A top 100 prospect as recently as 2009 (ranked 74th), Cardenas spent all of 2011 at Triple-A after splitting both 2009 and 2010 between Double and Triple-A. He seems to have gone backwards a bit since the trade, playing fewer and fewer games on the middle infield each season. A powerless corner infielder/outfielder without at least solid base stealing or defensive skills isn’t exactly the most valuable player in the world, so it’s not clear if he passes the “better than Ramiro” test. At least Pena is a very good defender at all infield positions, even if he can’t hit a lick and only has one minor league option remaining

Cardenas is worth having in the organization because he has some prospect shine left and is an upgrade over the Reegie Corona and Doug Bernier types, but I don’t think he’s a guy worth carrying on the 40-man roster if it can be avoided. That makes him a candidate for my favorite underutilized trick, the ol’ waiver claim-then-DFA. The idea is that you claim the player to get him in the organization, then immediately remove him from the 40-man roster. Since the Yankees have such a low waiver priority, any player they claim will likely go untouched the second time through waivers. That make sense? Cardenas could be useful but he’s not as good as I thought he was coming into this post.

MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospects List

Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com published his list of baseball’s top 100 prospects yesterday, with Matt Moore, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout unsurprisingly occupying the top three spots. Manny Banuelos ranks 13th, one spot behind Jesus Montero. I coulda sworn those positions were reversed last night and Banuelos was in front of Montero, but I guess I’m just going crazy. Dellin Betances is #41, Gary Sanchez is #53, and Mason Williams is #73. Mayo’s rankings always seem to buck the consensus a bit, which I like. Prospect ranking isn’t a perfect science.

Open Thread: Bartolo

The Yankees do have an abundance of starting pitching at the moment, but the situation was much different a year ago. They were scrambling for pitchers after Cliff Lee went back to the youthful Phillies, and in what amounts to an act of desperation, they signed Bartolo Colon one year ago today.

Colon hadn’t had any kind of sustained success in the bigs since winning the Cy Young Award in 2005, but he was pitching well in the winter ball and the Yankees rolled the dice. It was a minor league deal, so they had nothing to lose. Bench coach Tony Pena was managing Bart in winter ball, so they had a bit more info than everyone else. Colon came to Spring Training and was throwing mid-90’s gas to everyone’s surprised, and before long he was in the rotation and serving as the team’s number two starter. It didn’t last all season, but watching this big fat guy slime out to the mound and throw 96 on the black with his two-seamer running all over the place was pretty awesome for the first few months.

Bartolo revived his career with the Yankees in 2011, and parlayed that success into a guaranteed $2M deal with the Oakland A’s this offseason. He won’t get much run support, but Colon should but up a shiny ERA in that ballpark and division. I hope he does well, he’s already made a fortune in his career and it was pretty obvious last season that he came back because of his love for the game. Hard not to appreciate that.

* * *

Here is your open thread for the night. There’s no hockey because of the All-Star break and neither the Knicks or Nets are playing, so you’re on your own for entertainment. You folks know how this works by now, so have at it.

Yankees avoid arbitration with Boone Logan

The Yankees and Boone Logan have avoided arbitration, the team announced. The AP says it’s a one-year deal worth $1.875M. He had filed for $2.1M while the team countered with $1.7M, so they settled just below the midpoint. Logan can earn an addition $25k by appearing in 55 games.

All six of the Yankees arbitration-eligible players (Logan, David Robertson, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Brett Gardner, Russell Martin) are now under contract next year for a total of $18.65M in guaranteed money (not including bonuses). Matt Swartz’s model at MLBTR projected the six players to sign for $17.8M combined, so give him a round of applause. Getting within 5% is pretty damn good in my book.