Phelps’ injury should push Yankees back into the trade market

Imagine where the rotation would be without him. (Mike Stobe/Getty)
Imagine where the rotation would be without him. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

With David Phelps hitting the disabled list yesterday, you can make a pretty strong argument the five best starting pitchers in the Yankees organization are out with injuries. Phelps (elbow) joins Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), Ivan Nova (elbow), and Michael Pineda (shoulder) on the shelf, which is a nice little staff. It’s remarkable the Yankees are still even remotely in the hunt for a postseason spot with all those guys out.

As of right now, the current rotation is Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, Chris Capuano, Shane Greene, and TBA. Esmil Rogers seems likely to replace Phelps in the rotation, at least until Pineda returns. Pineda made his first rehab start over the weekend, and, from the sound of it, he’ll make two more before rejoining the team. His return is far from a sure thing, of course. He’s already suffered one setback this summer and his rehab from surgery took much longer than expected. Still, Pineda is by far the team’s best hope for pitching help from within in the near future.

The Yankees know for certain Sabathia and Nova are not coming back this year following surgery. Pineda might be ten days away and, if everything goes right, Tanaka will be back in September. He played catch yesterday for the first time since getting hurt — the clip they aired during last night’s game showed he was basically lobbing the ball, a nice reminder of how far away he really is — and still has a long way to go before returning to the rotation. Bryan Mitchell, Chris Leroux, and Bruce Billings are stashed in Triple-A, but none sound particularly appealing.

The trade deadline brought the Yankees upgrades at second base and in right field even though just about every rumor connected them to some kind of pitching. Starters and relievers. They added McCarthy a few weeks ago and continue to pick through the scrap heap with guys like Capuano and Rogers, but that’s it. July 31st is not a hard trade deadline, however, so the Yankees still have an opportunity to add an arm or three through a waiver deal this month as teams fall out of the race. Some teams will inevitably look to shed some salary in the coming weeks. Happens every year.

Before Phelps got hurt, Capuano was the obvious one to go whenever the team acquired another starter. He’s done an admirable job in his two starts but he always seems to be walking a tightrope, and at some point he’ll slip up. The Yankees want to be find an alternative before that happens. But, now that Phelps is hurt though, Capuano is only second in line to be replaced behind the TBA pitcher, Rogers or whoever. They can barely keep their head above water with all these pitching injuries. Just when you think they’re ready to upgrade one spot, someone else goes down.

The rotation is averaging only 5.2 innings per start since the All-Star break and only once have the Yankees gotten seven full innings from a starter in the second half — Kuroda’s outing in Texas last week. Heck, on only three other occasions did they have a starter record even one out in the seventh since the Midsummer Classic I’m usually anti-eight-man bullpen, but the Yankees absolutely need one right now. It’s a necessity, not overkill. The starters aren’t giving the team length and someone has to get those outs. It can’t be the same guys every night.

Of course the Yankees have remained on the lookout for pitching this month and will continue to do so. The injury to Phelps increases the urgency for another arm — hard to believe that’s really possible at this point, they’ve been desperate for an arm for weeks now — and could force the team to be a little more aggressive in trade talks. Maybe that means being more willing to take on salary or give up a better quality prospect. Brian Cashman has shown he can find useful pieces at more than reasonable prices this summer and he has to do it again (and again?) to help the rotation.

Chris Capuano added to roster, will start tomorrow

The Yankees have added Chris Capuano to the active roster and designated Chris Leroux for the assignment, the team announced. Capuano, who acquired in a minor trade with the Rockies yesterday, will start tomorrow’s game. Shane Greene has been pushed back to Sunday and Chase Whitley is in the bullpen. The Yankees are still carrying eight relievers and three bench players, though I think that will change sometime soon. Jeff Francis‘ days may be numbered.

Yankees let McCarthy get back to being himself with the cutter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the Yankees swung what was essentially a minor trade to add Brandon McCarthy two weeks ago, it was easy to scoff at the deal. The big right-hander had a 5.01 ERA and a 1.23 HR/9 at the time of the trade, numbers that weren’t any better than the 4.89 ERA and 1.59 HR/9 Nuno put up in his 14 starts, especially considering the difference in leagues. The Yankees desperately needed pitching and it appeared they acquired a band-aid, not a difference maker.

The 31-year-old McCarthy came with a track record though, something Nuno lacked. He pitched to a 3.29 ERA (3.22 FIP) with the Athletics from 2011-12, and while some of that is certainly related to pitching in the spacious O.co Coliseum, McCarthy also famously reinvented himself as a sinker-cutter pitcher after delving into sabermetrics. “I didn’t want to suck anymore,” he told Eddie Matz last April, so his focus shifted to limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground. The cutter and sinker better allowed him to do that.

McCarthy signed a two-year contract worth $18M with the Diamondbacks during the 2012-13 offseason and, for whatever reason, Arizona asked him to shelve the cutter. This isn’t completely unheard of, there are a few cutter averse teams out there (the Orioles took it away from top prospect Dylan Bundy even though it is his best pitch), but it is weird. “It wasn’t something I totally agreed with,” McCarthy told Josh Thomson over the weekend, but I guess if the employer tells the employee to do something, he does it. Here is his pitch selection over the last few years:

Cutter Sinker Curve Four-Seam + Changeup
2011-12 with Athletics 41.3% 36.1% 18.9% 3.7%
2013-14 with D’Backs 23.6% 49.2% 20.1% 7.1%
2014 with Yankees 18.5% 52.5% 15.0% 14.0%

There was a definite change in pitch selection when McCarthy joined the Diamondbacks. He had almost a 50/50 split between the cutter and sinker while in Oakland but was throwing roughly twice as many sinkers as cutters in Arizona. Obviously his sample size with the Yankees is two starts and that’s nothing, but it’s worth noting he threw more cutters in those two starts (37 total) than he did in his final eight starts with the D’Backs combined (36). The pitch was nonexistent during the end of his tenure with Arizona.

“I feel like myself again. [The D’Backs] didn’t want me throwing it any more. They wanted more sinkers away, but I feel like I need that pitch to be successful,” said McCarthy to John Harper over the weekend. “The Yankees came to me right away and said, ‘We need to bring the cutter back into play.’ They obviously looked back and saw, ‘when he’s good he was throwing cutters. When he’s not, he wasn’t.’ I was glad to hear it because I was going to tell them that anyway. It’s been frustrating because I felt like I’ve been throwing better this season than any other year.”

The Yankees had some insight into McCarthy before the trade even though he’s never played with anyone on the current roster or under someone on the coaching staff. Minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson held the same role with the Athletics while McCarthy was there, and in fact he once told Susan Slusser that McCarthy’s cutter grip was unlike anything he’d seen before. Patterson works with the team’s pitching prospects but I’m sure he was consulted before the trade given their existing relationship. It’d be foolish not to ask his opinion.

McCarthy does not need the cutter to be a put-away pitch or any kind of dominant offering, it just has to be another option. Something to bust lefties inside and something to keep hitters off the sinker. A different look, basically. McCarthy does need the pitch to be more than an average at best pitcher though. He clearly believes that, if nothing else. The cutter gives him another weapon and it’s hard to believe the D’Backs took it away from him in the first place. The Yankees are very smart to let McCarthy use his cut fastball and reintroducing that pitch might have landed them an above-average pitcher at a journeyman price.

Shane Greene and the staff of opportunity

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the Yankees acquired Brandon McCarthy from the Diamondbacks yesterday, they threw their rotation temporarily out of whack. Nuno and McCarthy were not scheduled to start on the same day — Nuno was supposed to start tonight’s series opener against the Indians while McCarthy lines up start tomorrow on normal rest — so the club has to dig up a spot starter. Not a huge deal, just something they have to deal with. (McCarthy will get an extra day of rest and make his Yankees debut on Wednesday, partly so Masahiro Tanaka can start as scheduled Tuesday and make two starts before the All-Star break.)

That spot start will go to right-hander Shane Greene, the Yankees announced. He will be on normal rest after last pitching for Triple-A Scranton on Wednesday. I assume Jim Miller will be dropped from the roster to clear a spot rather than Bruce Billings simply because Billings is stretched out and can go 100+ pitches if necessary. The bullpen is pretty taxed and keeping the extra long man around sure seems like a good idea.

Greene made his MLB debut earlier this season and it was a disaster — five batters faced, three walks, three unearned runs, one out — though that came after a few weeks of being jerked between the show and Triple-A. That appearance came on April 24th and up to that point he had thrown only thrown 2.2 innings and 52 pitches during the regular season. Add in the usual MLB debut jitters and it’s easy to understand why he was wild.

That will not be the case tonight, at least hopefully not. Greene has been making a regular turn in the RailRiders rotation for weeks now, so he is fully stretched out and able to go through his usual routine. No irregular pitching schedule, no sitting in the bullpen for weeks on end, nothing like that. Greene’s overall numbers in Triple-A are not all that good (4.61 ERA and 3.39 FIP) but he has been much better of late, allowing six earned runs (1.93 ERA) with a 23/10 K/BB in 28 innings across his last five starts.

If Greene can come up and give the Yankees the bare minimum quality start (three runs, six innings), I’ll be thrilled. I’m sure the team would be as well, considering how things have been going for most of the rotation. Six innings from someone other than Tanaka feels like a minor miracle these days. The rotation after Greene is a little unsettled at the moment. Tanaka will start Tuesday and McCarthy on Wednesday, but Thursday’s starter is officially listed as TBA. That’s Chase Whitley‘s spot.

“Right now [Whitley will] be in the bullpen until we get this ironed out,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings following yesterday’s game. “If we don’t need him out of the bullpen, he could start again for us. A lot of this depends on tomorrow … Every opportunity is an opportunity to shine and get more opportunities.”

Whitley. (Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

If Whitley isn’t need out of the bullpen these next few days, he’ll make the start on Thursday. If they do need him, David Phelps would presumably move up and start Thursday on normal rest. Then they’d need a spot starter for Saturday (Hiroki Kuroda goes Friday), which could be Greene again. Point is, the bullpen is such a mess right now that Whitley could wind up pitching in relief at some point soon. I’m guessing that’s something that wouldn’t happen or even be considered if he hadn’t gotten destroyed in his last three starts. If he was still pitching like he was a few weeks ago, he’d remain in the rotation no questions asked.

So now, even with McCarthy theoretically providing some stability in place of Nuno, the Yankees still have one questionable rotation spot in Whitley. The All-Star break is coming next week and that will give the team a much-needed chance to catch its collective breath and reset the staff, but beyond that the job should be considered up for grabs. If Greene pitches well tonight, he could very well assume that rotation spot with Whitley, the career reliever, remaining in the bullpen. Girardi said it himself: “every opportunity is an opportunity to shine and get more opportunities.”

The benefit to keeping Greene in the rotation is potentially two-fold. One, it would improve the rotation compared to what Whitley has given them the last three times out. That’s the only way Greene would remain in the rotation anyway, if he pitches well enough to get another chance. Two, Whitley has been a reliever his entire life, so it’s a familiar role for him, plus now he’s stretched out. He could step in and serve as another two or three-inning guy for the middle innings. That would be a huge improvement over the Miller/Jose Ramirez/Matt Daley revolving door we’ve seen lately.

The Yankees have taken some steps to shake up their roster over the last week or so, specifically replacing Yangervis Solarte, Alfonso Soriano, Ramirez, and Nuno with McCarthy, Miller, Billings, and Zelous Wheeler. The Miller and Billings moves are only temporary, plus the team will need to call up another position player to replace Soriano in the coming days, so the shakeup isn’t complete. Outside of a handful of spots at the top of the rotation and in the back of the bullpen, the current pitching staff is full of opportunity. If you pitch well, you’ll get a chance to remain with the team and play a role. Whitley has done it already and now it’s Greene turn to try to carve out a niche for himself.

Whitley’s workload may be an issue in the second half

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Prior to last night’s drubbing at the hands of the Blue Jays, Chase Whitley had been a pleasantly surprising contributor in the wake of the rotation injuries. He rarely took the ball deep into games, but he went into Monday night with a 2.56 ERA (2.70 FIP) in 38.2 innings across seven starts. That’s really good. That he got roughed up so much in Toronto and still owns a solid 4.07 ERA (3.16 FIP) in 42 innings tells you how good he was before last night.

Whitley, of course, did not become a full-time starter until the very end of last season, when he made a handful of spot starts for Triple-A Scranton. Last night was his 22nd career professional start since being drafted in 2010. That’s all. This guy was a third baseman for most of his college career and a full-time reliever in the minors as recently as ten months ago, which makes his pre-Monday success as an MLB rotation member that much more impressive.

Therein lies something of a problem. Because Whitely has been a reliever for most of his life, he has never spent a full season as a starter and dealt with that type of workload before. The season is not even halfway over and Whitely is already rapidly approaching his career-high in innings pitched. Here is his career innings breakdown:

Total MLB MiLB Playoffs Other
2014 68.1 42 26.1 ?  ?
2013 67.2 0 67.2 0  0
2012 86.2 0 84.1 2.1  0
2011 107.2 0 91 0 16.2 (Az Fall League)
2010 105.2 0 36.1 3.1 66 (college)

Whitely has already thrown more innings this year than last year, mostly because he spent the first seven weeks of 2013 on the disabled list with an oblique problem. He’ll probably surpass his 2012 innings total before the All-Star break and his career-high innings total — which was set three years ago now — either late next month or in early August, barring injury or something.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the “Verducci Effect” and the concept of controlling a young pitcher’s workload in an effort to reduce future injury risk. It’s common sense and teams do it every single year. The idea of a 30-inning year-to-year increase being the magic number is a little outdated, but there is definitely a point when a workload increase becomes too much. That usually applies to pitchers younger than Whitley, who turned 25 less than two weeks ago.

Because he was not a top prospect — remember, Whitley went undrafted in the Rule 5 Draft just last December — and there is a pretty strong likelihood he is currently enjoying the best stretch of his career, I’m not concerned about monitoring Whitley’s workload to reduce future injury risk. That’s not to say the Yankees should run him into the ground, they do still have a responsibility to try to keep him healthy, but he isn’t as much of a priority as someone like, say, Ian Clarkin or Luis Severino. That’s just baseball.

My biggest worry about Whitley’s workload is plain ol’ fatigue. He might just run out of gas sometime in the second half, when he approaches 130 or 140 or 150 or whatever number of innings. We don’t know when or even if it will happen. But, just looking at him as a guy who has thrown more than 100 innings in a season twice in his life, it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll hit a wall at some point. Whitley’s never started for an extended period of time before and he’s about to enter uncharted workload waters.

In a perfect world, the Yankees would use off-days to skip Whitley’s starts (or at least push them back a few days) whenever possible to help keep him fresh. They could call up a sixth starter for the day and skip one of his starts that way. They could even give him a little two-week vacation on the disabled list; that’s another way they could control his innings and try to keep him fresh later in the season. The Yankees can’t do any of that though because they’re stretched so thin for pitching. They don’t have that sixth starter to call-up and they need to use off-days to give their other pitchers an extra day whenever possible as well.

CC Sabathia will face hitters in a live batting practice session today and is expected to pitch in a minor league rehab game this weekend, but he is still several weeks away. Michael Pineda can’t even get healthy enough to play catch these days, so the Yankees should just forget about him. If he manages to get healthy and pitch at some point, wonderful. But don’t count on him. A trade? That seems inevitable, but it doesn’t seem like it will happen anytime soon. Once it does happen, Vidal Nuno (the obvious candidate to lose his rotation spot) can be used as a spot starter to give Whitley occasional rest.

Right now, Whitley is pitching well as a starter and the Yankees should ride that out as long as possible. He’s a young guy and he’s big and strong (listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 lbs.), plus he has what looks like a relatively low-effort delivery to me, so maybe he’ll be able to hold up deep into the season. That would be awesome. Whitley is at risk of hitting a wall in the second half though, only because he has never really started before and his workload is going to be pushed far behind his previous limits. It’s just another reason the Yankees need to add a starter and soon.