Opportunity in the bullpen

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

We say the same thing every year, that the bullpen at the start of the season will not be the same as the bullpen at the end of the season. Players pitch their way on/off the club, trades happen, injuries occur, all sorts of stuff changes the bullpen dynamic during the course of 162 games. The one constant over the years has been Mariano Rivera, but unfortunately his torn right ACL means his name will be one of those we see in April but not October.

Thankfully, the Yankees are in capable hands with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano in the late innings. Whoever takes Rivera’s roster spot won’t take his role as closer, they’ll instead work middle relief while Cory Wade, Soriano, and Robertson each move up a notch on the totem pole, so to speak. Side-arming righty Cody Eppley currently occupies Mo’s spot on the roster, but he’s far from the team’s only option. As we’ve seen over the last few seasons, the Yankees will cycle through internal options before finding the right mix or going out and making a trade.

Eppley and D.J. Mitchell have already come up from the minors to aid the relief corps this year, but now let’s run down the list of players we could also see in the coming weeks….

Splitter grip. (Debby Wong/US PRESSWIRE)

RHP Kevin Whelan
The last remaining piece of the Gary Sheffield trade, Whelan made his big league debut last season and walked five in 1.2 IP. The 28-year-old was substantially better in Triple-A (3.24 FIP in 52.1 IP) and has continued that success this year. Whelan can miss bats with a low-90s fastball and a mid-80s splitter, but he’s really struggled with his control aside from last season. Middle relief is a good place to stash a guy who can run into trouble with walks.

RHP Chase Whitley
The Yankees bumped Whitley up to Triple-A after a brief return to Double-A to start the season, and he’s pitched extremely well to start the season: 2.43 FIP in 15.2 IP. Using three pitches in relief — 89-91 mph fastball, low-80s slider, changeup — Whitley isn’t a huge strikeout guy and will rely on his defense more than most Yankees relievers. I ranked him as the club’s 30th best prospect before the season because of his likelihood of contributing to the big league team, not necessarily his upside.

LHP Juan Cedeno
The darkhorse, Cedeno signed out of an independent league this offseason and impressed both in Spring Training and while with Triple-A (1.62 FIP in 12.2 IP). The 28-year-old southpaw profiles as more of a specialist than a full-inning reliever, throwing a low-90s fastball with a low-80s slider. Once ranked as the ninth best prospect in the Red Sox’s system (2003), Cedeno has spent time in Korea and missed all of 2010 with some kind of injury. The Yankees already have two left-handed relievers and a third doesn’t make much sense, but Cedeno should be on the big league radar.

RHP Jason Bulger & RHP Adam Miller
Two of the more veteran options on the Triple-A staff, neither Bulger nor Miller figure to get serious consideration for a bullpen job anytime soon. Bulger hasn’t pitched well (5.25 FIP in 13.2 IP) either this year or at all since 2009, and Miller has only appeared in three games after starting the season on the DL. Miller is a former top prospect and could pitch his way onto the radar last this summer, but I can’t imagine either of these guys will get a look anytime soon.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

RHP Adam Warren & RHP D.J. Mitchell
Unlike the other five guys in this post, Warren and Mitchell are legitimate long relief candidates. We’ve already seen Mitchell in that role and he’s likely to come back up if another multi-inning guy is needed, especially since Warren hasn’t pitched all that well this year (5.46 FIP in 25.2 IP). I do think both guys — and we should lump David Phelps into this group as well — could be effective in short, one-inning bursts, which could be more plausible since Freddy Garcia is currently the long reliever and Andy Pettitte is due back at some point soon. With three guys like that, odds are one of them will prove useful in a middle relief role right away.

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Mitchell is the only player in this post currently on the 40-man roster, though the Yankees still have a number of 60-day DL candidates: Cesar Cabral, Brad Meyers, Austin Romine, and of course, Mo. The 40-man thing isn’t really a problem. Whelan, Whitley, Warren, and Mitchell give the team a couple of decent short-term relief options, plus there’s always the waiver wire and trade market. The important thing is that the Yankees already have these guys in-house and don’t have to scramble to fill out their pitching staff like they did in the mid-aughts.

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Rolling the dice with Adam Miller

(AP Photo | John Raoux)

Now that the calendar has flipped over to January, teams will start to load up on players via minor league contracts. Most of the big free agents are off the board and most of the big trades have already taken place, so depth becomes the focus. The Yankees have signed a number of players to minor league pacts already, including former big leaguers Dewayne Wise, Hideki Okajima, Matt Daley, and Jayson Nix, but the most intriguing addition came yesterday: 27-year-old right-hander Adam Miller.

Miller, the 31st overall pick in the 2003 draft, is a classic Texas fireballer standing 6-foot-4, 200 lbs., and he’s ridden the career roller coaster over the last eight years. He dominated in 2004 — 10.2 K/9 (28.0 K%) and 2.7 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) in 134.1 IP split between the two Single-A levels — and was ranked as the fourth best pitching prospect in the game by Baseball America after the season. That’s when the injuries started to set in. Miller missed the first half of 2005 with an elbow strain, then dominated again in 2006 — 9.2 K/9 (24.5 K%) and  2.6 BB/9 (7.1 BB%) in 158.1 IP at mostly Double-A — before elbow and finger problems hampered him in 2007.

Click to embiggen. (Photo via TheClevelandFan.com)

Those finger problems almost ended Miller’s career. Damage to the pulley system and ligaments in his right middle finger required four surgeries and limited him to just 94 innings from 2007-2010, zero from 2009-2010. Replacement ligaments from his calf and wrist now hold together a finger with a tip that is bent at a 45-degree angle and slightly to the right (see right). The digit conveniently wraps right around a baseball now.

Miller returned to the mound this past April, pitching exclusively in relief and rarely more than two innings at a time. He did strike out 39 in 44 IP (8.0 K/9 and 19.5 K%), but he also walked 21 (4.3 BB/9 and 10.5 BB%) and plunked six batters. Rust probably accounts for some of the control problems, but he also had trouble taming his once lethal slider with the rebuilt finger. His fastball was still pushing 95-96 after sitting 95-97 with some 100’s back in the day, encouraging but not super surprising since he hasn’t had any shoulder problems. He also has a solid changeup, but the high-octane fastball and knockout slider were what gave him that top of the rotation potential.

The injuries have basically ended any chance Miller had of remaining a starter, but obviously the Yankees feel he still might have something to offer in relief, where he can go to town with his two best pitches. He has a lower arm slot than most (here’s video of him from camp last year), which when combined with his fastball-slider combo leads me to believe he might wind up having a platoon split. Sure enough, he handled righties better than lefties both last year and throughout his career. That doesn’t mean he’s destined to become a righty specialist, lots of great relievers have platoon splits. It’s just something to be aware of.

Chances are Miller won’t ever help the Yankees just because that’s usually how these minor league contract fliers on former top prospects tend to go. We know the Yankees have emphasized strong makeup in recent years, and I think Miller’s prolonged battle with his health shows that he’s a tough, resilient guy. I don’t think spending a few months in Triple-A and traveling all over the place will discourage him all that much. Think of him as this season’s Mark Prior, just younger and with a sound shoulder. If he stays healthy in the first half and shows some effectiveness, he’s got a chance to help the big league team at some point during the season.

Yanks sign Adam Miller, Cole Garner to minor league deals

Via Matt Eddy, the Yankees have signed RHP Adam Miller and OF Cole Garner to minor league contracts. We heard that they were close to signing Miller way back during the Winter Meetings. The 27-year-old was the 31st overall pick back in 2003, but career-threatening ligament damage in his finger hampered his development. You can see the damaged finger on his Twitter page (it’s not gross). Even if it doesn’t work out, I’m still very interested to see him in Spring Training.

As for Garner, Baseball America ranked him as the 22nd best prospect in the Rockies’ system in last year’s Prospect Handbook. He put together a .392 wOBA for Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate last year, then picked up a pair of knocks in his first taste of the big leagues late in the season. The 27-year-old is a right-handed hitter and an extra outfielder type, just some depth.

Yanks close to signing Adam Miller to minor league deal

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees are close to signing right-hander Adam Miller to a minor league contract. The 27-year-old was the 31st overall pick in the 2003 draft, but he’s thrown just 138 IP since 2006 (zero in 2009 and 2010) due to career-threatening ligament damage in his right middle finger.

Before the injuries, the 6-foot-4, 200 pounder from Texas regularly sat in the high-90’s with a wipeout high-80’s slider and a changeup. It was a true front-of-the-rotation package, which is why Baseball America ranked him as the Indians number one prospect every year from 2005-2008. Miller has had four surgeries on the finger, which is now held together by replacement ligaments from his wrist and calf. He returned to the mound for 44 relief innings this year, reportedly hitting 96 on the gun while working on his feel for the slider. This Terry Pluto article gives you a great idea of what he’s been through, kid sure sounds resilient.

As far as the Yankees as concerned, they’re doing nothing more than rolling the dice. Miller is still pretty young and showed at least some semblance of his former self this summer, so why not take a chance? If he comes up and helps out of the bullpen at some point, great. If not, no big loss. It’s a zero risk move.