David Phelps, Adam Warren will come to Spring Training as starters

Warren in the rotation? As a last resort maybe. (Presswire)
Warren in the rotation? As a last resort maybe. (Presswire)

It’s no secret the Yankees came into the offseason needing rotation help. So, after the end of the regular season, the team told both David Phelps and Adam Warren to report to Spring Training next year ready to compete for a spot in the starting rotation. “We could always collapse them back into the (bullpen), but they were told to be physically ready to take a shot at a rotation spot,” said Brian Cashman to Brendan Kuty last week.

Phelps, 28, has been a true swingman the last three years, bouncing back and forth between the rotation and bullpen on numerous occasions. He’s performed a bit better as a reliever but not overwhelmingly so. It makes perfect sense to bring Phelps to camp ready to start. The 27-year-old Warren did a nice job in long relief in 2013 but really seemed to find a niche in short relief this past season. His velocity ticked up a bit and so did his strikeout rate. I understand bringing him to camp as a starter but I think he’s much more valuable as a one-inning reliever.

Despite their inactivity at the Winter Meetings, I definitely expect the Yankees to add a starter this offseason and probably two starters. They need the depth given the injury concerns in the rotation. It makes perfect sense to have Phelps and Warren prepare for a possible starting role, and while starting Phelps every fifth day is a fine fallback plan, I think putting Warren in the rotation should be a last resort. Hopefully he’s an emergency option and nothing more.

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2014 Season Review: The Sometimes Setup Men

Warren. (Presswire)
Warren. (Presswire)

Because they dealt with so many rotation injuries, the Yankees had to rely on their bullpen a ton this past season. Joe Girardi asked his bullpen to throw 501.1 innings this summer, the sixth most in the league. Dellin Betances soaked up a ton of innings, especially early in the year, but it wasn’t until late into the season that he settled into a traditional setup role. For most of the year, that responsibility belonged to Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley.

Adam Warren, Workhorse

Last season the Yankees used Warren as a true swingman and he was pretty damn good at it, especially by swingman standards. Getting 77 innings of 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) ball out of the last guy in the bullpen is really good. The Yankees moved Warren into a more traditional short relief role this season and he excelled. First and foremost, his fastball velocity ticked up noticeably:

Adam Warren velocity

Warren was Girardi’s regular seventh and eighth inning guy in the first half while Kelley and David Robertson missed time with injuries. The second half was a bit rough — nine runs in his first 14 innings after the All-Star break, perhaps due to fatigue — but Warren settled down and finished very strong thanks to some mechanical tweaks suggested by pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

“Larry pointed out one day, maybe move your hands a little this way and and all of a sudden it’s like, oh that feels a little bit better and you roll with it from there and you just kind of tinker with things until it feels right,” said Warren to Brendan Kuty in September. “Once things started to click it was like, oh, why didn’t I think of that two weeks earlier? It’s a process.”

Warren allowed just two runs (both in one outing) on six hits and three walks in his final 15 appearances and 20 innings of the season. He struck out 21, including ten of the final 18 batters he faced on the year. Warren closed out 2014 with a 2.97 ERA (2.89 FIP) in 78.2 innings with a very good strikeout rate (8.69 K/9 and 23.5 K%) and solid walk (2.75 BB/9 and 7.4 BB%) and ground ball (45.4%) numbers.

Last season, Warren’s main problems were the long ball and left-handed hitters. He allowed ten homers in those 77 innings (1.17 HR/9 and 13.2 HR/FB%) and lefty batters hit .301/.370/.526 (.387 wOBA) against him. This year it was only four homers in 78.2 innings (0.46 HR/9 and 6.0 HR/FB%) with a .170/.253/.271 (.239 wOBA) line by opposite hand hitters. That’s quite the improvement. Probably too much of an improvement. Not sure if he can sustain that going forward, but it happened in 2014 and that’s all that counts.

Anyway, given the team’s rotation issues — there was plenty of talk of moving him back into the rotation after the injuries struck in the first half —  Warren was especially valuable because of his durability. He recorded at least four outs in 29 of his 69 appearances, the second most in baseball behind Betances (35!). Sure, Warren has been a starter his entire life, but throwing multiple innings two or three times a week is no easy task. Outside of that little hiccup after the All-Star break, Warren was very good and very valuable to the 2014 Yankees. He soaked up a ton of important innings.

Shawn Kelley, Intermittently Awesome

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

When the season started, Kelley was Robertson’s primary setup man. That was plan coming into the season after Mariano Rivera retired and the Yankees opted not to bring in some kind of veteran replacement. For a while, Kelley was excellent, pitching to a 1.88 ERA with 15 strikeouts and three walks in his first 14 appearances and 14.1 innings. He even went 4-for-4 in save chances while filling in for the briefly injured Robertson in April.

Then it all fell apart on May 5th in Anaheim. Kelley walked four of the six batters he faced and allowed three runs to blow a game. He landed on the disabled list with a back issue two days later and missed six weeks. Kelley looked shaky — his slider lacked its usual bite, specifically — but was generally effective in his first few outings back before settling down. He struggled in mid-July (seven runs in the span of three appearances at one point) and again in late-September (four runs in his last four outings) to close out the year.

Kelley finished the season with a 4.53 ERA (3.02 FIP) in 51.2 innings. He struck out a ton of batters (11.67 K/9 and 30.5 K%) but also walked a few too many (3.48 BB/9 and 9.1 BB%) and didn’t get any ground balls (33.6%). Kelley actually kept the ball in the park (0.87 HR/9 and 8.9 HR/FB%) and handled left-handed batters (.221/.311/.301, .269 wOBA) better than I remember. Like most middle relievers, there were times he was really great and times he made you pull your hair out.

After starting the season as the first option behind Robertson, Kelley closed the year behind Betances and Warren on the setup man totem pole. The injury really seemed to knock him off track in May, but, as we’ve seen these last two years, Kelley is prone to spectacular meltdowns. That’s baseball. The good generally outweighs the bad — few guys can miss bats like this, that’s a valuable skill — and at times Kelley was a very important member of the bullpen in 2014.

2014 Midseason Grades: The Bullpen

Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple, straightforward, and totally subjective grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. We’ve already covered the catchers, infielders, outfielders, and rotation, so now let’s wrap up with the bullpen.

Game over. (Al Bello/Getty)
Game over. (Al Bello/Getty)

David Robertson — Grade A

So maybe replacing Mariano Rivera won’t be so difficult after all. Robertson inherited the closer’s job — to the dismay of more than a few — and has run with it, pitching to a 2.76 ERA (1.73 FIP) in 32 appearances and 32.2 innings. He is 23-for-25 in save chances with a career best strikeout rate (16.26 K/9 and 44.7 K%) and a career best ground rate (51.6%) while keeping his walk rate (2.76 BB/9 and 7.6 BB%) in line with the last two years. Robertson is also holding opponents to a .198 batting average, second lowest of his career (.170 in 2011) despite a career worst .356 BABIP.

Robertson has allowed ten earned runs this year with five coming in one disaster outing against the Twins on June 1st. He has allowed one run while striking out 27 of 56 batters faced since. Overall, 59 of 98 outs this season have been strikeouts, including 58 of 89 (65.2%) since coming off the disabled list (groin) in mid-April. No pitcher who has thrown at least 30 innings this season has a high strikeout rate. It’s not even close, really. Robertson leads in K/9 by more than one full strikeout and in K% by roughly three percentage points. He’s been dominant in every sense of the word.

The Yankees will need Robertson to continue his dominance in the second half for obvious reasons, though his looming free agency will be hanging over everyone’s head. The two sides have not discussed an extension but that could change at any time. Relievers like Robertson — super high strikeout pitchers with proven late-inning/big market chops and no history of arm problems — are rare and the Yankees should make every effort to keep him beyond this season. If his work this year doesn’t convince them he is the man to replace Rivera long-term, then I’m not sure they’ll ever find someone good enough.

Lots of (very) high fives for Dellin this year. (Presswire)
Undisputed best photo of the season. (Presswire)

Dellin Betances — Grade A

Just a few short months ago, Betances had a win a roster spot in Spring Training. Now he’s an All-Star high-leverage reliever who is 1996 Rivera to Robertson’s 1996 John Wetteland. Betances has a 1.46 ERA (1.37 FIP) while ranking third among full-time relievers in innings (55.1) and first in both fWAR (2.1) and bWAR (1.7). His strikeout rate (13.66 K/9 and 40.8 K%) is a bit behind Robertson’s but still among the highest in the league. He’s also stopped walking dudes (2.60 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) and is getting grounders (50.5%).

Joe Girardi has not been shy about using Betances for multiple innings given his history as a starter — Betances has recorded at least four outs in 25 of his 40 appearances and at least six outs 12 times — though he did take his foot off the gas right before the All-Star break because it did appear the big right-hander was starting to fatigue a bit. His stuff was still electric but not quite as crisp. Hopefully the break recharges his batteries. A little more than a year ago, Betances looked like he may soon be out of baseball. The move into the bullpen has saved his career and given the Yankees a second elite reliever to pair with Robertson in the first season post-Mo.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Adam Warren — Grade B

From spot starter to swingman to trusted high-leverage reliever. Warren has had his role redefined over the last few seasons and he has now settled in as a quality third option behind Robertson and Betances. His numbers — 2.79 ERA (2.70 FIP) in 42 appearances and 48.1 innings — are not quite as good as those two, but he gets strikeouts (8.57 K/9 and 22.4 K%), gets grounders (46.8%), and is stingy with ball four (2.79 BB/9 and 7.3 BB%). His fastball velocity has also ticked up in short relief, averaging 94.1 mph this year after sitting 93.0 last year.

As with Betances, Girardi has taken advantage of Warren’s history as a starter by using his for multiple innings on several occasions — he’s recorded 4+ outs in 18 of his 42 appearances. The Yankees have said that if the need arises, they would pull Warren out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation, but starters are dropping like flies and it hasn’t happened yet. Warren seems to have found a niche in short relief and he’s been a very valuable member of the bullpen despite being overshadowed by Robertson and Betances.

(Elsa/Getty)
Kelly and Kelley. (Elsa/Getty)

Shawn Kelley — Grade C

It was a tale of two first halves for Kelley, who opened the season as the regular eighth inning guy and nailed down four saves in four chances while Robertson was on the disabled list in April. He had a 1.88 (1.67 FIP) in his first 14.1 innings of the year before a disaster outing against the Angels on May 5th (two outs, four walks, three runs), after which he was placed on the disabled list with a back injury. It kept him out a month and he has a 4.05 ERA (3.21 FIP) in 13.1 innings since returning.

Kelley didn’t look right when he first returned from the back problem. He wasn’t able to finish his pitches and his trademark slider didn’t have much bite. It just kinda spun and floated. He looked much better in his last few outings before the All-Star break — one run, five hits, no walks, 13 strikeouts in 8.1 innings — and hopefully that’s a sign he’s now 100% and ready to take on some late-inning responsibilities so Girardi can spread the workload around. Definitely a mixed bag for Kelley in the first half.

Matt Thornton — Grade C

The rules of baseball fandom say we must hate the team’s lefty specialist, but Thornton has been solid (3.10 ERA and 3.04 FIP) in his 38 appearances and 20.1 innings. As his innings-to-appearances ratio suggests, Girardi has used him as a true matchup left-hander and not tried to force it against righties whenever possible. Thornton has held same-side hitters to a .229/.319/.244 (.262 wOBA) batting line with a 15.1% strikeout rate, a 3.8% walk rate, and a 50.0% ground ball rate. Solid.

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

The only real negative about Thornton is he doesn’t miss bats, even against left-handed hitters. That 15.1% strikeout rate is 76th out of the 90 left-handed pitchers who have faced at least 50 left-handed batters this year. Lefties have swung and missed only 20 times at the 220 pitches Thornton has thrown them this year (9.1%). That kinda sucks for a left-on-left reliever. Thornton missed a week with undisclosed soreness right before the break but did return to pitch against the Indians last week. LOOGYs, huh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

Preston Claiborne and David Huff — Grade C

Remember how awful Claiborne looked in Spring Training? We were talking about him as a candidate to be dropped from the 40-man roster if a need arose, but the Yankees kept him around and he pitched to a 3.57 ERA (3.82 FIP) in 17.2 innings while going up and down a few times in the first half. Three of his nine walks were intentional, uglifying his numbers a bit. Claiborne is currently on the Triple-A Scranton disabled list with a shoulder injury of unknown severity, which is not insignificant given his status as the team’s primary up and down depth arm.

The Yankees re-acquired Huff from the Giants in mid-June as part of their continuing efforts to find a not awful long man, and he’s since given the team 16.2 innings of 2.16 ERA (5.18 FIP) ball. Girardi used him as a matchup lefty while Thornton was out with his soreness and that predictably did not go well. Warren was pretty awesome by long man standards last year and that kinda spoiled us. Most long relievers stink. Is Huff keeping runs off the board? His ERA says yes. Has it been pretty? No but who cares. In that role you just want someone who can limited the damage and Huff has done that for the most part.

Alfredo Aceves — Grade F

Did you realize Aceves threw the sixth most innings among the team’s relievers in the first half? I sure didn’t. The Mexican Gangster threw 5.1 scoreless innings in long relief in his first outing back with the team, but it was all downhill from there. He allowed 14 runs on 20 hits (six homers!) and four walks in his next nine games and 14 innings, putting his overall season numbers at 6.52 ERA (6.29 FIP) in 19.1 total innings. The Yankees designated Aceves for assignment in early-June, he accepted the outright assignment to Triple-A Scranton, and he was recently suspended 50 games after a second failed test for a drug of abuse. He will be missed by: no one.

Matt Daley, Jose Ramirez, Bruce Billings, Jim Miller, Chris Leroux, Cesar Cabral, and Wade LeBlanc — Grade F

The combined pitching line of these seven: 33.2 IP, 46 H, 36 R, 33 ER, 19 BB, 33 K, 6 HBP, 6 HR. That’s an 8.82 ERA and a 5.19 FIP in one more inning than Robertson has thrown this year. I didn’t even include Dean Anna. /barfs

* * *

Girardi has had to rely on his bullpen more than I’m sure he would have liked in the first half, mostly because of the rotation injuries. Yankees relievers have thrown 292 innings this season, the 13th most in MLB, though their 264 total pitching changes are only 23rd most. That’s because of guys like Betances, Warren, and Huff being used for multiple innings at a time.

The bullpen has a 3.85 ERA (3.60 FIP) overall, which is bottom third in the league, but they have a top-heavy relief crew with arguably the best setup man/closer tandem in the game. The late innings are no problem at all. The middle innings are where it gets messy. Kelley is the bullpen key to the second half to me — if he gets back to pitching like he did before his back started acting up, Girardi will have another trustworthy high-strikeout arm who could potential solve that middle innings problem.

Bullpen workload a big concern due to banged up rotation

Dellin's awesome, but we need to start seeing a little less of him. (Presswire)
Dellin’s awesome, but we need to start seeing a little less of him. (Presswire)

For the first time in his three big league starts, Chase Whitley completed five full innings of work yesterday afternoon. Usually five innings isn’t anything to celebrate, but for a recently converted reliever who had thrown 4.2 and 4.1 innings in his first two starts, five full innings was definitely nice to see. Whitley started the sixth inning as well, though he failed to record an out and the bullpen was pressed into action.

The bullpen has been pressed into action quite a bit of late, especially on the road trip. The Yankees have played three extra innings games on this trip through Chicago and St. Louis, totaling nine additional innings. They’ve played an extra game on the trip, basically. The Yankees did win all three of those extra innings games thanks to some strong relief work, so there’s no complaints there, but all that extra work is starting to tax the bullpen.

Through the first 50 games of the season, the late-inning duo of Adam Warren and Dellin Betances are on pace to throw 94 and 98 innings this year, respectively. Nine of Warren’s last 13 appearances have been for multiple innings while Betances has been asked to get more than three outs six times in his last seven appearances. In fact, of his 21 appearances this year, Betances has thrown one inning or less only seven times.

Of course, both Warren and Betances were starters their entire careers up until last season, but throwing 150+ innings in a season while on a five-day routine is much different than throwing 90+ innings when you’re pitching every other day in relief or something like that. It’s fewer total innings, yes, but they’re pitching more frequently as relievers. Warren and Betances have shouldered most of the workload, but the bullpen as a whole has been worked hard this year. Check out the first 50 games of the last few years:

Starter IP Reliever IP Starter IP / Reliever IP
2014 289.1 165.1 1.75
2013 297.2 150.1 1.98
2012 298.2 143.2 2.08
2011 302.2 145.2 2.08

The bullpen has already thrown 15 more innings this year than last through 50 games, and roughly 20 innings more than 2011 and 2012. Fifteen innings doesn’t sound like much, but we’re talking about one extra inning every three games or so. That adds up in a hurry, especially since these Yankees tend to play close games (only 14 games decided by 5+ runs), which means more work for Joe Girardi‘s primary late-inning guys.

Obviously injuries have a lot to do with this. Shawn Kelley has been out for a while and he would have definitely taken some of those innings away from Betances and Warren. The same applies to David Robertson when he was on the disabled list last month. Losing CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova — two starters the Yankees were able to count on for 6+ innings every fifth day in the not too distant past — to significant injuries has trickled down and added pressure on the bullpen since guys like Whitley and Vidal Nuno aren’t innings eaters.

The Yankees will hopefully get Kelley back soon. He played catch yesterday and will do so again in the coming days, reportedly, plus Michael Pineda is on the mend and a few weeks away. (The Yankees were very careful with Pineda early on, but he is still a better bet to get you through five innings than some guys in the rotation right now.) Those two will help lighten the load on the current relievers, at least somewhat. Every little bit will help. It wouldn’t kill the offense to break a game open every now and then either.

Girardi’s strength has long been his bullpen management, and I can’t remember another time when he worked two relievers as hard as he has Warren and Betances these last few weeks. You know he doesn’t want to do it — ““We’re trying not to kill Betances,” said the manager to Chad Jennings yesterday, after Betances threw two more innings — but Kelley’s injury and the thinned-out rotation have forced his hand. The Yankees are really pushing the limits of their pitching depth right now.

Until some guys start getting healthy, Girardi will have to rely on Preston Claiborne, Matt Daley and yes, even Alfredo Aceves in higher leverage spots — at least higher leverage than they deserve — to avoid overworking his normal late-inning relievers. The Yankees aren’t going anywhere without Betances, Warren, Kelley, and Robertson dominating at the end of games, but at their current pace, Warren and Betances will burn out by August. The rest of the roster has to pick up some slack and give these guys more rest in the coming weeks.

Replacing Ivan Nova, both now and later

Vidal, open your eyes! (Brian Blanco/Getty)
Vidal, open your eyes! (Getty)

The Yankees got some very bad pitching news over the weekend. Ivan Nova left Saturday’s start with a sore elbow, and a subsequent MRI revealed a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. He will be re-evaluated in New York today and, based on how these things have gone for other pitchers around the league, it’s very likely Nova will need Tommy John surgery in the near future. The procedure would end his season and delay the start of his 2015 campaign as well.

Nova was the team’s least effective pitcher so far this season — that could be the result of the injury, of course — so the Yankees will only have to replace their fifth starter. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a big loss or anything like that, but there’s a difference between losing Nova and losing one of the other starters. This blow is easier to absorb. What can the Yankees do to replace Nova? Several things, actually. Let’s look at this two different ways.

Immediate Replacements
The Yankees have already placed Nova on the 15-day DL, so even if today’s re-evaluation brings best case scenario news, he’s going to miss a minimum of two starts. (Off-days could help the team out a bit.) Vidal Nuno pitched well in yesterday’s spot start (five scoreless innings) and today’s off-day allows him to step right into Nova’s rotation spot, if the team decides to go that way. I have to think they will based on yesterday’s work.

The other options on the big league roster are Adam Warren and David Phelps, both of whom competed for the fifth starter’s job in camp. Warren has settled into a one-inning setup role and even though the season is barely three weeks old, I think he’s there to stay. Even with David Robertson due to come off the DL tomorrow. Phelps has become more of a multi-inning, multi-purpose reliever. He works the middle innings, the late innings, whatever is needed. Kinda like 2009 Al Aceves. Both Warren and Phelps would need to be stretched back out, unlike Nuno.

The Triple-A options aren’t very good. The RailRiders have a mostly veteran retread rotation, and the only guy on the staff with any kind of big league success is, well, Al Aceves. He was last effective in 2011. I can’t imagine others like Brian Gordon, Bruce Billings, and Chris Leroux will get serious rotation consideration. Same with Manny Banuelos. (Billings has been quite good actually, with a 2.74 ERA and 2.67 FIP in 23 innings.) I can’t see any of these guys getting the nod over Nuno or Phelps right now. If anything, Aceves could be called up to fill a bullpen job, but that’s probably it. Nuno seems like the guy right now.

(Brian Garfinkel/Getty)
(Brian Garfinkel/Getty)

Longer-Term Replacements
If Nova does indeed go down for the rest of the season — even avoiding surgery and successfully rehabbing the injury will sideline him for weeks if not months — I think the Yankees have to consider making a trade to bolster their rotation. Remember, Michael Pineda is going to have his workload monitored closely following shoulder surgery, plus we don’t really know what to expect out of Masahiro Tanaka late in the season now that he’s starting every fifth day for the first time in his life. Plus Hiroki Kuroda has shown a tendency to wear down late in the year. Adding some rotation help is never a bad idea.

When looking for trade candidates, the easiest thing to do is find impending free agents on non-contenders. There are fewer sellers at the deadline these days because of the second wildcard spot, so the pool of available players really shrinks. Teams like the Diamondbacks (Brandon McCarthy?), Astros (Jerome Williams?), and Cubs (Jason Hammel?) seem like safe bets to be terrible. The Marlins (Kevin Slowey?), Rockies (Jorge De La Rosa?), and Padres (Eric Stults?) are other potential sellers.

The big rotation trade candidate is the same guy it’s been for about three years now: Cliff Lee. We know the Yankees love him, he remains among the game’s truly elite pitchers, and at this point there is only ~$45M left on his contract through next year. It’s not a huge long-term commitment. (His deal does include a vesting option for 2016.) Lee is someone any team would love to add to their staff and he’d be ultra-overqualified to replace Nova. Even if the Phillies decide to sell, do the Yankees have the prospects to compete against offers from clubs like the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Rangers?

* * *

The upcoming rotation situation would have been much murkier had Nuno gotten bombed yesterday. But, because he pitched well, he’ll likely get another chance or three to fill-in for Nova. And who knows? Maybe Nuno is the long-term solution. If not, the Yankees can try Phelps. A trade is something I think they should consider no matter how well those two perform, but that can wait. It’s early in the season and the Yankees can afford to be patient with their internal options. Nova did not pitch well in his first four starts this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be easy to replace.

Recent rash of pitching injuries shows Yankees’ depth isn’t expendable

Patrick Corbin won't get a chance to build on his breakout season in 2014. (Rob Tringali/Getty)
Corbin won’t get a chance to build on his breakout season in 2014. (Rob Tringali/Getty)

As of right now, with a little less than two weeks to go before Opening Day in Houston, the Yankees have not tipped their hand about the fifth starter’s spot. One some days it seems Michael Pineda is the frontrunner, on others it seems to be David Phelps. Then Vidal Nuno chucks four one-hit innings against the Orioles’ mostly-regular lineup to re-enter the conversation. Adam Warren has allowed two runs while striking out nine in 8.2 innings this spring. No one has pitched themselves out of consideration yet.

Having four possible starters for one rotation spot is one of those “good problems” people like to talk about. It’s not really a problem of course, pitching depth is a wonderful thing to have. The baseball gods have taken it upon themselves to remind teams and fans of that the (very) hard way over the last week or so. Look at this recent run of pitching injuries:

  • Sunday, March 9th: Kris Medlen of the Braves left his start holding his elbow. After getting a second opinion, he is having his second Tommy John surgery in the last four years this morning.
  • Monday, March 10th: Medlen’s teammate Brandon Beachy left his start with what is called biceps tightness. Tests show ligament damage and he is likely headed for his second Tommy John surgery in the last three years.
  • Friday, March 14th: Jarrod Parker of the Athletics was scratched from his start with a forearm issue. A visit to Dr. James Andrews revealed a torn ligament. He needs a second Tommy John procedure after having his first in 2009.
  • Saturday, March 15th: Diamondbacks’ ace and native New Yorker Patrick Corbin left his start with elbow pain and is currently deciding between Tommy John surgery and rehab, the latter of which never seems to work.

Four the game’s best young pitcher are out for the season and it happened in the span of a week. It doesn’t end there though. Luke Hochevar blew out his elbow two weeks ago. The Padres lost lefty Cory Luebke to his second Tommy John surgery last month and are on the verge of losing prospect Joe Wieland to the same fate. Mike Minor’s shoulder is acting up (the Braves signed Ervin Santana because they had so many injuries), Jon Niese has been dealing with shoulder and elbow problems, Cole Hamels has yet to appear in a game because of a shoulder issue, on and on it goes. Pitchers get hurt, we know this, but this recent rash of injuries around the league has been something else.

Last season the Yankees were the ones hit hard by injuries, though most of them hit the position players. The pitching staff has remained healthy this spring, knock on wood, but that tells us nothing about future durability. CC Sabathia has a ton of innings on his arm, Hiroki Kuroda is approaching 40, Michael Pineda is coming off two lost years following shoulder surgery … it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of those guys missed time in 2014. That and all these pitching injuries around the league are a reminder that the Yankees’ pitching depth — Phelps, Warren, Nuno, etc. — is not really expendable. The Yankees have not gotten through a non-strike season using fewer than eight starters since 1975, so all of those guys figure to be needed at some point this year.

It’s easy for us to starting thinking about a trade whenever the team has an extra something, be it pitchers or catchers or whatever. Heck, just last week I wrote about the possibility of the Yankees trading one of their spare arms to the Braves in the wake of their injuries, thinking it would be one way to improve the infield. Pitching, especially potential starters, have to be treated differently though. You know you’re going to need several extras throughout the season, moreso than any other position, so dealing away a spare arm is always risky. I don’t think we needed all the recent injuries to drive the point home, but it’s pretty clear the Yankees are best off holding onto guys like Phelps, Warren, and Nuno. They will come in handy at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

2014 Season Preview: Fifth Starter Candidates

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.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.