2014 Season Review: Whitley & The Long Men

The Yankees opened the season with three players capable of serving as a long reliever. Adam Warren held the job just last year, David Phelps did it the year before that, and Vidal Nuno has always been more of a multi-inning guy than a lefty specialist. Warren quickly settled into a short relief role and both Phelps and Nuno were in the rotation due to injuries before long, so the Yankees went from having three potential long men to zero by time May rolled around. They cycled threw some collection of arms this summer. Time to review the long relievers.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Chase Whitley

Last winter, every other team in baseball passed over Whitley in the Rule 5 Draft. By mid-May, the career reliever was starting games for the Yankees because their rotation was so devastated by injuries. The team moved Whitley into the rotation full-time this year after a nice run of Triple-A spot starts late last year, and he earned the call-up by pitching to a 2.39 ERA (1.72 FIP) in 26.1 innings across six starts.

Whitley held the Mets to two hits and two walks in 4.2 innings in his MLB debut, and six days later he limited the Cubs to just one run in 4.1 innings. Joe Girardi understandably had a very quick hook, pulling the right-hander after 74 and 71 pitches, respectively. It wasn’t until his third start that he topped 90 pitches (he threw 91, to be exact). He allowed three runs five innings against the Cardinals.

Next time out, Ace Whitely was born. Whitely struck out six Twins and allowed just one run in five innings on June 1st, then he held the Royals and Mariners to two runs in seven innings and 7.2 innings in his next two starts, respectively. A five-inning, two-run outing against the Blue Jays followed that. After his first seven MLB starts, Whitely had a 2.56 ERA (2.74 FIP) in 38.2 innings. It was exactly what the Yankees needed given their rotation situation.

The wheels came crashing off the bus in Whitley’s eighth start, which was also the first time he faced a team for the second time. The Blue Jays clobbered him for eight runs on eleven hits and three walks in only 3.1 innings of work. The Red Sox punished Whitely for five runs in four innings next time out, then the Twins got to him for four runs in three innings. After allowing eleven runs in his first seven starts, he allowed 17 runs in his next three starts.

The Yankees pulled Whitley from the rotation after that — the Brandon McCarthy trade and Shane Greene call-up made that possible — and he settled into a long relief role. Whitely threw 26.2 innings in his final 14 appearances after being yanked from the rotation while also spending some time back in Triple-A. He had a 5.40 ERA (4.44 FIP) in those 14 outings. Here is a quick breakdown of Whitley’s season split into two parts:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% Opp. OPS
First 7 Starts 38.2 2.56 2.74 16.6% 2.6% 43.8% 2.1% .615
After That 37.0 8.03 5.59 19.7% 8.1% 46.8% 25.0% 1.030
Total 75.2 5.23 4.14 18.2% 5.5% 45.6% 12.0% .831

Even when Whitley was at his best during those first seven starts, I think we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. His stuff was good but not great — he’d break off a few nice sliders or nasty changeup every once in a while, but every pitcher does that — and it just seemed like it was only a matter of time before the league got a book on him and made adjustments. It happened fairly quickly and Whitley became unusable in non-mop-up situations. Those first seven starts though, they were excellent and a big help to the team at the time.

Alfredo Aceves

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

When the Yankees took all three of Phelps, Warren, and Nuno north out of Spring Training, they grabbed Aceves off the scrap heap to replace the depth in Triple-A. Someone needed to soak up all those extra innings and teams routinely sign veterans they can abuse so the actual prospects don’t get overworked. Fans (myself included) were pretty happy Aceves was back simply because of what he did in 2009. He built up a lot good will that season.

Aceves started the year in Triple-A and made three starts with the RailRiders before being called up to the Yankees in early-May. He made his triumphant return to the pinstripes on May 4th, when CC Sabathia got knocked around by the Rays and failed to complete the fourth inning. Aceves picked him up with 5.1 scoreless innings of relief, striking out five and allowing only three hits. It was vintage Aceves, the kind of stuff we saw back in 2009. Suddenly it looked like the Yankees had someone who could fill that revolving door in the back of the bullpen.

That didn’t happen though. Aceves was legitimately terrible after that first appearance. He pitched in nine more games with the Yankees and allowed runs in seven of them. In 14 total innings he managed to put 24 men on base, allow 14 runs, and serve up six (!) homers. After giving up two homers in his June 2nd appearance, Aceves, who is eccentric at best and downright crazy at worst, threw inside at several Mariners players, so much so that pitching coach Larry Rothschild had to go out to the mound to tell him to stop.

Aceves’ second stint in pinstripes ended after that appearance. The team designated him for assignment, he returned to Triple-A to make a handful of relief appearances, then was suspended 50 games for a failed drug test. Not performance-enhancing drugs, a drug of abuse. Reportedly cocaine. The Yankees released him after the suspension was over. Aceves had a 6.52 ERA (6.29 FIP) in 19.1 innings across ten games with the team. Let us never speak of this again.

Call me Esmil. (Presswire)
Call me Esmil. (Presswire)

Esmil Rogers

The Blue Jays have made some shockingly bad trades involving catchers the last few years. First they shipped Mike Napoli to the Rangers for Frank Francisco (Frank Francisco!), then they sent Yan Gomes to the Indians for Rogers. Gomes has broken out and is now one of the better catchers in the game. Rogers wore out his welcome in Toronto in less than two years (5.06 ERA and 4.81 FIP in 158.1 innings), but the Yankees were intrigued enough to claim him off waivers at the end of July.

Because he had been working as a starter in Triple-A before the Blue Jays cut him loose, Rogers was nice and stretched out, which allowed Girardi to use him for three innings in his first appearance with the team. He held the Red Sox hitless in the three innings in his Yankees debut. Five days later, Rogers made a spot start filling in for the injured Phelps, and allowed just one run in five innings against the Indians. His first three appearances — there was a one-inning relief outing sandwiched between the three-inning debut and spot start — were enough to earn him some more responsibility.

After the spot start, Girardi used Rogers as a sixth and seventh inning type reliever, occasionally in the eighth inning as well if the rest of the bullpen was taxed. He made 15 appearances after the spot start and two were disasters — three runs and one out on September 16th, four runs and one out on September 28th — uglifying his stat line. Rogers had a 4.68 ERA (4.17 FIP) in 25 total innings with New York, but I thought he generally pitched better than that. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t truly awful either. Most of the time, anyway.

Billings. (Presswire)
Dolla dolla Billings, y’all. (Presswire)

Bruce Billings

Billings was another one of those veteran arms for Triple-A — there were a lot of them this year, the Yankees didn’t have many actually pitching prospects in Scranton — though he did get called up to make one appearance with the big league team. He soaked up four innings against the Angels on April 25th, allowed four runs on four hits and a walk. Two of the four hits left the yard. Billings did strike out seven of 17 batters faced though. That’s cool. He was called up again at midseason before the team dropped him from the 40-man roster. Billings elected free agency and signed with the Dodgers, then spent the rest of the season in their Triple-A bullpen. Those for the four innings, Bruce.

Chris Leroux

Leroux was a starter with Triple-A Scranton at the start of the season, though he was unable to give the Yankees any length in his two appearances with New York. He allowed two unearned runs in one inning in his first game on April 29th, then he got clobbered for five runs in an one inning on May 2nd. That was in the 14th inning of this game, which you might remember because the Yankees made a spirited comeback to tie the game in the eighth and then again in the ninth to force extrainnings. Leroux was dropped from the roster soon thereafter and spent the rest of the summer either hurt or pitching for the RailRiders. What a summer of long men.

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Yankees place Kelly Johnson on 15-day DL, recall Chris Leroux

The Yankees have placed Kelly Johnson on the 15-day disabled list with a left groin strain, the team announced. Right-hander Chris Leroux was called up from Triple-A Scranton to replace him on the roster. Bruce Billings was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man spot for Leroux.

Johnson left last night’s game with what was initially called a cramp, but he went for an MRI that showed the strain. Leroux was scheduled to start for the RailRiders today, so he’ll be able to give the Yankees a bunch of innings out of the bullpen if needed following last night’s 14-inning marathon. Hopefully the three-man bench, eight-man bullpen setup will only last a few days.

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.

Yankees designate Soriano for assignment

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

The Yankees have designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, the team announced. The move clears both a 25-man and 40-man roster spot for Bruce Billings, who has been called up from Triple-A Scranton to help the overworked bullpen.

Soriano, 38, hit a miserable .221/.244/.367 (61 wRC+) with six homers in 238 plate appearances this season. He started the year as the everyday DH and, thanks in part to Carlos Beltran‘s elbow injury, wound up as a platoon right fielder losing playing time to Ichiro Suzuki. Soriano went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and some awful defensive plays yesterday, which might have been the final straw.

The Yankees are paying $5M of Soriano’s $18M salary this year — the Cubs are paying the other $13M — and they still owe him that. They now have ten days to trade him, release him, or place him on waivers. It’s inevitable he will clear waivers and be released with that salary. Soriano was a monster after being re-acquired last year, hitting .256/.325/.525 (130 wRC+) with 17 homers in 58 games. Father Time remains undefeated, unfortunately.

Earlier this season Soriano said he will consider retirement if he has a poor year and I have to think this qualifies. Another team can sign him for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum once he is released, so he might get another chance (Red Sox?) to show he still has something left in the tank. Soriano was as fun a player to watch as anyone when he was locked in, but the time had come to move on. He wasn’t helping at all this year.

Once the pitching staff gets settled in following the Brandon McCarthy trade, the Yankees figure to call up another position player to replace Soriano. Zoilo Almonte and Yangervis Solarte are on the 40-man roster, but Jose Pirela is an interesting non-40 man option. He has crushed Triple-A pitching this year (124 wRC+) and started playing right field about a week ago. That’s probably not a coincidence. We’ll see.

Game 40: Two Debuts

(Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

Thanks to injuries to each team’s Opening Day starter, both the Yankees and Mets will have a pitcher make his MLB debut tonight. Righty Chase Whitley is filling in for CC Sabathia (knee) while fellow righty Jacob deGrom steps in for Dillon Gee (lat). Neither Whitley nor deGrom is a top prospect, but they have the potential to be useful big league arms in some capacity. Whitley only recently converted from reliever to starter, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles turning over a big league lineup.

Via Bryan Hoch, Elias says this is the first time the Yankees have been involved in a game in which both starters were making their MLB debut since October 1908. They were still the Highlanders back then. That is kinda nuts. The Mets were involved in one of these games back in September 2010, when Gee made his debut against Yunesky Maya. That’s the last time two starters have made their debuts in the same game. It just so happened to include the Mets. Here is the Mets lineup and here is the Yankees lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. SS Derek Jeter
  3. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Alfonso Soriano
  7. 3B Yangervis Solarte
  8. 2B Brian Roberts
  9. RHP Chase Whitley

It is cloudy and cool in New York, and it was raining overnight and for a good chunk of the morning. There is no more rain in the forecast though, so they shouldn’t have any trouble getting this game in. First pitch is scheduled for 7:10pm ET and you’ll be able to watch on both YES and SNY locally, as well as MLB Network nationally. Depending on where you live, of course. Enjoy the game.

Roster Moves: In case you missed it earlier, Carlos Beltran (elbow) has been placed on the 15-day DL. That cleared a 25-man roster spot for Whitley. The Yankees are back to a normal seven-man bullpen and four-man bench. Righty Bruce Billings was activated off the 15-day DL and designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot for Whitley, the team announced. He was out with a forearm strain.

Yankees call up Shane Greene and Bruce Billings

4:20pm: Yep, Anna and Claiborne were sent down and Nova was moved over to the 60-day DL, the Yankees announced.

3:48pm: The Yankees have called up right-handers Shane Greene and Bruce Billings from Triple-A Scranton. Based on the lineup card, Preston Claiborne and Dean Anna were sent down in corresponding moves. Greene was already on the 40-man roster and I assume Ivan Nova was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a spot for Billings.

Greene, 25, was scheduled to start for the RailRiders tonight, but he has been up and down so much this year that he hasn’t been able to get stretched out. He’s only thrown 2.2 innings in 2014. Billings, 28, started for Scranton four days ago and is fully stretched out — he could throw 100+ pitches tonight if need be. The Yankees ran through their bullpen last night following Michael Pineda‘s ejection, so this gives them a pair of fresh arms. It appears they’ll go with a three-man bench during Pineda’s suspension. (They aren’t allowed to replace him on the roster.)

Yankees sign Bruce Billings, re-sign Yoshinori Tateyama

Via Matt Eddy: The Yankees have signed right-hander Bruce Billings to a minor league contract. I’m not sure if he received an invitation to Spring Training. The 28-year-old had a 4.31 ERA (3.96 FIP) in 148.1 innings for the Athletics’ Triple-A affiliate last summer. He’s been at that level for four years now. Billings has four big league appearances to his credit, allowing ten runs in seven innings for the Rockies and A’s back in 2011. He’ll be counted on to soak up innings for Triple-A Scranton this summer.

The Yankees have also re-signed righty Yoshinori Tateyama to a minor league deal, according to Eddy. They acquired him from the Rangers for cash in the middle of last season. Tateyama, 38, had a 1.70 ERA (2.18 FIP) in 42.1 innings for Triple-A Scranton after the trade. He has 61 innings of big league experience, posting a 5.75 ERA (4.54 FIP) for Texas from 2011-12. Tateyama’s fun to watch because hes a sidearmer who throws a screwball. Here’s proof. I don’t think either he or Billings will have much of a chance to see time with the Yankees in 2014 unless something goes horribly, horribly wrong. They’re (deep) depth moves.