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 call up Chris Young, seven others as rosters expand

Preston's back. (Nick Laham/Getty)
Preston’s back. (Nick Laham/Getty)

The calendar has flipped to September, which means it’s time for rosters to expand The Yankees announced they have called up eight players from Triple-A Scranton this afternoon: RHP Chaz Roe, RHP Chase Whitley, RHP Bryan Mitchell, RHP Preston Claiborne, LHP Rich Hill, C John Ryan Murphy, OF Chris Young, and OF Antoan Richardson. They’re all available for tonight’s game. Young took Alex Rodriguez‘s locker, if you’re interested in that sort of stuff.

Whitley, Mitchell, Claiborne, and Murphy are already on the 40-man roster. To make room for Roe, Hill, Young, and Richardson, the Yankees released Matt Daley, designated Zoilo Almonte for assignment, and transferred both Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) and Slade Heathcott (knee) to the 60-day DL. Tanaka has been on the disabled list since July 10th, so he is eligible to be activated next Monday. Heathcott technically had to be called up from Double-A Trenton before he could be placed the 60-day DL.

The Yankees acquired Roe from the Marlins over the weekend and signed Young to a minor league deal last week. It had become obvious Almonte was never going to get a chance in New York, so he has been swapped out for the speedy Richardson, who stole 26 bases in 27 attempts with Triple-A Scranton. Whitley, Mitchell, Claiborne, Murphy, and Hill were all up with the Yankees at some other point this season. Austin Romine is the notable September call-up snub since he’s already on the 40-man roster.

As always, the September call-ups won’t play all that much these next few weeks. They’re there to eat innings in blowouts and give the regulars some rest. Young will probably see time against left-handed starters and Richardson will be the pinch-runner specialist. Given the state of the bullpen, maybe Claiborne or Mitchell will pitch their way into the Circle of Trust™ these next few weeks. Crazier things have happened. Either way, there are some extra warm bodies on the roster now.

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.

2014 Midseason Grades: The Rotation

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, and outfielders, so now let’s move on to the rotation.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Masahiro Tanaka — Grade A

I didn’t think it would be possible for Tanaka to meet, nevermind exceed expectations after the Yankees invested $175M in the 25-year-old right-hander this winter. A contract (and release fee) like that comes with ace-sized expectations and given everything he had to adjust to — five-day pitching schedule, new hitters, tougher parks, new culture, etc. — I didn’t think there was any chance he would pitch that well right away. I didn’t think he’d be bad, he’d be really good but there would be an adjustment period, right? How could there not be?

Well, there wasn’t. Tanaka showed up to Spring Training on the first day and looked like he had been wearing pinstripes for years. The transition was seamless, or at least he made it appear that way. He was all business from day one, embracing the five-day schedule and the new workout routines (remember all the running early in camp?). Tanaka was the position player of Hideki Matsui. The guy who fit in so well, so soon that it was like he was born to wear pinstripes.

Tanaka lived up to the hype on the field, of course. That’s most important. He has thrown 129.1 innings in 18 starts, and among the 45 AL pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Tanaka ranks third with a 2.51 ERA, third with 4.1 bWAR,, fourth with a 3.7% walk rate, fourth with a 7.1 K/BB ratio, fifth with a 26.6% strikeout rate, sixth with 3.2 fWAR, tenth with a 3.07 FIP, and 20th with a 45.9% ground ball rate. The only negative in his game is the long ball; he’ll give up some dingers (1.04 HR/9 and 14.4 HR/FB%). It’s a minor nuisance. Other than that though, Tanaka was one of the five best starting pitchers in the league in the first half.

Unfortunately, Tanaka suffered a partially torn elbow ligament in what was scheduled to be his second to last start before the All-Star break. Three doctors recommended he rehab the injury rather than undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery, so Tanaka received a platelet-rich plasma injection earlier this week and is currently resting before starting a throwing program. The expectation is that he will be able to return to the rotation later in the year, but surgery will remain a possibility if the rehab is less than perfect. It sucks but it is what it is. Tanaka managed to exceed expectations before the injury. What a stud.

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)
(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

CC Sabathia — Grade F

I was optimistic about Sabathia’s chances of rebounding this year, though I didn’t have much to base that on other than blind faith and Sabathia’s track record. I’m not even talking about getting back to being an ace. Just being a solid mid-rotation workhorse would have been plenty good enough for me. Instead, Sabathia gave the team a 5.28 ERA (4.79 FIP) in eight starts and 46 innings before going down with a degenerative knee condition. A stem cell procedure apparently did not work and now he’s facing the possibility of microfracture surgery, which could be career-threatening.

Rather than shake off the career worst 2013 season, Sabathia got worse and added in a serious injury this year. Not good. I mean, if you really want to squint your eyes and find a silver lining, know that his strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%) and walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%) rates were outstanding. That … really doesn’t make me feel much better at all. Maybe an incomplete would be a more appropriate grade given the injury (which might have led to the poor performance), but eight starts is one-fourth of the season. That’s not insignificant.

Anyway, Sabathia’s knee injury is very serious and remember, he’s only 33. We’re not talking about some guy approaching 40 here. Sabathia is still relatively young and an ultra-competitive type who leaves everything on the field — remember when he started four games in 12 days for the Brewers on the eve of his free agency? You’re kidding yourself if you think he’s just going to walk away from the game because of the knee injury — and now there’s a chance he may never pitch again. Like, for real.

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

Hiroki Kuroda — Grade C

There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Kuroda coming into the season, specifically his age (39) and brutal finish to the 2013 season. The Yankees re-signed him though, and while he has not pitched as well as he did the last two years, Kuroda has given the team innings every fifth day and is the only Opening Day rotation member not to come down with an injury. His 4.10 ERA (3.91 FIP) can be split up into a 4.62 ERA (3.75 FIP) in his first eight starts and 48.2 innings and a 3.72 ERA (4.02 FIP) in his last eleven starts and 67.2 innings, if you choose.

With Tanaka and everyone else going down with injuries — for weeks too, these aren’t 15 days on the disabled list and you’re good to go type of injuries — the Yankees need Kuroda to remain that reliable innings eater in the second half. Actually, they need him to be better than that, which is a problem because of his late-season fades. The Yankees absolutely can not afford that this year, not if they want to contend. Kuroda is currently the staff ace by default and the team needs him to reverse his recent trends and be better in the second half than he was in the first.

Big Mike

Michael Pineda — Grade D

It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? Two years after the trade that brought him to New York, Pineda was finally healthy enough to help the Yankees, and he started the year by pitching to a 1.83 ERA (2.73 FIP) in four starts and 19.2 innings. He was an ace! An ace on a very strict pitch count (no more than 94 pitches or six full innings in his four starts), but an ace nonetheless. The Yankees were finally getting some kind of return on the trade and it was glorious.

Then it all came to a crashing halt in Fenway Park in late-April. Two starts after the internet caught him with a glob of pine tar on his hand, Pineda was caught with an even bigger glob of pine tar on his neck. Red Sox manager John Farrell did not let it slide this time. He alerted the umpires and Pineda was ejected and eventually suspended ten games. While serving the suspension, he suffered a back/shoulder muscle injury and has been sidelined since. He just started throwing off a mound last week (after the #obligatorysetback). Given his recent history, there’s no possible way the Yankees could count on Pineda to return to help the rotation in the second half. If he does come back, it’s a bonus. But man, those 19.2 innings were pretty awesome, weren’t they?

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Ivan Nova — incomplete

I went back and forth between giving Nova an F or an incomplete. He did make four starts this year, after all. Four terrible starts, with 40 base-runners and an 8.27 ERA (6.91 FIP) in 20.2 innings. But he also blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery in late-April. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming the elbow contributed to his poor performance and that he was never really healthy this year. I don’t know, an F just seems too harsh for a guy that barely pitched before his elbow ligament snapped. Maybe I’m being too kind.

The Yankees lost Nova for the season and that’s a pretty significant blow. Not just for this year either, the timing of the injury means he will start next season on the disabled list and the team won’t really know what to expect from him. This is an injury that impacts two seasons, not only one. This was supposed to be the year for Nova to build on his strong second half of 2013 and stop the up and down nonsense, establishing himself as a no-doubt big league starter. That won’t happen.

David Phelps — Grade B

Once the injuries started to strike, Phelps worked his way into the rotation and has remained there ever since. He’s pitched to a 3.94 ERA (4.31 FIP) in 89 total innings, including a 3.96 ERA (4.08 FIP) in 13 starts and 77.1 innings since moving into the rotation. The Yankees have also been able to count on Phelps for innings — he’s thrown at least five full innings in all 13 starts (even before he was fully stretched out) and at least six full innings eight times in his last ten starts. That’s been much-needed.

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

There were some questions about Phelps and his ultimate role coming into the season — remember, he missed most of the second half last season with a pair of forearm strains — but things worked themselves out and he’s become one of the team’s three most reliable pitchers in the wake of the injuries. He’s been a godsend. You can’t ask anything more of a sixth starter. Now the Yankees need Phelps to keep it up in the second half. He’s in the rotation for good.

Chase Whitley — Grade C

It was definitely a tale of two first halves for Whitley. He came up following all the injuries and was outstanding in his first seven starts, posting a 2.56 ERA (2.75 FIP) in 28.2 innings. Considering he was a full-time reliever as recently as last July and the rotation was in total disarray, getting that kind of production out of Whitley was a minor miracle. The Yankees needed it desperately.

Then everything came crashing to a halt one night in Toronto last month, when the Blue Jays punished Whitley for eight runs in 3.1 innings. It wasn’t just a bump in the road either. He has a 9.43 ERA (6.14 FIP) in 21 innings since. (That includes two scoreless innings in relief.) After allowing eleven runs on 44 base-runners (one homer) in his first seven starts, Whitley has allowed 20 runs on 40 base-runners (five homers) in his last four starts. Those first seven starts were so good that I’m not going to go any lower than a C, especially since we’re talking about a guy who had never started regularly until this year. All things considered, Whitley’s been a plus even if he’ll only be a reliever going forward. He helped much more than I thought he would as a starter.

Vidal Nuno — Grade D

Nuno was actually the first guy to be pulled out of the bullpen and stuck in the rotation, but that had more to do with timing than anything. He was the only one rested and able to make a spot start because of a doubleheader in April, and he lined up perfectly to replace Nova after he blew out his elbow. That’s all. Nuno had a 5.42 ERA (5.18 FIP) in 78 total innings for the Yankees, including a 4.89 ERA (4.86 FIP) in 14 starts and 73.2 innings before being traded away two weeks ago. There were some good starts mixed in there and more than a few duds as well.

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)
(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

Brandon McCarthy and Shane Greene — incomplete

These two both joined the rotation last week. I mean literally. Greene made his first career start last Monday and McCarthy made his first start in pinstripes on Wednesday. Throw in Greene’s second start last Saturday and they’ve combined to allow six run (three earned) in 20.1 innings. They also have a combined 57.1% ground ball rate, which is pretty awesome even if it is a super small sample. Greene’s mid-90s sinker and upper-80s slider make me think he has more rotation staying power than either Nuno or Whitley, but, either way, we’ll see plenty more of these two in the second half.

* * *

Any time a team loses four of its five Opening Day rotation members, including three within the first six weeks of the season, they’re going to be scrambling for pitching. No team has enough depth to go nine starters deep. The Yankees have been able to tread water thanks to Phelps and some timely outings from Whitley and Nuno, who have since been replaced by McCarthy and Greene. The team clearly needs another starter in the wake of Tanaka’s injury and, frankly, they could have used another starter before that. This is a patchwork staff held together by Kuroda, Phelps, and McCarthy at the moment, and there’s no telling how much longer the duct tape will hold.

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.