Scouting the Trade Market: Miami Marlins relievers

Ramos. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
Ramos. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

Due to recent events, the bullpen is going to be a hot topic between now and the July 31st trade deadline. The Yankees have lost far too many games at the hands of the bullpen the last few weeks, and as long as they’re in the postseason race, they’re going to look for ways to improve the roster. They could call some youngsters up. They could also look outside the organization. Odds are they’ll do both.

The Marlins are far out of a postseason spot and expected to sell before the trade deadline, making them a potential trade partner. They shipped Adeiny Hechavarria to the Rays a week or two ago, so yeah, the Marlins are open for business. In fact, they’re said to be scouting the Yankees’ farm system. Miami figures to market some of their pricier bullpen pieces before the deadline, and perhaps one or two of them are a match for the Yankees. Let’s take a look.

RHP Kyle Barraclough

Background: The 27-year-old Barraclough went from the Cardinals to the Marlins in the Steve Cishek trade three years ago. So far this season he has a 3.54 ERA (3.89 FIP) with 24.5% strikeouts and 14.7% walks in 40.2 innings. In parts of three MLB seasons Barraclough has thrown 137.2 innings with an 3.01 ERA (2.87 FIP). He’s settled in as a setup man for the Marlins.

The Stuff: Barraclough is a two-pitch reliever with a mid-90s fastball and a hard upper-80s slider. He has pretty consistently thrown 55% fastballs and 45% sliders as a big leaguer. Pretty straightforward guy. Barraclough gets ahead with the heater and tries to put hitters away with the slider.

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Barraclough misses a ton of bats. A ton. Last year only Dellin Betances (126) and Andrew Miller (123) had more strikeouts among full-time relievers than Barraclough (113). That career 32.0% strikeout rate is no accident. Barraclough’s slider is a legit put-away pitch, and relievers who can make hitters swing and miss are the backbone of any successful bullpen. The pitch is so good he has a small platoon split (career .275 wOBA vs. .258 wOBA in favor of lefties). Also, Barraclough won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season, so he’d be a long-term buy. (At least as long-term as any 27-year-old slider happy reliever can be.)

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? With those strikeouts come a lot of walks. Barraclough’s career walk rate is 15.1% and it’s been high throughout his career, even in the minors, so this is just who he is. You can survive as a late-inning reliever with command issues (see: Betances, Dellin) though no one like free baserunners in the late innings of a close game. Also, Barraclough’s strikeout rate has dropped from 36.9% last year to 24.5% this year, which is a red flag. Lots of walks and fewer strikeouts generally isn’t a good combination.

RHP David Phelps

Background: Phelpsie! The Yankees traded Phelps to the Marlins three years ago, and initially he continued to do the swingman thing, then last season he moved into a full-time short relief role. The 30-year-old Phelps has a 3.68 ERA (3.53 FIP) with 26.4% strikeouts and 8.8% walks in 44 innings this year. In three years with the Marlins he has a 3.98 ERA (3.83 FIP) in 131 innings as a starter and a 3.06 ERA (3.11 FIP) in 111.2 innings as a reliever.

The Stuff: As a true one-inning short reliever, Phelps will average right around 95 mph with his two and four-seam fastballs and 91 mph with his cutter. He’s shelved his changeup entirely out of the bullpen and instead uses a low-80s curveball as his top secondary pitch. So it’s four distinct pitches out of the bullpen. A straight four-seamer, a running two-seamer, a cutter, and a curveball.

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Phelps has found a home in short relief. He was okay as a swingman all those years, but when he can air it out for an inning or two at the time, Phelps can miss bats and be a weapon in the late innings. Plus he’d remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018. It doesn’t hurt that he’s played for the Yankees before, so he knows the ropes.  You always wonder how guys are going to react when they first come to New York and all that. There’s no such worries with Phelps.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? There aren’t many reasons, really. Phelps still walks a few more guys than you like — how he got a reputation for being a strike-thrower with the Yankees, I’ll never know — and that’s about it. It is worth noting he’s not cheap. Phelps will earn $4.6M this season and probably something close to $7M next season, his final year of arbitration-eligibility before qualifying for free agency.

A.J. Ramos

Background: Ramos, 30, took over as Miami’s closer back in 2015. He has a 3.51 ERA (3.60 FIP) with 29.6% strikeouts and 12.7% walks in 33.1 innings this year, making this his worst season since breaking into the big leagues for good in 2013. His career numbers are much more impressive: 2.75 ERA (3.19 FIP) with 27.8% strikeouts and 12.6% walks in 321 innings.

The Stuff: Ramos is a three-pitch reliever with mid-90s fastball, a mid-80s changeup, and a low-80s slider. The slider is his go-to secondary pitch. Ramos will also cut and sink his fastball on occasion, and he even throws a curveball once in a while. He’s primarily a fastball-changeup-slider guy but there are more tools in the shed.

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Among Miami’s relievers, Ramos has the longest track record of missing bats, and only veteran sidewinder Brad Ziegler has more experience in the late innings. He’s been pitching high-leverage innings for a few years now and he’s shown he can handle them thanks to three pretty good pitches and the ability to keep the ball away from the fat part of the bat. Also, Ramos will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018, so he’s not a rental.

Why Should The Stay Away? The walk rate (career 12.6%) and general lack of ground balls (career 39.5%) are pretty scary, even though Ramos has not been home run prone in his career to date (0.48 HR/9). Still, walks plus fly balls is a less than ideal combination in Yankee Stadium. Also, Ramos is making $6.55M this year and could pull down upwards of $9M next season through arbitration. That’s what 89 career saves (and counting) will do for you. That’s pretty darn expensive. It’s not crazy to think Ramos might be a non-tender candidate after the season, so maybe he is a rental after all.

RHP Junichi Tazawa

Background: The Marlins gave the 31-year-old Tazawa a two-year deal worth $12M this past offseason, and so far he has a 5.87 ERA (5.97 FIP) with 18.4% strikeouts and 11.2% walks in 23 innings. That one isn’t working out too well. He’s been relegated to mop up duty the last few weeks.

The Stuff: All things considered, Tazawa’s stuff is relatively unchanged from the last few years. He’s still low-to-mid-90s with his fastball and upper-80s with his splitter, and he also throws a mid-70s curve.

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? History suggests Tazawa is not actually this bad. He dealt with a rib injury earlier this season and that certainly could have negatively affected his performance. Tazawa is a buy low bounceback candidate, basically. Just last year he had a 4.17 ERA (4.23 FIP) with 26.0% strikeouts and 6.7% walks. That’s … better. Plus he knows the AL East from his time with the Red Sox.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? A lot of reasons, really. For starters, his performance has been terrible this year, and we can’t ignore that. His strikeouts are down and his walks are up, and hitters are squaring him up more than they have in the past. There’s also $7M left on his contract for next season, so he’s not cheap (by middle reliever standards) either. There is something to be said for buying low on a guy. I think steering clear of a reliever with a 4.45 ERA in 131.1 innings over the last three years is a pretty good idea no matter what the peripherals and track record say, and that goes double for dudes with a decent chunk of change coming their way.

RHP Nick Wittgren

Background: Wittgren, 26, is probably the guy you’ve never heard of in the Marlins bullpen. He has a 3.62 ERA (3.31 FIP) with 26.3% strikeouts and 4.6% walks in 37.1 innings this year, and that’s after a 3.14 ERA (3.67 FIP) with 19.7% strikeouts and 4.7% walks in 51.2 innings last year. The Marlins have themselves a nice little cheap, homegrown middle reliever.

The Stuff: The right-handed Wittgren is low-to-mid-90s with his fastball and he backs it up with a mid-80s changeup and a breaking ball right around 80 mph that sometimes looks like a slider and sometimes looks like a curveball. He throws both secondary pitches pretty regularly, so he is a true-three pitch reliever.

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? I dunno, Wittgren is reasonably effective and he’s young and cheap with minor league options remaining, which makes him a decent depth piece in my opinion. He’s also shown improvement from last year to this year, namely in his strikeout rate. I don’t think Wittgren will one day be a shutdown high-leverage reliever or anything like that. Can he get outs in the sixth inning though? Sure, and the Yankees need a guy like that.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? The biggest concern with Wittgren is his propensity to give up fly balls (career 36.5% grounders) and home runs (career 1.11 HR/9). He won’t beat himself with walks and he can miss enough bats to escape jams, so the home run risk is mitigated somewhat. Is another unspectacular reliever the solution to the Yankees’ bullpen woes? I mean, sure, it’s possible, but I don’t think Wittgren moves the needle a whole bunch.

RHP Brad Ziegler

Background: Miami tried to strengthen their bullpen with Tazawa and Ziegler over the winter and it hasn’t worked. Ziegler received two years and $16M and has a 6.52 ERA (4.29 FIP) with 12.3% strikeouts and 9.4% walks in 29 innings. He is still getting a ton of ground balls (64.6%), which has always been the Ziegler trademark. He’s a funky sidewinder who keeps the ball on the ground.

The Stuff: From that funky arm slot comes a low-to-mid-80s sinker, a mid-70s changeup, and a low-70s slider. Ziegler is the rare submarine pitcher with a changeup. The velocity seems alarming but that’s who he is. Ziegler’s been a mid-80s sinker guy for years. The deception and arm angle make it work.

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? As with Tazawa, Ziegler is a buy low bounceback candidate, though we don’t have to look back too far to see the last time Ziegler was very good. Just last season he had a 2.25 ERA (3.10 FIP) with 20.1% strikeouts, 9.0% walks, and 63.3% grounders in 68 innings for the Diamondbacks and Red Sox. Ziegler has been pitching in late-inning roles for a long time and he’s comfortable in any role. He’ll set up, close, middle relieve, whatever. Basically, any team looking at Ziegler is thinking his .382 BABIP won’t last and I want him on my roster when the correction comes. (Career .288 BABIP.)

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? At 37 years old (38 in October), it’s entirely possible Ziegler has reached the point of no return and this is who he is now. The BABIP is way up and the strikeouts are way down, from 20.1% last year to 12.3% this year — to be fair, he had a 13.7% strikeout rate with a 1.85 ERA (3.44 FIP) in 2015 — and his walk rate keeps trending up. Ziegler’s margin for error seems to be shrinking. And he’s got $9M coming to him next season, which isn’t great.

* * *

Given the way the Marlins operate, my guess is they would love to unload their pricey relievers (Ramos, Ziegler, Phelps, Tazawa) and keep the cheap guys in their pre-arbitration years (Barraclough, Wittgren). Well, I guess every team would like to do that, right? The Marlins aren’t so unique in that regard.

I am kinda sorta intrigued by Ziegler as a buy low candidate. Phelps and Ramos are the headliners here though. They’re performing well and they come with an extra year of team control, even if it will be on the expensive side. The Yankees have reportedly contacted the Marlins about both guys already and that in no way surprises me. They’re going to call on every available reliever between now and the trade deadline out of due diligence.

Trade Deadline Rumors: Buyers, Hand, Maurer, Phelps, Ramos

Maurer. (Hunter Martin/Getty)
Maurer. (Hunter Martin/Getty)

The 2017 trade deadline is exactly three weeks away, which means the trade rumor mill is really going to start to heat up soon. Pretty much right after the All-Star break. Here’s the latest on the Yankees.

Yankees will be “careful buyers”

All the recent losing has complicated the Yankees’ deadline plans. A few weeks ago they were clear cut contenders with the motivation to buy. Now they’re on the postseason bubble — they are 3.5 games back of the Red Sox in the AL East and essentially one game up on a wildcard spot — and it’s unclear whether buying would be a smart move. During a YES Network interview yesterday (video link), Brian Cashman said the Yankees will be “careful buyers.”

“I think our interest would be buyers, but I think we’re gonna be careful buyers. We have a long-term plan that I think people are seeing excitement from. We’re definitely not gonna deviate from that. But also, part of that long-term plan is, in the short term, winning now and putting out the best effort possible, but not at the expense of what we feel can lead us to more championships … In the next three weeks, Hal Steinbrenner and myself and our entire staff will be trying to do a better job of legitimately plugging holes, if possible. So far I can tell you that sticker prices are pretty high and we’re saying no to a lot of (trades) that have currently been presented to us. But you keep working through it.”

One thing to keep in mind: Hal didn’t want to sell last year. He only gave the okay after Aroldis Chapman turned down a contract extension. I suppose the Yankees could sell again if they keep slipping in the standings, but the trade deadline is only three weeks away, and I don’t think they’ll fall that much. My guess is the Yankees will buy, but not buy big. Maybe a stopgap first baseman and some bullpen arms. I would be surprised if they trade a top prospect.

Yankees, Padres have talked Hand, Maurer

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees and Padres have talked about relievers Brad Hand and Brandon Maurer. San Diego did ask about Gleyber Torres recently but Sherman says it’s understood they’re not getting a prospect of that caliber for a reliever. One Padres official told Sherman the Yankees have enough pieces to do a deal even without their top prospects. “They had a real good system last year, and it has taken another step up this year,” said one executive.

Here’s my Scouting The Market post on Hand. I’ll refer you to that. As for Maurer, the 27-year-old has a 5.60 ERA (2.95 FIP) with 24.3% walks and 4.9% walks this year. He’s been hurt by a shockingly low strand rate (52.9%) and the fact he’s always been a bit more hittable than his upper-90s fastball and two mid-80s secondary pitches (slider, changeup) would lead you to believe. Maurer, like Hand, is under team control through 2019 as an arbitration-eligible player. I prefer Hand. I’ve had my fill of these “more hittable than his stuff would indicate” guys.

Yankees have asked about Phelps, Ramos

Phelpsie. (Matt Hazlett/Getty)
Phelpsie. (Matt Hazlett/Getty)

The Yankees have contacted the Marlins about righty relievers David Phelps and A.J. Ramos, reports Sherman. The Marlins are starting to sell off pieces — Adeiny Hechavarria was traded to the Rays a few weeks back — and as relievers with one year of control remaining and not cheap salaries, Phelps ($4.6M) and Ramos ($6.55M) are obvious trade chips. I think both will be moved before the deadline, but what do I know?

Phelps, 30, has a 3.68 ERA (3.54 FIP) with 26.4% strikeouts and 8.8% walks in 44 innings this year. He really broke out in a true short relief role last year — Phelps had a 2.31 ERA (2.75 FIP) out of the bullpen in 2016 — before the Marlins moved him back into the rotation out of necessity. The 30-year-old Ramos has a 3.51 ERA (3.60 FIP) with 29.6% strikeouts and 12.7% walks in 33.1 innings this season. He’s always been a cardiac closer. Ramos isn’t shy about putting guys on base, though because he misses so many bats, he can get out of jams more often then not. I don’t really have a preference here. I think the Padres guys would probably provide more bang for the buck.

Padres, Marlins scouting Yankees heavily

The Padres and Marlins are currently scouting the Yankees’ farm system, report George King and Clark Spencer, which obviously ties back into those Hand/Maurer and Phelps/Ramos rumors. King says the Padres have sent assistant general manager David Post to watch Triple-A Scranton recently. Spencer says the Marlins are simply “focusing heavily” on New York’s system. (And several other teams too.)

I’m kinda curious to know when Post was scouting the RailRiders because the Yankees have called up many of their best prospects within the last two weeks. Chance Adams and Miguel Andujar are still down in Triple-A, but others like Tyler Wade, Dustin Fowler, and Clint Frazier are all in the big leagues. Hmmm. Maybe the Padres will be really sold on Billy McKinney’s recently hot streak or something. Anyway, potential sellers are scouting the farm system of a potential buyer. News at 11.

Poll: The Biggest Loss of the Offseason

Prado and some Gatorade. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Prado and some Gatorade. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Earlier today we discussed the Yankees’ most important pickup of the offseason. Now it’s time to look at the other end of the spectrum and discuss their biggest loss of the winter. “Loss” is kind of a weird term here because sometimes teams willingly let a player get away, either by trading them or by simply declining to pursue them as a free agent. Other times it’s a true loss. They wanted him to keep him but couldn’t.

As with offseason additions, some offseason losses are bigger than others. Shawn Kelley (traded to the Padres) and Ichiro Suzuki (left as a free agent) saw a lot of playing time with New York the last two years but they aren’t major offseason losses, right? Both have already been replaced by younger if not better players (David Carpenter and Chris Young). Not counting Kelley and Suzuki, the Yankees lost six players this winter who they could end up missing quite a bit, not just in 2015, but beyond as well. Let’s run ’em down.

C Frankie Cervelli

Cervelli’s time in pinstripes was quite a ride. He developed a lot of die-hard defenders who believe he could be a starting catcher for like half the teams in the league, but, in reality, we never saw anything more than flashes of his ability between injuries. Cervelli, who turns 29 next week, has two years of team control remaining and was traded to the Pirates straight up for southpaw Justin Wilson this winter. John Ryan Murphy figures to step in to replace Cervelli as Brian McCann‘s backup catcher this year.

RHP Shane Greene

Greene, 26, was a very nice surprise for the Yankees last year. He came up from the farm system as a drafted and developed player, and gave the team 78.2 innings of 3.78 ERA (3.73 FIP) ball. Greene’s stuff is very lively and it appears he overcame his career-long control problems with some mechanical tweaks in 2013. Without those tweaks, he’s probably not a big league starter. At least not one who impresses everyone as much as he did last year. Greene came up for good last July and has all six years of team control remaining. He was traded for Didi Gregorius over the winter.

RHP Hiroki Kuroda

Kuroda's back with the Carp. (Getty)
Kuroda’s back with the Carp. (Getty)

I’m guessing that if the 40-year-old Kuroda was willing to pitch for the Yankees another year, the team would have brought him back with open arms. Hiroki’s game slipped a bit last year (3.70 ERA and 3.60 FIP) but he’s an innings eater and the kind of reliable arm the Yankees lack right now. Of course, he opted to return to the Hiroshima Carp for the final season of his career — and took a massive pay cut to make it happen — so the Yankees didn’t even have a chance to bring him back. The rotation sure would look much more sturdier with Kuroda, wouldn’t it?

RHP David Phelps

The Yankees and Marlins reversed roles this winter. Usually the Marlins are the team trading away a player just as he starts to get expensive through arbitration. Instead, the Yankees traded Phelps to the Marlins just as he hits his arbitration years. Phelps, 28, spent three years as a nice swingman with New York (4.21 ERA and 4.20 FIP) and, frankly, the team could still use him for rotation depth. Instead, they used him to get Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Jones. Phelps is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2017.

UTIL Martin Prado

Prado was the other piece — the main piece, really — that went to Miami in the Eovaldi trade. Before the trade, the 31-year-old Prado was slated to serve as the team’s starting second baseman and was basically their best right-handed hitter. He had a 146 wRC+ in 37 games with the Yankees last year thanks to real nice four-week stretch before going down with an emergency appendectomy, though over the last two years he had a 103 wRC+. That’s the real Prado, not the guy we briefly saw in pinstripes last year. Either way, the Yankees could use his right-handed bat and versatility, as could just about every team. Prado has two years and $22M left on his contract.

RHP David Robertson

At some point early in the offseason the Yankees decided to let Robertson walk as a free agent and replace him with the cheaper and comparable Andrew Miller while also gaining a supplemental first round draft pick in the process. It’s a sound baseball move, albeit one that seems to be unpopular because the team let a homegrown Yankee walk and replaced him with an ex-Red Sox crony. Robertson, 29, has been an elite reliever for four years running even though his FIP has gradually climbed from 1.84 in 2011 to 2.49 in 2012 to 2.61 in 2013 to 2.68 in 2014. Robertson took a four-year, $46M deal from the White Sox, and really, is it hard to envision a scenario in which the Yankees wish they could trade Miller and that draft pick for Robertson at some point in the next four years?

* * *

As a reminder, this poll is trying to balance the loss of each player in the short and long-term. Kuroda would only be a one-year addition but he would be a really important one-year piece. Other veterans like Robertson and Prado are more likely to decline going forward rather than improve or even just maintain their current level of performance. Greene and Phelps are still young enough that their best years may be ahead of them, however. Time to poll.

Who was NYY's biggest loss of the offseason?

Yankees trade Martin Prado and David Phelps for Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Jones

According to Jack Curry, the Yankees have traded Martin Prado the Marlins for RHP Nathan Eovaldi. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reports that the deal will also send David Phelps to the Marlins and 1B/OF Garrett Jones to the Yankees. The Yankees will also get RHP prospect Domingo German. The 40-man roster is now full.

The trade comes as something of a surprise. With the re-signing of Chase Headley, it appeared that the Yankees had a solid infield of Headley, Prado, Didi Gregorius, and Mark Teixeira. Moving Prado opens up a spot for Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder, or perhaps another second baseman in a trade. Would the Phillies make Chase Utley available?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The main return in the trade, Eovaldi is a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher who turns 25 in February. Yet he’s already arbitration eligible this year, so the Yankees will have his rights through the 2017 season.

Although Eovaldi has three years’ service time, he’s thrown only 460 MLB innings. Last season was the first in which he made more than 30 starts. His injury history isn’t long, but it certainly concerning. In 2013 he missed the first 69 games of the season with shoulder inflammation, although it didn’t seem to affect him for the rest of the season or in 2014. His only other major injury is Tommy John surgery in 2007.

While he throws very hard, averaging 95.5 mph with his fastball in 2014, Eovaldi doesn’t strike out many hitters. Even as his fastball increased in velocity with his move from LA to Miami, he still stuck around 6.5 K/9, which is far below average right now. The idea, it seems, is to get him with Larry Rothschild and Gil Patterson, hoping that they can turn his plus-velocity into swings and misses.

Eovaldi will presumably take Phelps’s spot in the rotation, giving the Yankees their starting five. They could still make a move, given the injury risk, but that would necessarily bump one of the guys they just brought in. It’s no big loss to move Capuano to the bullpen, but why do that after spending $5 million on him?

German is at least interesting, a hard-thrower who performed well in the Sally league last year. Mike should have more on him later.

Garrett Jones is a prototypical platoon player, though he’s on the strong side. For the past two years he’s been a .250/.300/.400 guy, but .267/.333/.479 career against right-handers. He can back up Mark Teixeira at first base and Carlos Beltran in right field, while also taking reps at DH. In other words, he’s more reason to believe the Yankees have absolutely no plans for Alex Rodriguez.

At first I wasn’t thrilled with the trade, but if the Yankees can help Eovaldi harness his stuff they could make out well. Prado provided them with flexibility, but it’s easy to unfairly weigh his performance in the second half last year. He’s had a rough couple of years. Additionally, if the Yankees can get 75 percent of Prado’s performance from Refsnyder or Pirela, with the potential for improvement in the future, that might be a worthwhile bet. I still feel that they could be better served starting in AAA, but it’s not as though it’s going to make a huge difference.

My only problem is that Eovaldi hasn’t been very good. It’s a big bet for the Yankees to make that they can turn him around.

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.

2014 Season Review: The Swingman

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

Way back in Spring Training, the Yankees held an honest-to-goodness competition for the fifth starter’s spot. Michael Pineda blew everyone out of the water in camp and won the job with ease, but he was a total unknown coming into the year due to his injuries. He has to prove he belonged in the rotation and that’s exactly what he did.

One of Pineda’s competitors for that fifth starter’s job was David Phelps, who has competed for a rotation spot in Spring Training in each of the last three years. Phelps had to settle for a bullpen gig and his role was undefined at the outset of the regular season. He was essentially the third setup option behind Shawn Kelley and Adam Warren before Dellin Betances broke out.

Phelps allowed one run in 1.1 innings in his first appearance of the season, then allowed three runs in two innings of work his next time out. He finally had a scoreless outing in his third appearance, when he recorded all of one out. His best and most memorable relief appearance of the season was his fourth, when he retired all seven Red Sox batters he faced with a 4-1 lead to earn his first career save. The bullpen was taxed and he stepped up in a big way.

Three days later, Phelps recorded his single biggest out of the season (+.174 WPA) by striking out Mike Carp with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a game the Yankees led 3-2. It was an eight-pitch at-bat and I remember it because of Phelps’ little fist pump/bunny hop celebration combo:

David Phelps

Phelps remained in the bullpen for the entire month of April — he had a 3.86 ERA and 5.79 FIP in 11.2 innings during the season’s first month — before moving into the rotation to replace the suspended/injured Pineda. His first start was pretty good — he held the Angels to one run in 5.1 innings while on a strict pitch count. Phelps’ next outing was not so good (four runs in five innings against the Brewers) but his next two after that were strong (five scoreless against the Pirates, seven innings of two-run ball against the White Sox).

After getting roughed up in three straight starts by his hometown Cardinals (five runs in six innings), the Mariners (six runs in six innings), and the Royals (seven runs in 5.2 innings), Phelps settled down and went on his best stretch as a big league starting pitcher. Beginning on June 13th, he posted a 3.29 ERA and 4.27 FIP in 54.2 innings spread across his next nine starts. He completed at least five innings in all nine starts and at least six innings in six of nine starts. Phelps’ best start of the season (71 Game Score) was the first of those nine starts (6.2 scoreless against the A’s):

The Red Sox clobbered Phelps for five runs in only two innings on August 3rd, and a day later he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with elbow inflammation. Joe Girardi told Wally Matthews the elbow had been bothering Phelps for “three or four weeks” before he had to placed on the DL. “We thought it was something we could manage, and he was managing. He was pitching well. It was just inflammation. But [against the Red Sox], for whatever reason, it bothered him.”

The injury ended Phelps’ stint as a starter in 2014. He pitched to a 4.28 ERA and 4.18 FIP in 17 starts and 96.2 innings from early-May through early-August, which isn’t sexy but is more than fine from your sixth starter. Phelps was really the team’s seventh starter when you think about it. Vidal Nuno got the call when the team first needed a spot starter and he stayed in the rotation after Ivan Nova blew out his elbow. It wasn’t until Pineda got hurt/suspended that Phelps moved out of the bullpen and into the rotation.

Phelps returned to the team in mid-September and spent the rest of the year working in relief only because there wasn’t enough time left in the season to stretch him back out to starter. He closed out the year with six not particularly good appearances (4.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 3 K) in low-leverage spots. The most memorable part of Phelps’ September was when he threw at Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays — he buzzed him inside but did not hit him — apparently in retaliation for Tampa hitting a bunch of Yankees that month. The benches cleared but nothing really came of it.

Between his 17 starts and 15 relief appearances, Phelps had a 4.38 ERA and 4.41 FIP in a career-high 113 innings in 2014. His strikeout rate (7.33 K/9 and 18.5 K%), walk rate (3.66 BB/9 and 9.3 BB%), homer rate (1.04 HR/9 and 10.8 HR/FB%), and ground ball rate (41.2%) were all decidedly mediocre. League average or worse across the board. Phelps was actually more effective against lefties (.314 wOBA) and at home (.327 wOBA) than against lefties (.356 wOBA) and on the road (.338 wOBA), which is weird. Pretty much the opposite of what I expected.

Phelps is now three years into his big league career and he’s established himself as a swingman who won’t kill you as a spot starter for a month or two. His career performance as a starter (4.34 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 219.2 innings) isn’t all that different than his performance as a reliever (3.84 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 79.2 innings), so he’s yet to stand out in either role and make you think that’s where he belongs. That’s fine though. Swingmen get no glory but they are a necessary part of the pitching staff. Phelps was more than capable when pressed into duty this season as well as the last three seasons overall.

MLBTR’s Projected Arbitration Salaries for 2015

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At this time last season, the Yankees were still talking about getting under the $189M luxury tax threshold for the 2014 season. It was definitely doable, but it would have been very difficult, especially since the team wanted to contend at the same time. Eventually the Yankees abandoned their luxury tax plan and they didn’t even get back to the postseason anyway, so double yikes.

Because Alex Rodriguez‘s salary is coming back on the books and the team handed out four free agent contracts worth $15M+ last offseason, the Yankees won’t be able to get under the luxury tax in 2015 and probably not in 2016 either. It might be possible in 2017, after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires and the luxury tax threshold is presumably raised.

Anyway, that’s a really long way of saying salaries for New York’s arbitration-eligible players are less important this offseason then they were at this time last year. When I looked at the club’s 2015 payroll situation three weeks ago, I guesstimated a $12M figure for their arbitration-eligible players. Turns out I was pretty close. Matt Swartz posted arbitration salary projections using his insanely accurate model — he’s been within 5% the last few years — earlier this week, and he has the Yankees’ players at $12.9M total. Not a bad job by me. Here are the projections:

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)

Pineda (~$1.5M raise), Huff (~$200K raise), and Phelps (~$800k raise) are all arbitration-eligible for the first time. Pineda is getting a nice bump in salary despite missing all that time to injury because a) he was pretty awesome when healthy this past year, and b) he was an All-Star back in 2011, and that pays. Phelps qualified as a Super Two by about a month’s worth of service time, so he’ll be arbitration-eligible four times instead of the usual three. He and Pineda aren’t going anywhere. Same goes for Nova (no raise after lost season). They’ll be tendered contracts for next year.

Rogers, on the other hand, is an oh so obvious non-tender candidate at that salary. He earned $1.85M this past season, which is why his projected 2015 salary is so high. His raise isn’t expected to be that significant. Rogers had his moments in pinstripes (like this one) and his fastball/slider combination is just good enough to keep you interested, but not at $1.9M. The Yankees could always non-tender him and re-sign him at a lower salary, maybe even a minor league contract.

I don’t have any problem with Kelley at $2.5M next season — these days you basically have to throw 30 innings and not run over the closer with a bullpen cart to be worth $2.5M — even though he can be annoyingly inconsistent. At his best, he’s a true eighth inning guy who misses an awful lot of bats. At his worst, Kelley allows like four runs and gets one out. Which makes him no worse than most other relievers, really. His projected salary isn’t nearly high enough to scare me away.

The same goes for Cervelli even though I have no reason to believe he can stay healthy over the course of a full season. Quality catching is hard to find and the Yankees shouldn’t give it away for nothing just because they have John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine (and soon Gary Sanchez) sitting in Triple-A. Even if they don’t want to keep Cervelli at that price, I think another team would give them an interesting enough low-level lottery ticket prospect in a trade. Then again, what do I know.

As for Huff, he actually pitched pretty well this past season by long man standards, posting a 1.85 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 39 innings. That’s usable. Huff’s projected salary is barely above the league minimum, so the decision whether to tender him a contract will come down to other factors like project performance and roster concerns. If the Yankees need a 40-man roster spot this winter — they’ll need one as soon as the World Series is over because A-Rod‘s suspension ends — Huff could be the odd man out.

It’s worth mentioning these contracts are not guaranteed. Teams can release arbitration-eligible players who sign one-year deals before mid-March and only owe then 30 days termination pay. If they release them after mid-March but before Opening Day, it’s 45 days termination pay. The Yankees dumped Chad Gaudin this way a few years ago. They could keep Huff, see how the offseason plays out, then cut bait if a need for a roster spot arises. I’d put my money on Huff being non-tendered.

The Yankees have an uninteresting crop of arbitration-eligible players this winter. There are no real tough decisions here. It’s an easy call to non-tender Rogers and an easy enough call to keep everyone other than Huff. Huff is the only borderline guy and there’s almost no wrong decision there. If they non-tender him, fine. If they keep him, whatever. The arbitration-eligible players won’t make or break anything this offseason. The Yankees have an easy arbitration class this winter, which is good because they need to focus on lots of other stuff.