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.

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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.

David Phelps throws 31-pitch simulated game, could be activated soon

As expected, David Phelps faced hitters in a simulated game yesterday for the first time since going down with elbow inflammation last month. He threw 31 pitches and felt fine. “I feel like I made some good pitches. I was just nice to be out there with some adrenaline flowing. It feels good enough to get guys out right now,” he said to Brian Heyman.

The Yankees will see how Phelps feels in the coming days before deciding on the next step, and it’s entirely possible he will be activated off the disabled list before throwing another simulated game. The team already announced he will return as a reliever — at this point of the season I’m not sure there’s enough time to get him all the way stretched out to start anyway — and I’m sure he’ll jump right into some kind of quasi-high-leverage role similar to what Adam Warren is doing right now.

David Phelps throws bullpen session, could return next week

Via Chad Jennings: David Phelps threw fastballs and changeups as part of a 25-pitch bullpen session yesterday, his first time throwing off a mound since going down with elbow inflammation last month. “I know that we’ve been going kind of conservative with it just to make sure everything comes back,” he said. “All of the steps have been good along the way, so it shouldn’t be too long.”

Phelps, 27, will throw all of his pitches during a 35-pitch bullpen session on Friday. If that goes well, he will throw a simulated game on Sunday. I assume that would be the final step before he is activated off the disabled list. The Yankees have already announced Phelps will return as a reliever — at this point of the season there isn’t enough time to get him stretched back out even if they wanted him to start — and I assume he will jump right into the late-game mix once healthy.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Ellsbury, Phelps, Beltran

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

The Yankees are off today, and when they regroup at Yankee Stadium for the series opener against the Red Sox tomorrow, there figures to be a bunch of extra players in the clubhouse thanks to expanded rosters. Here are a bunch of injury updates in the meantime, courtesy of Wally Matthews, Ken Rosenthal, George King, and Brendan Kuty.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow, arm) returned to New York specifically to work with a physical therapist at the Yankee Stadium training facilities, which are a million times better than what was available at Rogers Centre. He worked out Saturday and was scheduled to repeat the work out yesterday and today. Tanaka will visit team doctor Dr. Ahmad today, and if everything checks out, he will throw a bullpen session Thursday. “He played catch and did his weight workout. He felt like he needed to catch up a little bit and strengthen himself up a little bit. It’s a good sign he (played catch),” said Girardi. “We need to find out (if he’ll need surgery). We are taking the normal steps that people take in this type of injury. We are either going to know by the end of September or not.’’
  • Following yesterday’s game, Jacoby Ellsbury (ankle) inadvertently revealed he was going to have an MRI last night once the team arrived in New York. Sounds like that was the plan even before he pinch-hit. The MRI results haven’t been announced. “It’s still sore, but over the last couple days, they’re real happy with the progress that I’ve made,” said Ellsbury. “We’ve got the off-day, but I’ll get the MRI (and) have our doctors look at it. Hopefully it’s a good MRI.”
  • David Phelps (elbow) has continued his throwing program as he works his way back from inflammation, but he has yet to throw off a mound. “He is playing catch, I am not sure what day he will do a bullpen,’’ said Joe Girardi over the weekend. The Yankees have already announced Phelps will return as a reliever.
  • Carlos Beltran (elbow) acknowledged feeling some pain during his throw to the plate in yesterday’s game. He said it was expected and it’s just something they have to manage until he has the bone spur removed in the offseason.