Ramiro Pena headlines crop of minor league free agents

Baseball America published their annual list of the offseason’s minor league free agents today, a collection of 549 total players. Here are the players the Yankees are losing to the open market…

RHP: Jason Bulger (AAA), Kelvin Castro (R), Manny Delcarmen (AAA), Grant Duff (AA), John Maine (AAA), Ronny Marte (HiA), Jon Meloan (AAA), Tim Norton (AAA), Ramon Ortiz (AAA), Kevin Whelan (AAA)
LHP: Lee Hyde (AA), Mike O’Connor (AAA), Josh Romanski (AA)
C: Jose Gil (AAA), Gustavo Molina (AAA), Craig Tatum (AAA)
3B: Kevin Russo (AAA)
SS: Doug Bernier (AAA), Walter Ibarra (AA), Ramiro Pena (AAA)
OF: Edwin Beard (SS), Cole Garner (AAA)

Pena, who has spent parts of the last four seasons in New York, headlines the crop of mostly older, veteran players. Losing the three Triple-A catchers is part of the reason why the Yankees claimed Eli Whiteside yesterday. Someone needs to sit on the bench and be the backup in Scranton. Whelan and Russo had very brief stints with the Yankees a few years ago, and Garner made some noise early in Spring Training this year. Duff and Norton have already transitioned to coaching within the organization.

The Yankees already re-signed four would-be minor league free agents to new minor league contracts a few weeks ago, most notably lefty Juan Cedeno and outfielder Abe Almonte. Andrew Brackman (Reds) is the most notable former Yankees farmhand cut lose by another team.

Opportunity in the bullpen

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

We say the same thing every year, that the bullpen at the start of the season will not be the same as the bullpen at the end of the season. Players pitch their way on/off the club, trades happen, injuries occur, all sorts of stuff changes the bullpen dynamic during the course of 162 games. The one constant over the years has been Mariano Rivera, but unfortunately his torn right ACL means his name will be one of those we see in April but not October.

Thankfully, the Yankees are in capable hands with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano in the late innings. Whoever takes Rivera’s roster spot won’t take his role as closer, they’ll instead work middle relief while Cory Wade, Soriano, and Robertson each move up a notch on the totem pole, so to speak. Side-arming righty Cody Eppley currently occupies Mo’s spot on the roster, but he’s far from the team’s only option. As we’ve seen over the last few seasons, the Yankees will cycle through internal options before finding the right mix or going out and making a trade.

Eppley and D.J. Mitchell have already come up from the minors to aid the relief corps this year, but now let’s run down the list of players we could also see in the coming weeks….

Splitter grip. (Debby Wong/US PRESSWIRE)

RHP Kevin Whelan
The last remaining piece of the Gary Sheffield trade, Whelan made his big league debut last season and walked five in 1.2 IP. The 28-year-old was substantially better in Triple-A (3.24 FIP in 52.1 IP) and has continued that success this year. Whelan can miss bats with a low-90s fastball and a mid-80s splitter, but he’s really struggled with his control aside from last season. Middle relief is a good place to stash a guy who can run into trouble with walks.

RHP Chase Whitley
The Yankees bumped Whitley up to Triple-A after a brief return to Double-A to start the season, and he’s pitched extremely well to start the season: 2.43 FIP in 15.2 IP. Using three pitches in relief — 89-91 mph fastball, low-80s slider, changeup — Whitley isn’t a huge strikeout guy and will rely on his defense more than most Yankees relievers. I ranked him as the club’s 30th best prospect before the season because of his likelihood of contributing to the big league team, not necessarily his upside.

LHP Juan Cedeno
The darkhorse, Cedeno signed out of an independent league this offseason and impressed both in Spring Training and while with Triple-A (1.62 FIP in 12.2 IP). The 28-year-old southpaw profiles as more of a specialist than a full-inning reliever, throwing a low-90s fastball with a low-80s slider. Once ranked as the ninth best prospect in the Red Sox’s system (2003), Cedeno has spent time in Korea and missed all of 2010 with some kind of injury. The Yankees already have two left-handed relievers and a third doesn’t make much sense, but Cedeno should be on the big league radar.

RHP Jason Bulger & RHP Adam Miller
Two of the more veteran options on the Triple-A staff, neither Bulger nor Miller figure to get serious consideration for a bullpen job anytime soon. Bulger hasn’t pitched well (5.25 FIP in 13.2 IP) either this year or at all since 2009, and Miller has only appeared in three games after starting the season on the DL. Miller is a former top prospect and could pitch his way onto the radar last this summer, but I can’t imagine either of these guys will get a look anytime soon.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

RHP Adam Warren & RHP D.J. Mitchell
Unlike the other five guys in this post, Warren and Mitchell are legitimate long relief candidates. We’ve already seen Mitchell in that role and he’s likely to come back up if another multi-inning guy is needed, especially since Warren hasn’t pitched all that well this year (5.46 FIP in 25.2 IP). I do think both guys — and we should lump David Phelps into this group as well — could be effective in short, one-inning bursts, which could be more plausible since Freddy Garcia is currently the long reliever and Andy Pettitte is due back at some point soon. With three guys like that, odds are one of them will prove useful in a middle relief role right away.

* * *

Mitchell is the only player in this post currently on the 40-man roster, though the Yankees still have a number of 60-day DL candidates: Cesar Cabral, Brad Meyers, Austin Romine, and of course, Mo. The 40-man thing isn’t really a problem. Whelan, Whitley, Warren, and Mitchell give the team a couple of decent short-term relief options, plus there’s always the waiver wire and trade market. The important thing is that the Yankees already have these guys in-house and don’t have to scramble to fill out their pitching staff like they did in the mid-aughts.

Yankees outright Kevin Whelan to Triple-A

Via Anthony McCarron, the Yankees have outrighted Kevin Whelan to Triple-A Scranton.. He was designated for assignment last week to make room on the 40-man roster for Hiroki Kuroda, but no team claimed him off waivers. Whelan will remain in the organization, and at the moment I have him penciled in as SWB’s closer, the job he held last year. As you probably know, he’s the last remaining piece of the Gary Sheffield trade from way back when.

Yankees designate Kevin Whelan for assigment

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have designated Kevin Whelan for assignment to create room on the 40-man roster for Hiroki Kuroda. The team hasn’t announce the signing yet, but this is a pretty clear indication that Kuroda passed his physical and everything’s a-okay.

Whelan, 28, was one of the first in line to go whenever a 40-man spot was needed, so this isn’t much of a surprise. The right-hander walked five of the ten men he faced in his big league cameo, but had a fine year in Triple-A: 3.24 FIP in 52.1 IP. His 2.4 BB/9 and 6.8 BB% in the minors were his first sub-5.5 BB/9 and a sub-14.0 BB% since 2006, so he’s always had significant control issues.

Updates: Kevin Whelan up, Joba under the knife

Update (6:28pm): Joba was placed on the 60-day disabled list and Chris Dickerson was send down to make room for Whelan on the roster. I don’t get that at all. Thirteen pitchers when three of them are pop-up guys? When one of you catchers has a bad back? How does this roster construction make any sense?

Original Post (4:30pm): Via Donnie Collins, Kevin Whelan is on his way to New York and will be activated before tonight’s game. It’s unclear who will be sent down, but my money’s on Amaury Sanit. Figure that either Joba Chamberlain or Justin Maxwell will be placed on the 60-day disabled list to clear a 40-man roster spot. Whelan’s been absolutely awesome for Triple-A Scranton this year, striking out 30 and walking just six in 27 innings. He does have a history of walking guys and getting hurt though, but he was clearly the top call-up candidate. The Yankees just might actually get some return from the Gary Sheffield trade after all.

Meanwhile, the Yankees announced that Joba Chamberlain with undergo Tommy John Surgery on Thursday. Dr. James Andrews will perform the operation, and the Yanks should get their right-hander back within 9-12 months. My money’s on a return by the All Star Break next year. Considering Joba never really felt the pain associated with ligament damage and had been throwing quite well, this is a blow for the team. We can dream that the club will reassess his future role in the pitching staff. (Additional reporting by Benjamin Kabak.)

Salvaging The Sheffield Trade

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s been a long time since the Yankees traded Gary Sheffield to the Tigers for three pitching prospects, so long in fact that Sheff added 299 hits and 54 homers to his resume after the trade despite (essentially) retiring two seasons ago. New York simply had too many high-priced outfielders and not enough spots, with both Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui just completing year one of identical four-year, $52M contracts while Bobby Abreu (plus the two years and $31M left on his contract, counting the option) came on board in a midseason trade. Sheff was the odd man out.

In return, the Yankees acquired three promising young arms. The best of the bunch was Humberto Sanchez, who was rated as the 57th best prospect in the game by Baseball America just weeks after the trade. A few weeks after that, he blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery. He came back the next year and managed to earn a September call-up, leading to his only two big league appearances. The Yankees released Hungry Hungry Humberto after the 2009 season, and he’s since bounced to the Taiwanese and Mexican Leagues. The least interesting piece in the trade was Anthony Claggett, who sat in the minors until making two disastrous appearances for the Yankees in 2009. He was lost on waivers that September and hasn’t been back to the majors since.

The third player in the trade wasn’t a headliner like Sanchez or a throw-in like Claggett, just a solid secondary piece in the form of a decent relief pitching prospect. That man is Kevin Whelan, the only player in the trade yet to reach the big leagues and the only player in the trade still with the Yankees. A catcher that the Tigers Texas A&M turned into a pitcher, Whelan was a classic hard-thrower with command issues. He struck out 110 batters in 78.1 IP in Detroit’s farm system before the trade, allowing just 39 hits. The problem was the 37 walks and seven wild pitches. Whelan lived up to the billing in his first year in the Yankees’ organization, striking out 96 batters and walking 54 in 82.1 IP (45 hits). He’s battled various injuries and the same control issues in the four full years since the trade, essentially removing him from the prospect map and relegating him to the organization arm bin.

Scheduled to become a minor league free agent after the season, Whelan is doing his best to raise his stock. The table on the right shows his game log from this season, and you can see that he’s done a swell job of throwing strikes and avoiding the free pass so far. The lone run he’s surrendered came on a solo homer in his first game of the season. It’s not just those eight appearances either, Whelan’s last two months in 2010 were excellent as well (19 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 26 K). It’s not much, but it’s the 27-year-old’s best stretch of health and effectiveness since the trade. I don’t have a recent scouting report for Whelan, so for all I know he could be doing it with smoke and mirrors, but he worked off a low-to-mid-90’s fastball with a devastating splitter (the pitch responsible for all those whiffs and the lack of hits) in the past. Until I hear otherwise, I’m just going to assume the same (or something reasonably close to it) holds true today.

The Yankees, as you’ve probably already noticed, have a spare bullpen spot to play with. It’s currently occupied by Buddy Carlyle, but it’s also been filled by Hector Noesi and Luis Ayala in the past few weeks. I’m not saying the Yankees should cut ties with Carlyle now and call up Whelan, but I would have to think he’s at least in the conversation for a call-up if/when another one is needed. Like I said, he’s going to become a free agent after the season, so the club should at least take a look at him at the big league level and see what he has to offer, even if he just ends up as the third piece in a trade. It’s better than losing him for nothing.

The Yankees have set a precedent when it comes to Triple-A relief arms having excellent seasons, often leaving them in the minors instead of promoting them to the show and giving them a chance. And you know what? They’ve been right about these guys. Chris Britton has spent the last two years pitching in an independent league. Jon Albaladejo reinvented himself last year and still garnered so little interest from MLB teams last year that he bolted for Japan this winter. Colter Bean, Sam Marsonek, the list goes on and on. For all we know Whelan could be the next in that dubious line, but if he has anything to give at the big league level, the Yankees should see what it is at some point this summer. They just might end up with something to show for the Sheff trade after all.