I continue to stand by my belief that the Yankees will not actually follow through with their plan to fill out next year’s rotation from within if, for whatever reason, they don’t end up signing Masahiro Tanaka. If they do decide to take that path, however, I don’t think there will be much of a competition in Spring Training to determine the final 2 spots. Michael Pineda was brought in to be a top-of-the-rotation stud along side CC Sabathia. Regardless of whether he’s still capable of being that type of pitcher or not, the Yankees owe it to themselves to have him in next year’s rotation to at least attempt to start getting some value out of that trade.
If he’s the #4 starter, the last spot will more than likely go to David Phelps. He’s got more experience than any of the other young starters on the 40-man roster, he’s had more success at the Major League level, and those 2 things have traditionally held the most weight when the final decision is made in the annual Yankee spring rotation competition. Phelps has made 23 starts in his first 2 Major League seasons, pitching to a 4.39/4.15/4.17 slash line in 123.0 IP. Nothing flashy, and his numbers have been much better as a reliever, but that type of production from the 5th spot in the rotation would be a welcome addition to a team that still needs all the pitching help it can get.
Is Phelps capable of producing that kind of line over a full season as a starter? That’s hard to say. Working as the starter/reliever swingman since making the transition to the Majors, he hasn’t pitched more than 100 innings in either of the last 2 seasons. The last time Phelps had a true starter’s workload was 2010, when he split 25 starts and 158.2 IP between Trenton and SWB. The early 2014 projections for Phelps don’t do much to provide any clarity to the matter:
- Oliver: 28 G, 16 GS, 111.0 IP, 4.20/4.39, 0.5 WAR
- Steamer: 32 G, 32 GS, 182.0 IP, 4.35/4.12, 2.1 WAR
- ZiPS: 26 G, 15 GS, 101.2 IP, 4.51/4.56, 0.9 WAR
- CAIRO: 34 G, 11 GS, 100.0 IP, 4.34/4.37, 0.4 WAR
Tough to draw any meaningful conclusions from that sample. I’m sure the team would be ecstatic to get what Steamer projects from Phelps, but a full complement of 32 starts from him doesn’t seem like a realistic expectation. Something along the lines of what the Oliver and CAIRO systems project over the course of 20-25 starts seems more in line with what Phelps has done so far in his career, and if he can stay healthy I think even that would be acceptable for the Yankees.
Whatever he is capable of doing as a starter, it would behoove Phelps to cut down on his walks next season. Guys like Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova had similar problems with their command and efficiency as starters when they first broke into the rotation, and it was only when Nova finally started to throw more strikes and walk fewer batters that he started to maximize his potential. Being more efficient with his pitch count and cutting down on the free passes would allow Phelps to pitch deeper into games and not be the 5-6-inning guy he’s been in almost all of his starts to date. If he can do that, he could be more valuable as a starter in 2014.
Phelps has made an early Major League career for himself on the back of unforeseen opportunities. Guys got hurt in Spring Training and he earned himself a roster spot as a result. Guys got hurt or didn’t pitch well in the rotation and he pitched well enough to earn himself spot starts in their place. Phelps might have another unforeseen opportunity thrown his way if the Yankees are unable to sign Tanaka. What he does with it remains to be seen and is almost impossible to project based on his first 2 seasons, but him continuing his trend of making the most of the opportunities presented to him would be a big boost to the back end of next year’s rotation.
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