A week ago, it looked like Freddy Garcia would probably begin the season as the Yankees’ long man in the bullpen. Garcia was in competition for a rotation spot, but given his age and durability concerns he didn’t have a fighting chance. Last Friday, Michael Pineda went out for his final Spring Training start and left after a couple of innings with a shoulder injury. Pineda was sent to the DL and Garcia made the rotation by default.
That set off a bit of a debate. Who should be the Yankees’ long man? The two main candidates were DJ Mitchell and David Phelps. By now, most of you know that Phelps got the job. While few fretted for too long as to which young pitching prospect would complete the Yankees’ bullpen some were surprised. Mitchell, 24, probably has the better raw stuff of the two. He had a fine Spring and seemed tailor fit for the job.
There were several consideration that undoubtedly went into this decision. Most importantly, the Yankees’ wanted the best man for long relief work over the next several weeks. This isn’t a long term position – either Pineda, or Andy Pettitte, or both will likely be returning in the next month or two – but in a tight division that has only gotten tighter, every run counts. Long term considerations must also be made. The Yankees would not want to, for example, stick Manny Banuelos in long relief and retard his development. Finally, it was and is always crucial to maintain a reserve of capable, stretched out pitching talent in the event of injury.
I wouldn’t want to call the second and third concerns obsolete, but thankfully for the Bombers depth in the high minor leagues makes the problem of starting pitching reserves only a minor consideration. And while Phelps and Mitchell are both talented pitchers, they are far down the organizational depth chart behind Pineda, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Adam Warren, and Banuelos. The Yankees truly believe in Warren and that essentially ruled him out of bullpen work. But among the two candidates, the determining factor was short term capability.
With this in mind, I believe the right decision was made.
Let’s look first at Phelps. About half a year older than Mitchell, Phelps has been in the Yankees’ system since 2008 and in that time has pitched relatively well. Over the course of his career he’s 38-15 with a 2.61 ERA and a 3.66 K/BB rate. He’s come out of relief just once in that period, but looked strong in relief this Spring. In 17.1 Grapefruit League innings he had a 2.08 ERA and a 14/4 K/BB ratio. Phelps doesn’t have knockout stuff but his fastball velocity is more than acceptable, topping out in the mid-90s, and his command of three pitches in superb. If anything, Phelps is one of the more overlooked prospects in the Yankees organization. His future may be brighter than his Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus rankings would indicate.
What about Mitchell? Drafted four rounds ahead of Phelps in the 2010 draft, he debuted in 2009 and moved very quickly through the system. In three minor league seasons, he’s 38-20 with a 3.28 ERA. Another fantastic career line. Yet there is reason to believe Mitchell could struggle in an extended Major League role. His fastball sits in the low-90s, if that, and despite good movement and strong secondary stuff he’s never been much of a strikeout pitcher. His control is average. His greatest asset is a sinking fastball that allows him to pick up groundball outs and that certainly showed this Spring, with a 2.60 ERA in 17.1 innings though just a 13/9 K/BB ratio. But groundball pitchers are far more prevalent in the starting ranks. Relievers, especially long relievers, often enter games when the previous pitchers has gotten himself in a jam. The double play is the pitchers best friends, but groundballs fall for hits at a disproportionate rate and the ability to miss bats is strongly correlated with the ability to strand runners.
Advanced minor league talent is often tricky. There’s a balancing act in the analysis of these players between performance and pure scouting. In this case, I think the story is fairly consistent. Phelps is more ready for the Major Leagues and though Mitchell might, in the long run, become the better pitcher he would have been an inferior choice. David Phelps has often been overlooked but given his fastball velocity, command, control, and success throughout the minor leagues, he seems well suited for the role of long reliever.
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