At the start of spring training the Yankees had filled their top four spots in the starting rotation and the 5th spot was up for grabs. Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, and Adam Warren were each set to make their case for the last starting role as the prodigal son, Michael Pineda took his last steps towards his return. Nuno and Warren impressed but Phelps was clearly the front runner of the three… then Pineda returned. In his first start appearance against the Tigers he struck out 4 batters including Miguel Cabrera. His control was shaky but effective and the Yankees were very excited about what they saw. Phelps was almost as good in his next start against the Rays when he pitched five scoreless innings, allowed only three hits and struck out one. Pineda followed up with an epic performance against the Orioles on Thursday, where he struck out 5 batters in 2 2/3 scoreless innings. The two are in a nose-to-nose competition and the Bronx is anxious to see who comes out on top.
If you look at the pitching schedule that manager Joe Girardi set up you’ll see a reduced showcase for Warren and Nuno with Phelps, Pineda and the four pitchers who are guaranteed a role getting more appearances as opening day nears. It looks like the 5th starter competition has come down to the final two and anticipation couldn’t be building faster if Ryan Seacrest was delaying the results himself. But with such similar spring numbers, how do you choose the winner? Well in this case it may come down to who is able to do less.
David Phelps (much like Adam Warren) is a very versatile pitcher. He can pitch one inning or start a game and go six innings and everything in between. He’s spent a lot of time in the bullpen and has excelled in that role. Branding Phelps as a starting pitcher may actually hurt the team because Pineda has never pitched out of the bullpen and may not be effective in that role. You might say “Then send him down and wait!” But are the Yankees really going to look at Pineda’s very good numbers and just banish him to Triple-A? My guess would be no as Pineda has yet to throw a pitch in a Yankees uniform and they’ve worked long and hard to bring him back. So Phelps may get a tough break because his skills allow him to be more maneuverable and the Yankees might like to take advantage of that. In my opinion I’ll take either one. One of them is going to win the role and with that comes the need to take a closer look at the final two number 5 starters.
Michael Pineda: Age: 25. Birthplace: Yaguate, San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. Height: 6’7″. Weight: 260 lbs. Bats/Throws: Right/Right.
Advantages: So… he returns. That in itself is an advantage. In 2011 (His last year in the Majors) he was the talk of baseball as he made an amazing debut with the Seattle Mariners. He is a strikeout pitcher and since joining the Yankees they’ve been working with him to throw some new pitches for strikes. With some new breaking balls in his arsenal, Pineda has thrown strikes like they’re going out of style so far in spring training and quite frankly looks lights out. He’ll strike out a lot of batters and I expect his control to vastly improve once he gets back into the swing of things.
Disadvantages: Okay, let me point out the elephant in the room. Injuries. Pineda has had his fair share of them and his shoulder has been the main source of his problems. While everything seems to be well and good right now, a pitcher’s arm is a very finicky thing and his shoulder can fall apart all over again. Pineda’s big size can cause complications with his motion that has a lot of moving parts. Also, Pineda’s strikeout-happy style usually causes a lot of high pitch counts and that can cause a limit on how many innings he can throw and still stay healthy without fatigue. But while the Yankees may not get 200 innings out of him, they’ll be very content with seeing him on the mound and finally contributing after missing the last two seasons.
David Phelps: Age: 27. Birthplace: St. Louis, Missouri, USA. Height: 6’2″. Weight: 200 lbs. Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Advantages: While Phelps will never be the ace of a pitching staff, he is a very underrated hurler and is still very young. The Yankees could decide to use him over Pineda and work with him to become even better. Phelps is a very tough-minded guy who has jumped hurdles since first joining the team in 2012. Even though he’s been used primarily as a long reliever, he’s made a a few spot starts when he’s called upon and has found success. The Yankees are very familiar with David Phelps’ game plan and ability and may find this comfort a plus over Pineda who hasn’t pitched for the Yankees yet. Phelps is the kind of guy who can pitch a very solid 6 or 7 innings and then turn it over to the bullpen. That’s definitely a plus for a team.
Disadvantages: Phelps had a down year last year after gaining a bigger role on the team. He struggled with a few small injuries that caused enough discomfort for him to miss some time here and there. The team may want to start him out in the bullpen with less pressure and less of a workload. Moving Phelps to the rotation full time may significantly lessen the effectiveness of the Yankees bullpen. Without Mariano Rivera anchoring the closer role the Bombers need the rest of the bullpen to step up and pitch their best. Pineda has not pitched out of the ‘pen in his career and I’d be very weary of how he’ll pitch in that role. Phelps will be able to eat a ton of innings out of the bullpen and give a huge boost to a suddenly thin area of the Yankees attack.
With all the additions that the Yankees have brought in this offseason there are still a lot of question marks. C.C. Sabathia‘s velocity, Hiroki Kuroda‘s age, and Masahiro Tanaka and Ivan Nova‘s ability have all been the subject of some really interesting questions. Solving the problem in the 5th spot of the rotation is essential to the how the team will perform in 2014. Opening day is getting closer and pretty soon we’ll have our answer. So keep an eye on the news out of the Bronx and enjoy what is hopefully a very entertaining season.