There was a time in Yankees history, that the team was so deep in starting pitching options, that one player in particular could never quite get over the hump and earn a spot in the starting rotation. He served admirably in his role as the long man, the righty who could and did spot start when called upon, and even had three seasons in a row in which he started double-digit games. For those Yankees’ fans that came on board after the dynasty started, they might be unfamiliar with him, or have very little recollection of his contributions. We could be seeing the modern day version of him right now, as the current carbon copy recently lost his bid to become the Yankees’ fifth starter. Today’s swing man is David Phelps. A generation ago, it was “El Brujo”, Ramiro Mendoza.
Mendoza made his big league debut with the Bombers in 1996 at the age of 23. Along with other key pieces in the bullpen including Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, David Weathers, Brian Boehringer, Graeme Lloyd, and Mariano Rivera, this group’s job was to shorten the game to six or fewer innings–which they did remarkably well as John Wetteland awaited the opposition in the final frame. Even after Wetteland defected for Texas, and Rivera became the Sandman, the young core of bullpen cogs began with Ramiro Mendoza.
Much like Mendoza, things have started in a similar way for Phelps. Unimpressive ERAs, in and out of the rotation based on injury, short-handedness, or whatever the case may be. We’ve seen this play out before. Did anyone really expect David Phelps to beat out Michael Pineda for the fifth starter’s job this spring? It is not Phelps’ role. His role is to be the long man, the emergency starter, the close but no cigar talent. Phelps will never win 20 games for the Yankees, but like Mendoza, as an important cog in the machine, could find himself easily winning double-digit games out of the ‘pen, just as Mendoza did back in ’98 (10-2).
In 2014, the Yankees are in a very similar situation to the one they were in when the last dynasty began. They had a bullpen of unproven relievers aside from Wettleland, and soon after, an unproven closer who was an elite setup man just prior. Sound familiar? Back in ’96, none of those bullpen members were household names. Sure, Stanton had some exposure with the Braves’ teams of the early 90s, and Wettleland was the man in Montreal, but the rest of them? Bits and pieces including Mendoza.
After seven successful seasons in the Bronx, Mendoza and the Yankees parted ways. The feeling was somewhat mutual, as Mendoza wanted the chance to start full time, and the Yankees still viewed him as a middle reliever/swing man/emergency starter, one who was beginning to regress statistically. We don’t know if Phelps will follow the same path, but he is a tweener type of talent. As long as the Yankees have pieces to insert into the rotation, whether that comes from free agent signings, or previously underwhelming minor leaguers all of a sudden developing, David Phelps is what he is: an extremely important member of the Yankees bullpen, a bullpen that has a ton of talent, and even more talent waiting in the wings at Triple-A, yet remains unproven. Sound familiar?
Mendoza recorded 54 wins as a member of the Yankees’ bullpen in 8 seasons. That is averaging 6.75 wins per. Phelps has recorded 10 in his first two seasons in the Bronx. While Phelps might be disappointed right now in not having won the final starter’s job over Pineda, he should look no further than to Joe Torre, who would tell him that Mendoza was just as important to his dynasty bullpen as anyone short of Rivera himself. With the dawn of a new-age Yankees’ bullpen on the horizon starting this week, it’s not far-fetched to see the similarities not only between Mendoza and Phelps, but the two bullpens as well.