(Pop quiz- Is Phelps starting or relieving in this picture? Courtesy of Getty Images)
Or perhaps the more appropriate question to ask would be, IS there a plan for David Phelps? Despite performing admirably as both a starter and reliever for the Yankees this year, Phelps has been unable to nail down a set position and role on the staff, and has been shuttled from bullpen to rotation and from the Majors to the Minors almost non-stop since the season began on April 6th. Making the transition to the show is almost never easy for young players (unless you're Mike Trout), and as a pitcher with an ever-changing role it has probably been even more difficult for Phelps. Yet Phelps currently sports a very good 2.78/3.95/3.62 slash line on the year, and his 9.73 K/9 is tops on the team for pitchers who have thrown more than 45 innings this season.
At this point, the questions surrounding Phelps should have moved from the "what CAN the Yankees do with him?" to the "what SHOULD the Yankees do with him?" variety. The problem in trying to answer that question is that the Yankees don't seem to have a clue, and the constant changing of Phelps' role is starting to make me a little nervous. Check Phelps' usage timeline from the start of the regular season:
- Worked as the teams' primary long reliever from the start of the season through April 28th, allowing 7 earned runs on 12 hits and 7 walks while striking out 14 in 17.1 innings pitched over 6 appearances.
- Replaced Freddy Garcia in the rotation on April 30th and made 2 starts on May 3rd and May 9th, allowing 2 ER on 9 H and 4 BB while striking out 8 in 8.2 IP. Was on a pitch count in both outings.
- Moved back to the bullpen on May 11th to make room for Andy Pettitte's return to the rotation. Made 5 more relief appearances from May 14th through June 2nd, allowing 2 ER on on 10 H and 2 BB while striking out 7 in 7.1 IP.
- Optioned to High-A on June 14th after not pitching in a game since June 2nd to make room for David Robertson's return to the bullpen. Planned to be stretched back out as a starter.
- Made 2 MiL starts for High-A Tampa on June 21st and 25th, allowing 0 ER on 7 H and 1 BB while striking out 5 in 5.1 IP.
- Recalled by the Yankees on June 29th. Made a 3.1-inning relief appearance of Adam Warren and allowed 2 ER on 4 H and 1 BB while striking out 5.
- Replaced Adam Warren in the rotation and made the next start in Warren's spot on July 4th, allowing 1 ER on 2 H and 3 BB while striking out 8 in 4.1 IP. Was on a pitch count again.
- Optioned to Double-A on July 5th to continue to stretch back out as a starter. Made 2 MiL starts, 1 each for Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Empire State, allowing 0 ER on 5 H and 4 BB while striking out 18 in 13.1 IP.
- Recalled by the Yankees on July 19th. Made 2 relief appearances since then, allowing 0 ER on 0 H and 0 BB while striking out 7 in 4.0 IP.
Phelps being sent down the first time in June to work as a starter made sense. The Yankee rotation was on a hot streak, the bullpen was performing well, and Phelps is obviously more valuable to the organization as a starter than a reliever. To a certain degree, bringing him back up to cover for Warren was a good move too. There was no way Warren could be allowed to start again after he got beat up the way he did, and with Garcia already in the rotation and CC and Andy on the shelf, Phelps was the next best replacement option, fully stretched out as a starter or not.
This recent pair of send down/call up moves is where the train starts to come off the tracks. After having his best 2 outings of the season, at any level, in his starts for Trenton and Empire State, Phelps was recalled by the Yankees last Thursday to once again get thrown into the bullpen mix. The argument could have been made that Phelps was a better starting option than Garcia at the time, and it would have made sense to insert him into that spot given that he was already on the same schedule as Freddy. Garcia helped support that argument by throwing his second straight "meh" outing in Oakland on Thursday. Phelps threw 27 pitches as Garcia's caddy that night, and then just 19 in 1.2 innings of extra-inning relief on Sunday to effectively undo all the work he did in the Minors to get back up to a starter's workload.
I understand that the most important thing at the Major League level is to win games, and the players on the 25-man roster should be used in a way that gives the team the best chance to do that. I also agree with the idea that any Major League experience gained by a rookie is valuable, and Phelps has surely gotten tons of good on-the-job training this season. But in looking at Phelps, I see a pitcher who has steadily improved as the season has gone on, be it as a starter or reliever, in the Majors or in the Minors, and is pitching absolutely lights out right now. In 5 July appearances, Phelps is pitching to a 21.1 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 7 BB, 33 K line. That kind of production is worthy of more than a caddy job to Garcia or an early yank from an extra-innings game to match up Clay Rapada with a lefty.
The fact that Phelps was sent down to begin working as a starter again only to be called up and used as a short reliever again makes me question why he was even sent down in the first place. The Yankees don't seem to have an idea of how they want to use Phelps right now, and the message being sent by the way they are using him is that they don't see Phelps as a better staring option than Garcia, despite the numbers suggesting otherwise, and that Joe Girardi doesn't see him as a better relief option than Rapada or Cody Eppley, despite recent performance suggesting otherwise.
Phelps is seemingly being undervalued by his own team at the moment, and I'd hate to see this flip-flopping usage of him negatively affect his career. Phelps can be a key contributor to the Yankee pitching staff, but utilizing him in this way limits his possible contributions. Phelps also could very well be the biggest trade asset the Yankees have right now, if they are serious about making another move, and whether they brought Phelps back up to showcase him to potential trade partners or not, the manner in which they have used him in the past 5 days likely did nothing to help his value as a trade piece or a member of the current pitching staff.