(The favorite? Courtesy of the AP)
By the time this post goes up, the Yankees will be in the middle of their first Spring Training game of 2014. The start of ST games brings with it the end to the early, relatively stress-free spring camp activities. No more light jogs around the outfield, half-speed double play turns, and nice-and-easy BP sessions in the cage. From here on out, guys are being judged on what they do and how they do it and results count. Well, they count as far as the players who are competing for roster spots are concerned.
ST is never short on roster battles and this year is no exception. The Yankees have more than a few spots up for grabs and plenty of players battling to earn one of those spots. Over the next week or so, I'll break down the key roster battles in camp and the players involved, offering up my loose predictions for who I expect to win. In following Yankee ST tradition, we start with the competition for the 5th rotation spot.
Michael Pineda- Over 2 years removed from the flaming garbage heap that is the Pineda-Montero trade, Pineda finally looks like he's going to throw his first meaningful pitches in a Yankee uniform this year. I have to think the front office would like him to win this job considering what they gave up for him and how long they've had to wait to see any results, and all things being equal he'd probably be the unspoken favorite to win the competition and get the job even if he didn't pitch the best. Concerns about Pineda's velocity, command, and stamina after labrum surgery all combine to make things very unequal though, and if he doesn't demonstrate that he's capable of handling a starter's workload, never mind capable of pitching like he did in 2011, he could find himself shuttled into the bullpen. Still, Pineda offers the highest upside of the 5th starter competitors by a significant margin and that's a great advantage to have.
David Phelps- The other favorite if it turns out not to be Pineda, Phelps has the last 2 years of solid contribution in a variety of roles and 23 starts in that time working to his advantage. Of all the competitors for the spot, he's the only one with a sample size worth judging and his performance in that sample would be more than acceptable from a 5th starter: 4.39 ERA/4.09 FIP, 107 K in 123.0 IP. What's hampered Phelps' development is the constant changing of his role, which has never allowed him to get fully stretched out to work as a starter, and some issues with command. He's turned in some really good outings (7 innings of 1-run ball w/ 8 K against Toronto last May) and some real stinkers (9 ER on 9 H in 2.1 IP against Baltimore last June). His upside as a full-time starter is still up for debate, but his floor makes him a prototypical 5th starter in today's MLB environment.
Adam Warren- Warren has technically made 3 starts in his MLB career. All of them have been spot starts when his pitch count was limited, however, and the start he made in 2012 when he got shelled by the White Sox was on short notice and shouldn't really count in terms of evaluating his potential. He's shown flashes of brilliance here and there but never anything substantial. Warren's stuff has less swing-and-miss potential than Phelps' - he had K rates in the mid-teens in his 2 Triple-A seasons - so if he's going to be a serious contender for this spot he's going to need to show improved command of all his pitches. The odds on that happening to the degree that he jumps over Phelps and Pineda in the pecking order are low. To me, his inclusion in this competition is designed to keep him stretched out for the long man/spot starter role more than anything.
Vidal Nuno- The small, unassuming lefty actually made more starts for the Yankees than Warren last season (3), and he wasn't that bad in any of them. In 17.0 IP, Nuno gave up just 4 ER and 11 hits, generating a lot of weak contact off his array of offspeed pitches. For Nuno to have any chance of winning this competition, his command has to be top notch. His fastball is nothing to write home about and it never will be. He needs to locate it on the corners for strikes to set up his offspeed pitches, and when he's not doing that it'll be easy for Major League hitters to sit on his fastball and square it up. I've been higher on Nuno than most since this time last year, and I think there's a lot of potential value in a strike-throwing lefty. But without true swing-and-miss stuff and not much velocity to speak of, he's probably better used right now as insurance depth in Triple-A.
My Take- If you couldn't tell from the individual player write-ups, I consider this a true 2-horse race between Pineda and Phelps. They've got longer track records than Warren and Nuno and higher upsides, and I don't expect that there's anybody in the Yankee decision-making group who will overlook those facts. If one or the other gets hurt, that will level the playing field and open the competition up to everybody. If they don't, I'd be shocked if the Opening Day 5th starter was anybody other than Pineda or Phelps.