When Joba Chamberlain hit the disabled list on Wednesday, due to a strained flexor muscle in his pitching elbow, he became the third of the Yankees' intended top five relievers, joining offseason additions Pedro Feliciano and Rafael Soriano, to go down with injury this season, all of whom are expected to remain on the shelf for the remainder of the month if not beyond. That has forced the team to dip into its farm system to fill in the underside of the pen, but while the Yankees' organizational pitching depth is routinely lauded, the names that have been shuttling through the major league pen have been less than impressive. Here, then, is an overdue look at the team's minor league relief options.
The Guys We've Seen:
Luis Ayala - I didn't take Ayala's signing very seriously back in February. Instead, I regarded him as veteran minor league filler, a 33-year-old who was once a solid groundballing reliever, but never struck very many men out, hadn't been getting enough ground balls since his March 2006 Tommy John surgery, hadn't pitched in the majors since 2009 and had been lit up in the Pacific Coast League in 2010. He had a great spring training, but most of his innings came late in games, when he was facing minor leaguers with little hope of breaking camp with their teams. When the Yankees needed an arm to take Feliciano's spot when heading north, Ayala became something of a default, and theoretically shot-term solution. He hit the DL himself in mid-April, after just three appearances, with a strained latissimus dorsi, but returned in less than a month and has been outstanding in 11 outings since. Not only is he getting ground balls again, but he's striking hitters out (12 in 13 1/3 frames since his return), and with the injuries to those above him, he's starting to look like an important piece of the Yankee pen. I still don't have a lot of faith in his ability to sustain that performance, but with Chamberlain down, he's the secondary righty set-up man, whether I like it or not.
Hector Noesi - One of the Yankees second-tier pitching prospects, Noesi pitched well in camp this spring, but had one bad outing and was farmed out soon after. Called up as Ayala's replacement when the veteran went on the disabled list, Noesi spent nine days with the big club without getting into a game before being mercifully returned to Triple-A. Recalled in mid-May to give the Yankees a fresh arm in place of Buddy Carlyle, who had replaced Noesi when he was optioned, he impressed in four long-relief outings, the last of which was equivalent to a quality start. However, the 71 pitches he threw in that outing prompted the Yankees to exchange him for a fresher arm. Though Noesi has shown modest potential, largely by combining a good fastball, which averaged 93 miles per hour during his major league stay, a solid changeup and slider, both of which succeeded in missing major league bats, and impeccable control, his fly ball rate remains problematic, and his major league success thus far has been largely dependent on luck on balls in play (.217 BABIP). The Yankees also continue to see him as a starter, and thus are reluctant to use him for shorter outings on less rest. Each of his long-relief outings came on at least four day's rest.
Lance Pendleton - Over the winter, the Yankees didn't even want to give the soft-throwing 27-year-0ld Pendleton a spot on the 40-man roster. As a result, he was taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Astros and, though he was ultimately returned at the end of Spring Training, did not appear in camp for the Yankees. That made it all the more surprising that he was the pitcher called up to take Bartolo Colon's spot in the bullpen when Colon replaced the injured Phil Hughes in the rotation. A starter throughout his minor league career, Pendleton, who was sent down in early May and recalled ten days later, has pitched exclusively in garbage time for the big club. That's his ceiling. He's a soft-tossing fly-ball righty who doesn't strike anyone out. He got by with a .167 opponents average on balls in play in his first seven starts, but showed his true colors Wednesday night by icing a lop-sided loss by giving up three runs on a pair of home runs in the top of the ninth.
Amauri Sanit - Sanit was another unexpected call-up. A 31-year-old Cuban defector who has been in the organization since 2008, Sanit wasn't in camp this spring either, likely because he never gave the Yankees a good reason to invite him. Yet, he struck out a ton of men at Triple-A to start the season (24 in 16 1/3 innings), so his was the name the Yankees called when looking for some bullpen depth in early May. A short (5-foot-8) righthander, Sanit made three appearances for the big club, was hit hard in all of them, allowing six runs in 6 1/3 innings with half of the eight hits he allowed being doubles while striking out just two, and was returned to Scranton, where he had one good outing and one bad one, then hit the DL with a leg injury. Still, when the Yankees needed arms to replace Chamberlain and Noesi on Wednesday, Sanit, who was ready to be activated, got the call again.
Buddy Carlyle - When Noesi was sent back to Triple-A in April, it was 33-year-old journeyman Carlyle who replaced him. Carlyle, who pitched in Japan in 2010, the second time his career took him to the other side of the globe, only made two appearances in camp and was hit hard, but he struck out 11 men in his first 7 2/3 innings for Scranton, prompting his promotion. A sinker/slider swing-man with a high-80s heater, Carlyle had just one bad outing out of seven with the big club and struck out eight in his last 4 1/3 innings, but also gave up a ton of fly balls and was having bad luck on balls in play, so after he threw a total of 60 pitches on back-to-back days in mid-May, the Yankees swapped him for a fresh arm. Back in Scranton, he continued to pitch well, exchanging some strikeouts for groundballs, and recently pitched well for four innings in a spot start. I largely dismissed Carlyle in February as well, but I'd take him back over Sanit right now.
Jeff Marquez - Marquez has yet to pitch for the Yankees, but he was added to the 25-man roster as Noesi's replacement on Wednesday after being claimed off waivers from the White Sox, to whom the Yankees traded him in the Nick Swisher deal after the 2008 season. A supplemental-round pick back in 2004 (part of the compensation for David Wells signing with the Padres), Marquez was considered one of the team's second-tier pitching prospects coming off a solid year at pitching-friendly Trenton in 2007, but he pancaked at Triple-A in '08 and was even worse there for the White Sox in 2009. He started to turn things around last year, however, and made his major league debut with one forgettable inning sullied by a Yuniesky Betancourt home run. This year, he had actually pitched well in nine starts for the Charlotte Knights before a roster crunch sent him back to the Bombers. Still just 26, Marquez is a righty groundballer of little distinction, but if he can hold his own in a few garbage-time appearances, he could be an upgrade on Pendleton.
Also on the 40-man:
There's not much here. Ryan Pope started the season on the DL and hasn't been effective since returning. Andrew Brackman has been awful (6.75 ERA, 6.9 BB/9 with more walks than striekouts). Steve Garrison is on the DL with a groin strain, and Dellin Betances needs to be stretched out, to prove he can hold up under a starter's workload, and has too much potential as a starter to see that development interrupted.
The Yankees released Luis Vizcaino and lefty Neal Cotts before they even got to camp. Brian Schlitter was claimed off waivers by the Phillies before camp began. Romulo Sanchez was sold to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japanese Pacific League because he was out of options. Rule 5 picks Daniel Turpen and lefty Robert Fish were returned to the Red Sox and Angels, respectively (Fish after being claimed off waivers by the Royals). Lefty Jose Ortegano, who was claimed off waivers from the Braves late in camp, was released in April. Brian Anderson and lefty Andy Sisco were both released in May. Warner Madrigal (pending elbow surgery) and, surprise, Mark Prior (groin) are on the DL. Prior, who last pitched on April 18, made just one appearance in Triple-A before getting hurt.
That leaves just five other pitchers who appeared in spring training with the Yankees this March:
David Phelps, Adam Warren, and D.J. Mitchell are all in the Triple-A rotation, which is currently rounded out by Brackman and Noesi. The Yankees have already tapped that quintet for Noesi, and seem unlikely to want to interfere with the progress (or lack thereof) of any of the others given that the major league rotation could well prove to be in need of mid-season reinforcement as well. Phelps and Mitchell have pitched well and should be allowed to continue to do so, though neither is a important to the team's long-term plans as Betances. Warren has been less effective and could use more seasoning.
Eric Wordekemper is an organizational arm, which is to say, he's utterly unexceptional. I wrote back in February that I'd rather take a chance on a pitcher like Wordekemper, who has yet to prove himself a mediocrity or worse, than a veteran like Carlyle, who has, but I wouldn't necessarily expect any more from the rookie. He's a 27-year-old, right-handed, minor league reliever with unexceptional stuff who has never sniffed the majors. He got a long look in camp (nine appearances) and pitched well enough but didn't really impress, which is more or less what he's been doing in Triple-A ever since.
Manny Bañuelos - See Dellin Betances and add in unexpected control problems (5.1 BB/9). Betances is comfortably out-pitching Bañuelos thus far this season.
Also at Scranton:
Emergency starter Kevin Millwood had nothing and was allowed to use his opt-out; he has since signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox. Carlos Silva looked better, but is on the DL with shoulder stiffness. The Yankees also claimed Kanekoa Texeira, the Hawaiian righty acquired in the Swisher deal only to be lost to the Mariners in the Rule 5 draft, off waivers from the Royals, only to see him hit the DL on Wednesday after injuring himself in Tuesday's game.
The Yankees also brought in veteran LOOGY Randy Flores, perhaps best remembered as a member of the 2006 world champion Cardinals, on a minor league deal. The 35-year-old Flores, who made 58 appearances for the Rockies and Twins last year, albeit with lousy numbers against lefties, started the season in the Padres organization and has pitched well overall. He seems like Boone Logan insurance, but could force his way up as a second lefty if the Yankees are so inclined.
The most compelling reliever in Scranton right now is the team's closer, 27-year-old righty Kevin Whelan. Acquired from the Tigers organization in the Gary Sheffield trade back in November 2006, Whelan was a converted catcher who, like many hitter-to-pitcher conversions, threw hard but with little control. This year, however, he seems to finally have mastered the strike zone and has walked just six men in 27 innings, making his usual double-digit strikeout rate (11.3 K/9 career, 10.0 this season) look especially alluring. Whelan has had a lot of luck on balls in play (.230 BABIP), but a 5.00 K/BB with that kind of strikeout rate will demand a promotion sooner or later, particularly with the likes of Sanit and Pendleton taking up spots in the major league pen.
Another compelling Triple-A righty that has yet to get a look is George Kontos. A starter prior to his 2009 Tommy John surgery, Kontos moved to the pen upon his return last year, but saw his strikeout rate fall and was left exposed to the Rule 5 draft. The Padres, who also claimed Ivan Nova in 2008, drafted Kontos, but returned him at the end of camp to the Yankees' benefit. The hard-throwing soon-to-be-26-year-old has been sharp thus far this year, striking out more than a batter per inning. He's a fly-ball pitcher, which could be problematic, but, unlike Whelan, he hasn't been unusually lucky on balls in play, and he's getting the job done outside of Trenton (where fly balls go to die).
The newest face in Scranton is 28-year-old righty Tim Norton. Norton was drafted as a starter out of the University of Connecticut in 2006 and missed the 2008 season following rotator cuff surgery. He moved to the pen upon returning to the mound in 2009 and has been very impressive ever since. In 98 2/3 innings for Tampa, Trenton, and Scranton (just two of them there) over the last two-plus seasons, Norton has posted a 1.91 ERA, 11.2 K/9, and 5.13 K/BB. He has, however, remained injury prone, undergoing a second shoulder surgery in 2009 and missing time due to a lingering latissimus dorsi injury last year, limiting him to less than 40 innings both seasons. Efforts to clean up his mechanics to stay healthy have helped him rediscover his mid-90s heater, which he compliments with a good slider and changeup. He's not a prospect, but he's a live arm that bears watching should he continue to his success in Triple-A. [Update: Norton is back on the DL as of Thursday afternoon.]
Norton has to prove he can thrive in Triple-A before the Yankees are likely to consider him a major league option, but Whelan and Kontos, the latter of whom could be used in long relief if the team so desires, deserve to get their chances soon. That said, all three had something to prove coming into this season, so it's not a surprise or a disappointment that they weren't the first names called when the bullpen needed reinforcements in April. However, now that we're in the season's third month, the time has come to start banging the drums for the promotions of Whelan and Kontos (bonus points for Pinstriped Bible readers who attend games wearing homemade "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Kontos" t-shirts).
That neither Whelan or Kontos is on the 40-man roster shouldn't serve as a significant hurdle. The team has made room for Ayala, Pendleton, Carlyle, Sanit, and Marquez already (largely by loading up the 60-day disabled list, with Eric Chavez, who has already been out for 34 days, being the most recent addition to that scroll, which already includes Damaso Marte, Feliciano, Hughes, and minor league hitters Colin Curtis and Reegie Corona). No member of those five relievers needs to remain on the 40-man should he lose his job on the 25-man, as most are likely to clear waivers. More to the point, if Whelan or Kontos are superior options for the 25-man roster, they certainly should take precedent over someone else on the 40-man. Preventing yourself from having the best available arms in your major league bullpen because you're hording marginal relievers on the 40-man is no way to operate a winning baseball team. I trust Brian Cashman is aware of that. The only question is whether or not he and the rest of the organization are convinced that Whelan and Kontos are among their best available arms.