David Phelps has been a tough pitcher for the Yankees to figure out since he was drafted by them a mere four years ago, in the 14th round of the 2008 MLB draft. He pitched quite well at Notre Dame and did not need a trip to Rookie League; after signing within a week of the draft, the 21-year-old was immediately placed in low-A Staten Island's rotation. He quickly showed that he was already much more seasoned than his peers, putting up a 2.72 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 15 starts there to finish the '08 season. The impressed Yankees decided to bump him up to class-A Charleston, where he would also dominate. 19 starts with a 2.80 ERA and a 3.40 FIP later, he was promoted to high-A Tampa during the season. The Florida State League also fell victim to the Phelps steamroller, and this pattern of dominating in minor league half-seasons would continue until Phelps joined AAA Scranton in July 2010.
Although he continued to pitch well against the competition (3.14 ERA in a season and a half in Scranton), Phelps hit a roadblock. The Yankees could only keep promoting him as he excelled against the minor leaguers, but the Yankees did not feel comfortable bringing him up to the majors. This uneasiness was certainly evident when the Yankees decided to sign two big question marks prior to the 2011 season, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, rather than give Phelps a chance after a successful half-season in Scranton (3.07 ERA, 2.92 FIP). Thus, Phelps went back to the AAA rotation for all of 2011, and after another great season there, the Yankees gave him a legitimate shot at making the 25-man roster in 2012.
The rotation was full, but they had a spot open as the long reliever after Michael Pineda's injury landed him on the DL and the departures of previous roadblocks Colon, A.J. Burnett, Hector Noesi, and "The Experience," Sergio Mitre created more of a opening. Phelps beat out his teammates D.J. Mitchell and Adam Warren for the job, and he has been a rousing success in the major leagues. Shifting around from long relief to middle relief to a couple of spot starts (prior to the return of Andy Pettitte), Phelps has pitched 33.2 innings and 13 games thus far in 2012, and the early results are good--a 2.92 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 145 ERA+, 4.07 xFIP, and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings. His walk rate has jumped up from 2.0 BB/9 in the minors to 3.5 BB/9, but other than that small blemish, he has impressed as a rookie. Some of his outings have made a couple of the best offenses in baseball look downright poor. The only problem for Phelps is that the team and manager Joe Girardi seem unsure of how to use him now that he is one of seven starting pitchers in the 25-man roster.
The Yankees' problems with Phelps have been especially evident lately, as he has only pitched in one game since May 28th (in which he only threw nine pitches in a third of an inning). They seem to be keeping him on somewhat of a regular schedule--since Pettitte rejoined the rotation, Phelps has consistently pitched every three or four days, but the sample size is so small that it could just be a coincidence. The Yankees seem as baffled with what to do with Phelps as they did with Noesi last year, and some of these problems are simply unavoidable. The Yankees' starting pitchers, for instance, have been pitching deeper into the games lately, which is good for the team, but makes it difficult to get middle relievers like Phelps consistent work. However, it seems strange that reliever Cody Eppley, who was not nearly the prospect that Phelps was and only became a Yankee in April (when he was claimed off waivers from the Rangers), has pitched in just as many games as Phelps. More importantly, Phelps has just flat-out pitched better than Eppley, who has underwhelmed with a 4.22 ERA and 5.1 BB/9 thus far.
The Yankees also seem to be playing Cory Wade and Boone Logan a lot more frequently these days, but I suppose that's less surprising since they have a longer track record of success than Phelps. Regardless, why not pitch Phelps instead of running the same couple of guys out there every day? Furthermore, what will it mean for Phelps when David Robertson rejoins the bullpen? One would figure that he would return to his late-game spot (replacing the Wade/Logan combo), and everyone in the bullpen pecking order would move down a peg. If Phelps is struggling to find innings already, how will he get them with more barriers? Obviously in a late-game situation, Robertson, Soriano, and perhaps even Logan should be trusted more than the rookie, but is he so much worse than Wade, Eppley, and Logan on some days? This judgment is highly doubtful; let the kid pitch! He's more important to the Yankees' future and he could be a real asset to their bullpen while he's there. David Phelps has met every challenge that the Yankees have given him in his professional career, so why not give him another one? Phelps has really shown that he has a good idea on how to get the best hitters in the world out. The Yankees will likely be thanking themselves later for the decision to further challenge him.
On a mostly-unrelated note, I have a poll for readers at the bottom of this piece asking what you'd like to see most from me. I joined Pinstripe Alley in a new role as primarily the historian, but I've added a variety of different types of articles here and there. So what would you like to see most from me?