Before the season, some were talking about the Yankees bullpen being the best in all of baseball. Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano were expected to be a solid back end while anchoring the squad. When you add in Boone Logan, a formidable lefty, and Cory Wade, who quietly used his change-up to become one of the better relievers in baseball last year, dominance was expected from the squad. This doesn’t even include lefty specialist Clay Rapada and long reliever David Phelps, both of which have been very effective to start the 2012 campaign.
But now, a little over a month into the season, the Yankees bullpen is in trouble. Mariano Rivera is out for the year with a torn ACL, and David Robertson just recently hit the DL with an oblique injury. Rafael Soriano, expected to fill the 7th inning role prior to the season, is now the closer. Logan and Wade are now being counted on to step into setup roles, while Joe Girardi has even suggested that David Phelps may be used in a one-inning role to help shore up the bullpen. With Joba Chamberlain (Tommy John surgery/Broken Ankle) and David Aardsma (Tommy John surgery) both months away at best, is there any relief on the way for the compromised bullpen?
Let’s take a look at some of the options down in the minor leagues that could potentially have to step in to fill a role in the major league bullpen. And for those of you wondering, Dellin Betances and his 1.75 WHIP in Triple-A is nowhere near this list – his control issues this season have shown that he has a bit still to go before he’s ready to tackle the big leagues.
Cody Eppley: He’s been shuttled back and forth between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and New York this season. In the majors this year, he’s pitching to a 3.68 ERA with five strikeouts in 7.1 innings pitched. Down at Triple-A, he’s been almost too good – he’s yet to allow a run, and is pitching to a whopping 0.43 WHIP. His strikeout to walk ratios is a phenomenal 13 to 1. Eppley, 26, might have a chance to put together something special for the Yankees this year when they’ll clearly be shorthanded.
Kevin Whelan: The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre closer has been very effective this season, sporting a 1-0 record and nine saves to go along with a 1.89 ERA. He’s also struck out 31 batters in just 19.2 innings pitched. The 28-year old had two appearances with the Yankees last season, when he walked five batters in 1.2 innings pitched. Whelan strikes me as a 4-A type of player – someone who is too good to remain in the minors, but never really finds a way to achieve success at the major league level.
D.J. Mitchell: Mitchell’s a starter by trade, but the Yankees may shift him to the bullpen if the need truly arises. Mitchell would be more likely than Adam Warren to be subjected to the shift for the simple reason that he’s on the 40-man roster. He made a brief appearance in pinstripes earlier this season, allowing a run on four hits over 2.2 innings in two games. Those stats may make him appear ordinary, but in Triple-A so far, he’s been anything but. Mitchell in six starts this season is 3-1 with 2.75 ERA and just under a strikeout per inning. His future is bright, but with all the starting pitching prospects currently in the system, it’s definitely questionable as to whether that future is in the Yankees rotation or the bullpen.
Chase Whitley: The crown jewel of the Yankees farm system as far as relief pitchers, Whitley, 22, has breezed through the minor leagues to date. He split 2011 between Tampa and Trenton, and then earned a promotion to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after just two games in Trenton this year. While in Scranton, Whitley has appeared in twenty games, putting together a 4-2 record and 3.05 ERA. He’s struck out 18 batters in 20.2 innings pitched. Whitley may not be there just yet, but by the All-Star break, his numbers may have him worthy of a promotion to see if he can’t help out the big league bullpen. He’s one of the best relief pitching prospects in the Yankees system – only Mark Montgomery in Tampa may have a higher ceiling – and may well be their setup man of the future.
With these four pitchers in Triple-A, the Yankees may indeed have some help on the way. If it were my call, the first one up would always be Eppley. He’s young enough to have some potential left, yet he’s got big league experience and has been lights out for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. After Eppley, I’d probably be willing to give Whitley a chance over Whelan and Mitchell. For now, D.J. Mitchell might be better off as a starter, because the rotation isn’t exactly rock solid. That leaves Whitley and Whelan. Despite his youth, Whitley has the potential to step in and develop into an elite reliever – which is something that I don’t know if Whelan can do.