The battle for the 5th starter spot is probably the most high-profile roster competition to keep an eye on this spring. As it stands now, Ivan Nova squares off against David Phelps for the final rotation spot. Although with recent news about Phil Hughes’ back, there’s a chance this battle becomes extraneous and both start the season in the rotation. Reports are that Hughes will be back within the next couple of weeks, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Anyway, the battle’s pretty much a tossup. Nova probably has the sight edge considering his strong performance in 2011, but is by no means guaranteed the job. Phelps had a lot of success in a relief role last year, but only has 11 starts to his name in the majors. The loser of this battle will end up working in a long relief role to start the season, barring extended absence from Hughes.
Quite frankly, Nova was an enigma in 2012. He posted a dismal 5.02 ERA and was tough to watch at times. Nonetheless, SIERA pegged him at 3.84 which suggests he was just unlucky. Last month, I argued that he would be a great bet to bounce back next year. His slider/cutter hybrid pitch has been effective in striking batters out and his HR/FB rate should theoretically regress back to normal levels. There is something to be said for actual performance though, and Nova just didn’t deliver last year in that regard. There are also select cases of guys who poke holes in DIPS theory—Luke Hochevar has been underperforming his SIERA since 2008. So we can’t just automatically assume Nova’s ERA will regress to the estimators.
Phelps also had a very interesting 2012. Viewed more as a depth piece this time last year, Phelps got opportunities thanks to some injuries and he didn’t disappoint. He was jerked around between roles as well as between the majors and AAA, but succeeded no matter where the Yankees put him. After it was all said and done, he held a solid 3.34 ERA backed up by a 3.66 SIERA. in 11 starts and 22 relief apearances. Phelps’ fastball velocity in his starts and relief appearances were virtually identical which is a bit unusual. Since his stuff doesn’t appear to improve drastically when working from the bullpen, Phelps is probably better cast as a starter and should be given every opportunity to pitch out of the rotation.
Both have compelling cases for the 5th starter spot and spring training performance is likely to be the deciding factor. The projection systems agree that it’s a coin flip. Most predict a slightly lower ERA for Phelps, but also predict a split between starts and relief appearances. This probably explains his ERA advantage. If I had to guess, I’d say Nova gets the nod simply because the Yankees know Phelps can be an asset out of the bullpen and Nova lacks that bullpen experience. Realistically speaking though, it’s only a matter of time before one of the team’s 6 starting pitchers gets hurt. That’s just the nature of pitchers. It may even be silly to be having this discussion at all given Phil Hughes’ injury concerns. No matter what happens, it’s probably safe to say that both guys will have a spot in the rotation soon enough as long as they’re pitching well and avoiding the disabled list.
Photo by Anc516 at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons