In 2009, the Yankees won the World Series with three regular everyday players 28 years old or younger. Aside from the regulars, the club also received positive contributions from pitchers Joba Chamberlain (31 starts of 97 ERA+), Phil Hughes (1.40 ERA in 51.1 IP as a setup man), and David Robertson (3.30 ERA and 63 SO in 43.2 IP). Throw in Alfredo Aceves' best year and the Yankees found positive contributions from eight players 28 or under acquired through the draft, international signings or trade (Nick Swisher, and all he cost the Yankees was Wilson Betemit and Jeffrey Marquez).
In 2010, the Yankees had just five of these players on the roster and again two were relievers. This time it was Chamberlain and Robertson in the bullpen as Hughes went back to the rotation where he won 18 games, made the All-Star team with a hot first half, and ended the season with a 103 Adjusted ERA. Robinson Cano led the team with a .319/.381/.534 slash line and Gardner led the team with a .383 OBP and 47 steals.
Hughes and Chamberlain battled injuries and ineffectiveness in 2011 as the only qualifiers were once again Robertson, Robinson Cano, Gardner, and newcomer Ivan Nova. Once again the Yankees rode an aging offense to 97 wins. With Cano another year older, Nova regressing, Chamberlain with a litany of injuries and Gardner missing almost the entire season in 2012, the Yankees were left with just Hughes and Robertson.
The lack of young depth showed. It's not that Robertson and Hughes didn't play key roles as the main setup man and a mid-rotation innings eater, but that the club had older players making up the rest of the roster. Even the utility players were older as Andruw Jones, Jayson Nix, Dewayne Wise, Eric Chavez, Ichiro Suzuki and Chris Stewart made up the bench while Francisco Cervelli and Eduardo Nunez toiled in the minor leagues.
After losing Michael Pineda for the year and getting just 12 starts from Andy Pettitte, the Yankees needed David Phelps to do what he did in the worst way. Phelps impressed the coaching staff in spring training, surprisingly won the last spot in the bullpen as a swingman, and succeeded both as a starter (3.77 ERA in 11 GS and 22% strikeout rate) and as a reliever (2.76 ERA in 42 IP 24% strikeout rate). Half of the Yankees' payroll going on the disabled list opened the door for the baby boom in the Bronx this year, but itís clear that the next wave of young Yankees started with Phelps.
This quote from Adam Warren, via Chad Jennings of the Westchester Journal News, is telling.
"I think Dave kind of started something last year when he came up and did well," Warren said. "For us guys down in the minor leagues, weíre kind of like, well, we might have a chance to help this team. So you kind of get that little bit of glimmer of hope. Now, this year, guys are getting some opportunities and we're trying to take advantage of them. We have that confidence coming up that we know we can get outs, so I think that really helped us."
That quote came on the heels of a doubleheader against the Indians that saw the Yankees get 16.2 innings of one-run ball from Phelps, Preston Claiborne, Vidal Nuno, and Warren. Nuno was signed as a minor league free agent in 2011, but the Yankees drafted the other three guys and all have been impressive so far this season.
Phelps, filling in for the injured Nova, has given the Yankees a 2.84 ERA (3.58 FIP) in four starts with a 23% strikeout rate. It will be interesting to see how long the Yankees stick with Phelps in the rotation as Nova, Pettite, and Pineda are all due to return at some point this season, but they sure donít mind riding the hot hand right now. With a first place team behind him and that strikeout rate, heís worth going after in standard mixed leagues.
Nuno unfortunately had a scheduled start rained out Sunday as he was supposed to take the place of Pettitte and then the Yankees decided to skip him completely this turn through the rotation. Nuno is averaging just 89 mph on his fastball according to Brooks Baseball, but he gets it done with an assortment of pitches including slider, curveball, sinker, and changeup. More important than his velocity or lack thereof, Nuno is aggressive, throws a ton of strikes, and works quickly. Heís yet to allow a run in eight innings this year, and should be an intriguing pitcher to watch if he's given more starts.
Claiborne, 25, could be a decent find. He's also yet to allow a run this year in eight innings. His fastball usually sits at 93-95 mph and he can add sinking action to it. Claiborne also has good mechanics and features a slider and changeup as secondary offerings.
Warren was on the Phelps path as he made the roster as the long man out of spring training this year, however, it appears he may have found a home in the bullpen. Warren throws a fastball, sinker, and a cutter giving him plenty of weapons to get ahead in counts. He has a 1.87 ERA in 19.2 IP and 15 strikeouts out of the bullpen this year and has probably pitched himself into a full time bullpen role going forward.
On the offensive side, David Adams has been a very pleasant surprise in his first five games. On Monday night against the Orioles he hit his first big league home run against Freddy Garcia. Itís a nice story as Adams was taken off the Yankees' 40-man roster before the season, but he opted to sign a minor league deal with the Yankees in hopes of making it to the majors when eligible in mid-May. Adams has done exactly that. Heís played a tremendous third base and has pop in his bat. He will likely get the bulk of the time there as long as every other Yankees third baseman is on the disabled list.
Austin Romine has also filled in nicely. The Yankees have told their catchers to primarily focus on defense and it's not out of the ordinary to see the Yankees catchers bunt this year. Still, Romine has a bit of offensive upside in addition to his valuable defense. Chris Stewart is no answer offensively and with Cervelli still on the disabled list there could be more opportunity for Romine to prove himself with the bat.
These players arenít the guys that will make up the Yankees next homegrown core. That's the Gary Sanchez and Mason Williams group. For now, though, the Yankees will ride this wave of useful youngsters.