He hasn't received a lot of attention as a prospect, but New York Yankees rookie right-hander David Phelps earned his way onto the major league roster this spring. Who is this guy, and what should be expected?
David Phelps had a poor freshman year for Notre Dame in 2006. In contrast, his 2007 season was brilliant: a 1.88 ERA with a 102/30 K/BB in 110 innings for the Fighting Irish. He was positioned as a potential early pick for 2008, but an erratic junior season (4.65 ERA, 75/28 K/BB with 102 hits in 93 innings) depressed his stock. Scouts reported slippage of his secondary pitches and a slight loss of velocity. The Yankees drafted him anyway in the 14th round, then signed him for a $150,000 bonus. His pro debut was quite good (2.72 ERA with a 52/18 K/BB in 73 innings in the New York-Penn League), and he looked like a nice sleeper prospect heading into 2009.
He was terrific in Low-A, posting a 2.80 ERA with a 90/25 K/BB in 113 innings, followed by a 1.17 ERA with a 32/6 K/BB in 38 innings after moving up to High-A in August. Some scouts (perhaps thinking too much about what happened in college in 2008) were skeptical, but Yankees officials were impressed with his steady progress improving his secondary pitches. This continued in 2010: he posted a 2.04 ERA with an 84/23 K/BB in 88 innings of Double-A, then continued to pitch well in the second half in Triple-A (3.07 ERA, 57/13 K/BB in 70 innings).
Phelps returned to Triple-A in 2011 and was effective once again (3.19 ERA with a 90/26 K/BB in 107 innings, 115 hits) although he missed two months with some shoulder tenderness. He was healthy in the Arizona Fall League, then earned his way onto the major league roster with a strong 2012 spring training. So far, he's performed very well with the big club, pitching three shutout innings of relief, without allowing a hit, walk, or run, fanning five. Admittedly the sample is miniscule, but a good start is better than a slow one.
Phelps is a 6-2, 200 pounder, born October 9, 1986. His fastball has been clocked as high as 95 MPH on occasion, but he works more commonly in the 89-93 range, averaging about 91. He has three secondary pitches with a slider, curveball, and changeup. While none of his pitches are exceptional, they work well in concert with the fastball, especially given his solid command. For many teams he would profile as a fourth or fifth starter, though so far for the Yankees he's been used out of the major league bullpen.
The Yankees have moved Phelps one level at a time through the minors, and at age 25 he has nothing left to prove there. I think he'll be a fine middle reliever at the least. Given his track record, he could/should get a chance to start eventually.