A hard-throwing righty, Kevin Whelan began his professional career in the Detroit Tigers organization. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2005 draft, the Texas A & M product and college catcher was sent to the Yankees with pitchers Anthony Claggett and Humberto Sanchez in exchange for outfielder Gary Sheffield. Whelan spent much of 2007 in AA Trenton, compiling a respectable 2.98 ERA in 31 games (30 relief appearances), as well as a strong K/IP ratio of 68 in just 54 1/3 innings because of his sharp low to mid-90s fastball and a nasty splitter. Yet control problems resulted in the 6’, 200 lb. righty being sent down to high-A Tampa to improve command over his fastball, having walked a whopping 42 batters in Trenton in 2007.
Whelan experienced an elbow injury during Winter ball before the 2008 season, and found himself on the DL midway through the 2008 campaign. Back and healthy in 2009, Whelan thrived at both Trenton and later AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre, overwhelming batters to rack up 85 K’s in 67 1/3 innings, a combined 2.67 ERA, 1.277 WHIP, and just one home run in 44 games between Trenton and SWB. While he still has to harness his power and further reduce his walks, Whelan’s BB/9 dropped from 6.9 in 2008 to 5.5 in 2009, and it is encouraging that he shows the capability to throw multiple innings.
In two appearances this Spring, Whelan has allowed two hits, two walks, and an earned run with a K in 2/3 of an inning.
For 2010: Given the Yankees’ considerable bullpen depth, especially after the acquisition of Chan Ho Park, it appears likely that Whelan will begin 2010 where he finished 2009—in AAA SWB. Right now, Whelan appears to be cut from a hybrid mold of Mark Melancon, a fastball-off-speed righty with good strikeout ability whom the Yankees have groomed for middle and late innings relief, and the recently departed lefty Mike Dunn (in the trade with Atlanta for Javier Vazquez) who throws very hard but walks too many. Should others falter ahead of him or suffer injuries, the Yankees might well turn to Whelan during the 2010 season. Until that happens, however, and until he harnesses his powerful right arm, Whelan may not see The Bronx until September call-ups.
Crucially, while the Yankees have stockpiled considerable pitching talent and depth throughout the system, 2010 might serve as a make-or-break year for the 26-year-old Whelan. The clock may be ticking for him. While the Yankees have done rather well for themselves in right field after dealing Sheffield, with Bobby Abreu and Nick Swisher productive offensively and decent defensively, the team might not realize any benefit from the Sheffield trade at the major-league level unless Whelan soon shows that his excellent if sometimes unsteady pitching in the minors can eventually translate into major-league success. In sum, Whelan is currently caught between the rock of the Yankees’ bullpen depth, and the hard place of his own sporadic development punctuated by vast strikeout potential on the one hand, and control problems and some injuries on the other. What he accomplishes in 2010 might determine what, if any, place he has at the top levels of the Yankees’ organization.