2010 Potential Call-Ups: Kevin Whelan

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.

(Photo by: Mike Ashmore).

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.

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4 Responses to 2010 Potential Call-Ups: Kevin Whelan

  1. smurfy says:

    Interesting report, Jason. Boy, I see Kevin will be focused on further improving his command, with a vengeance. Can't have, won't have too many walks from a relief pitcher in the Bigs. Just in a touchy situation? Oh no, not him! But fastball/splitter is indeed a nasty combination, fun to watch, so I hope we will see him.

    That brings up a question that you might shed light on. I used the term "command" there, but I'm just guessing what that means. In my brief (alas) pitching career, I knew control. And when I got older and could wing it, I could only put it on the spot if I throttled back on it. Is "command" of a big fastball steering the ball toward a certain area, say outer half of the plate at a general height, rather than trying for pinpoint accuracy?

  2. I would agree that this is a pretty big year for Whelan. I have a feeling that we'll see him a couple of times this year in the Bronx as the Yankees are going to want to push him a bit to see if he's ready. I have a feeling though that he's going to ultimately be DFA'd. When that happens is the question.

  3. Thanks, smurfy. As far as commanding the fastball, I hate to equivocate, but it depends on the pitcher and the fastball. My understanding is that Whelan throws a four-seam fastball, not the two-seam sinking variety that C.C. can throw.

    I think that a lot of pitchers look to locate inner or outer half (frequently how catchers call location), while some, such as Greg Maddux, could throw theirs (Maddux had that nasty back-door fastball tailing over the outside corner to righties, as does Josh Beckett) to a spot. The power pitchers have a tougher time pinpointing theirs because of mechanics and velocity. I think that especially for big fastballs, what is key is not just throwing strikes but also knowing where NOT to throw it, which is as much an element of control as where to throw it. Controlling a fastball then means not throwing it belt-high or up to fastball hitters, not throwing it inside to batters who like it there–avoiding mistake zones.

    Thus far, Whelan’s problem has been hitting the strike zone, for he has allowed precious few homers thus far. It’s the walks, which probably speaks to mechanical issues in his delivery.

  4. smurfy says:

    Yeah, Rob, I would guess he has to make a second leap of improvement in his k/bb ratio. Seems like the fastball/splitter combo would especially require an accurate fb, to better induce a swing on the splitter.

    Jason, it sounds like you're tromping around my definitive answer, and it has to be that distinction you were alluding to: command refers to putting it in the area where it can be effective, avoiding certain areas; pinpoint control is ultimate command. I'll be watching Mssr Beckett for comparison. Thanks.