For the first time in eleven years, the Yankees have claimed a player in the major league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. Back in December 1995, the player they claimed from the Brewers was Marc Ronan, a then-26-year-old catcher who had caught six games for new Yankee manager Joe Torre's Cardinals in 1993. Those six games were destined to be Ronan's only major league appearances. With the newly acquired Joe Girardi, Jim Leyritz and a rookie named Jorge Posada in camp, Ronan was cut in spring training. This year, the Yankees' claim is far more compelling: former Baseball Prospectus cover boy Josh Phelps.
Phelps fits the description of the right-handed power-hitting first baseman the Yankees were looking for, though whether or not he does so any more than Andy Phillips, who is still on the roster, or Craig Wilson, who may yet be resigned, is questionable. Phelps, now 28, came up with the Blue Jays as a catcher and, arriving directly from double-A, went 0 for 13 in two sips of coffee in 2000 and 2001. In 2002 he abandoned catching and split the year between triple-A Syracuse and Toronto, mashing the ball in both places as a DH/first baseman. It was at this point that Phelps became a cover boy. At age 24, he was drawing comparisons to a young Dale Murphy, another tall, lean, powerful, right-handed-hitting converted catcher. Pegged as a future star in Toronto, Phelps suffered a slight sophomore slump in 2003. When his struggles got even worse in 2004, the Blue Jays dealt him to Cleveland for never-was Eric Crozier. Phelps did better with the Indians, hitting .303/.338/.579 over the remainder of the season, but departed for Tampa Bay as a free agent that winter. In Tampa, Phelps lost his DH job to Jonny Gomes after hitting .266/.328/.424 through June 5. He hasn't appeared in the majors since then, but he had his best season since 2002 with triple-A Toledo in the Tigers' system last year. Coming off that .303/.370/.532 season, Phelps signed a minor league deal with the Orioles on November 15, but the O's left him unprotected and the Yankees, against whom Phelps has hit .318/.369/.523 in 107 at-bats over his major league career, snapped him up.
The selection cost the Yankees $50,000 and the Yankees will have to offer Phelps back to Baltimore (in exchange for half of their money back) if they want to remove him from the 25-man roster at any point this season. Phelps will clearly compete directly with Andy Phillips this spring. Since Phillips is out of options, one of the two (if not both should Craig Wilson re-enter the picture) will likely be with another organization come opening day. With that, here's a chart comparing Phelps, Phillips, Wilson, and a pair of similarly skilled lefty first basemen, Carlos Peña, who made a cameo as a Columbus Clipper in 2006 before making a briefer one in Boston at the end of the year and is once again a free agent, and Hee Seop Choi, who after all the hand wringing we did over his landing with the Red Sox, had an awful, injury-shortened year in Pawtucket and has since signed a minor league deal with the Devil Rays:
ML AVG/OBP/SLG (AB)
mL AVG/OBP/SLG (AB)
2006 AVG/OBP/SLG (AB-level)
Hee Seop Choi
Phelps stacks up well against that competition. If anything, his continued search for a major league contract may have as much to do with his glove as his bat. It remains to be seen whether or not Phelps, who has played the field in just 31 of his 343 post-catching major league games, can be trusted at first base. With Jason Giambi locked in at DH, his defense this spring is sure to be closely watched by Joe Torre and his staff. That said, mark Phelps down next to Brian Bruney and Darrell Rasner as further evidence that Brian Cashman and company are on point in all phases of their game.