The Cincinnati Reds signed Kevin Whelan to a minor league contract. Whelan had been in the Yankees' organization since 2007 and even got a cup of coffee with the big league team in 2011. Whelan was originally drafted by the Tigers in the 4th round of the 2005 draft out of Texas A&M (and eventually traded to the Yankees for Gary Sheffield). A career minor league reliever, the 29 year old (at least that is what he will turn on the 8th of December) caught my eye thanks to some really good looking minor league statistics.
Of course, as we have seen, velocity matters more than minor league statistics when trying to determine future MLB success, and thanks to Pitch F/X data, we know how hard Whelan throws and what he pitches he uses. In his two MLB outings (both against Cleveland with the Yankees in 2011), he threw mainly 4-seam fastballs at the mediocre velocity of 91 to 91.6 MPH. According to the patterns we saw in the post linked to above, this velocity lends to a projected 110.17 FIP, which would have been between Santiago Casilla and Fernando Rodriguez in 2012, both below replacement pitchers in 2012 according to FanGraphs. Of course, both of those pitchers actually throw harder than Whelan, and Casilla actually strangely got an extension after the season. You would expect, since their velocities are better than Whelan, that they had worse minor league numbers than Whelan. This was only somewhat true.
Whelan: 3.44 kwERA (I used kwERA because it only uses strikeouts and walks, and we don't have to deal with the home run factors of the different minor league parks and leagues)
Rodriguez: 4.36 kwERA
Casilla: 2.97 kwERA (to be fair, Casilla has had some success in his career, but an ERA - of 87 with a FIP - of 101 for a career reliever is a little surprising considering his above average velocity and his minor league numbers)
So Whelan's numbers according to kwERA aren't overwhelming, especially for a reliever, but he has had success in the upper levels, with a 129 FRA + in AA in 2009 as a 25 year old and 108 FRA + in AAA in 2011. Over the last two years in AAA, he has a 3.25 FIP and 3.05 SIERA in the International League. When you just look at the International League leaderboard (I used a minimum of 50 games) from 2012 according to FIP, this puts him in some weird company. He is below Josh Lueke, who has really been struggling in the Majors and has a fastball that may be a tick better than Whelan's, and around Terry Doyle and Adam Wilk. Wilk will pitch in Korea in 2013 and Doyle spent some time in Japan in 2012 (and got a minor league contract with the Red Sox for 2013). Whelan's fastball is better than either of these pitchers. Miguel Socolovich, also going to pitch in Japan, shows up around where Whelan would be, but so does Pirates' prospect Jeff Locke and Rays' flamethrower Chris Archer. Veterans Rich Vanderhurk (going to pitch in Korea) and Jeff Francis (who got another deal with the Rockies) also show up around that 3.25 watermark. It truly is a mixed bag statistically, and I don't think numbers are going to help a lot if we are looking at what Whelan's MLB value might be.
Whelan was once projected to be a closer, but he never really got a shot, and injuries may have played a role in this. He had several small injuries earlier in his career, and in 2012 he didn't pitch after June 3rd and has a combined 79.1 innings.
He was known as a guy who threw a 4-seamer, 2-seamer, splitter, and cutter when he was a prospect. However, Pitch F/X only showed him throwing an occasional slider and change to go with his 4-seam fastball. It certainly paints a picture less exciting than scouting reports were a couple of years ago. So I went back and watched his outing on April 6th (because it was in Lehigh Valley, which has an on screen radar gun) to see what I could gather.
He was throwing just 86-89 MPH and his command was not there. The right-hander has a really complicated delivery that looks really ugly and is hard to watch. It looks like it gives him deception, but it has to be hard to repeat and looks hard on his body. It is not a fluid motion, and he uses an extremely high leg kick. He did show off a 84 MPH splitter, that looked like a MLB pitch to me. Pitch F/X may have called it a change, but it is a splitter and it has nasty movement, much like the best splitters (such as the one thrown by Koji Uehara) we see in the Majors. The question will be, especially if he is now throwing below 90 MPH, is can he get enough speed differential for it to matter? He also showed off the slider that hit 83 MPH, but the break wasn't hard or sharp, though he does have some horizontal movement as well. He was really struggling with command though, and if he really did lose fastball velocity, I just can't see him pitching in the Majors for the Reds.