David Phelps' versatility could work against a starting spot

David Phelps delivers a pitch in the fifth

David Phelps delivers a pitch in the fifth inning of a spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Steinbrenner Field in Dunedin, Fla. (March 10, 2013) (Credit: AP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- David Phelps has shown he can do a bit of everything in the big leagues.

And that could be what costs him a spot in the Yankees' rotation this season, at least initially.

Phelps turned in what catcher Francisco Cervelli called his "best start this spring" Sunday in a 3-0 win over the Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, allowing no runs and three hits in five innings.

"Everything was working today," said Phelps, who has a 0.64 ERA (one run in 14 innings) and is especially pleased with his slider and curve. "He's picked up right where he left off last year," Joe Girardi said.

But Ivan Nova, against whom Phelps has been competing for the fifth starter's job, also has pitched well, allowing one run in five innings in his two starts (1.80 ERA).

"Nova has the better stuff and arm," one opposing team scout said. "Phelps has a very good feel for pitching. I like him a lot as a fifth starter or long man."

Assuming Phil Hughes is ready for the start of the season -- and that's not automatic; the righty still hasn't pitched in a game as he recovers from two bulging discs -- Nova likely is headed for the rotation and Phelps the bullpen.

"Tough decision," Girardi said. "They're matching each other basically inning for inning, start for start. That's a good problem to have."

But the Yankees want to find out exactly what they have in the 26-year-old Nova, who went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA in 2011 before slipping to 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA last season.

Nova and Phelps both have been groomed as starters, but Phelps has more experience in the bullpen and Nova is thought to have the bigger upside.

Phelps proved to be a valuable swingman for the Yankees in 2012, going 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA. He was 2-2 with a 3.77 ERA in 11 starts and 2-2 with a 2.76 ERA in 22 relief appearances.

"We always talk about taking the 12 best guys [out of camp]," Girardi said. And the good news for Phelps -- who above all else wants to stay in the majors -- is that, without question, he's in that dozen.

"Obviously, it's what I want to do. It's what I've done my whole career," Phelps, 26, said of starting. "But whatever's best for the team is what I want to do. I don't want to be selfish and just say I want to be a starter no matter what. If that's not the role they need me, that's not what's beneficial to the team. I'll just go out there, do my job and let it fall where it may."

Phelps has come a long way from his first spring training in 2011, when, admittedly overwhelmed, he had a 10.50 ERA in four appearances. He was far more comfortable last year -- a 2.08 ERA in seven exhibition appearances -- and that carried over into the regular season.

And then, any doubts about his ability evaporated -- both from outside and within.

"I know what I did last year," he said. "I proved to myself I can get big-league hitters out."

And the role in which he does that, for now, is secondary.

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