Taking an early look at the Yankees' bullpen competitions

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Which relievers will fill out the final four spots in the Yankees' bullpen?

With fewer than two weeks to go before pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, Florida, it sure looks like the Yankees won't make any more big, headlining moves, especially when it comes to the bullpen. After losing Mariano Rivera to retirement and Boone Logan to free agency, the Yankees have only signed Matt Thornton and a few scrapheap pickups on minor league deals to help replace the two. Because of this, the Yankees will head into camp with a number of bullpen competitions that will have to play themselves out.

The intriguing prospects

Jose Ramirez: Although he's not officially a reliever, the Yankees may choose to shift the 24-year-old right-hander to the bullpen, given his long injury history. Last season, as a starter, however, Ramirez pitched to a 3.67 ERA and 4.63 FIP through 17 starts split between Double-A and Triple-A. This was sandwiched between arm problems, of course. Since Ramirez has always done a good job of picking up strikeouts (career 8.6 K/9 in the minors), he wouldn't figure to have much of a problem in a relief role. Until the Yankees say differently, though, he's a starter.

Mark Montgomery: Arguably the team's best relief prospect, Montgomery struggled in 2013 after a strong 2012. He reportedly came to last year's camp out of throwing shape, and, subsequently, control and shoulder problems followed. Since he struggled last year, I would have to think the Yankees send him back to Scranton to iron out his control before giving him a shot with the big league team.

Chase Whitley: The 2013 season was yet another solid one for the right-handed Whitley; he pitched to a very solid 3.06 ERA and 3.05 FIP through 67 2/3 innings in his second go-around at Triple-A. Not only was he solid as a whole, but he was solid in a variety of roles; he can start, pitch long-relief, pitch short-relief, and even close on occasion. Given his solid three-pitch mix of a fastball, changeup, and cutter, to go along with his good results, it seems as though Whitley is ready for the big leagues. The head-scratching thing, though, is that he's currently left off the Yankees' 40-man roster and he went unclaimed during the Rule V draft.

Those who have seen big league time

Dellin Betances: After yet another disastrous trial in the starting rotation at the beginning of 2013, the Yankees finally shifted Betances to the bullpen. Following the demotion, Betances pitched to a dominating 1.46 ERA and ~2.43 FIP in 27 relief outings and 49 1/3 innings pitched in Triple-A before getting a couple cups of coffee in the Bronx. The 2013 season was originally supposed to be Betances' final minor league option year, but it was revealed this winter that the Yankees do, in fact, have one final option for the right-hander. He could easily be sent back down to Triple-A, but with a dominating showing this spring, it may be hard to not bring the soon-to-be-26-year-old up north with the big club.

Cesar Cabral: Following a lost 2012 in which he fractured his elbow, Cesar Cabral tried to make up for lost time in 2013. While his overall numbers weren't all that spectacular (5.20 ERA and 3.61 FIP), the left-hander was able to hold left-handed batters to a .678 OPS against. In his cup of coffee in the Bronx, the soon-to-be-25-year-old allowed just one of the nine left-handed batters he faced to reach base, while also punching out six of said batters. Obviously, we're dealing with a limited amount of data, but, Cabral has always (unsurprisingly) held left-handed batters in check over the years in the minors. He has also (again, unsurprisingly) always gotten hit pretty hard against right-handed batters. If the Yankees want to add a second true LOOGY to the bullpen mix, Cabral is certainly an option.

Preston Claiborne: Yes, Claiborne appeared in 44 games last year and provided relatively reasonable results (4.11 ERA and 4.14 FIP). And, yes, Joe Girardi has even publicaly penciled him into this year's bullpen. However, Claiborne was downright terrible in his final two months, pitching to an 8.80 ERA and ~7.04 FIP through 15 outings. For comparison, the much-maligned Joba Chamberlain pitched to a 4.86 ERA and ~7.22 FIP, spanning 18 outings in the same time period. Claiborne does have more experience at the big league level than everyone else previously listed in this post (sans Joba), but, ideally, he should have to earn his spot in the bullpen following a disastrous final two months of 2013.

The starters

David Phelps: Phelps followed up his solid rookie campaign in 2012 with a dud in 2013. Through July 4, Phelps pitched to a 5.04 ERA, albeit with a solid 4.00 FIP, before missing more than two months with a forearm injury. He came back for four games and was okay, but, overall, 2013 was a bit of a lost season for Phelps. He has bullpen experience (career 3.95 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 32 games and 63 innings) and could find himself there if he loses the fifth starter spot.

Adam Warren: Although 32 of Warren's 34 total appearances came in relief last season, he does have plenty of experience as a starter, doing so in his first four seasons in the Yankees' minor league system. In 2013, however, Warren finished with a solid 3.39 ERA and 4.32 FIP at the big league level. Because he had a good year, albeit with most of his time coming in relief, he could, perhaps, have a leg up on Phelps for the fifth starter spot. If not, he could once again be a solid option in a long-relief role like he was in 2013.

Vidal Nuno: From a pure results standpoint, Vidal Nuno pitched very well last season (2.25 ERA) through his five outings (three starts). Nuno was due for some hard regression, though, given his 4.50 FIP, inability to get swings-and-misses (4.1% whiff-rate), ground balls (35%), and just the fact that he pitched the majority of his games in hitter-friendly environments. However, he suffered a groin injury that shelved him for the final four months of the season, so we never got to know if he would continue his luck. Regardless, if Nuno doesn't end up as the team's fifth starter, he could be sent to the bullpen and provide Joe Girardi with a second left-hander.

The scrapheap pickups

After writing over 1000 words about nine guys who could crack this year's bullpen (with a combination of the latter three entering the mix if they don't win the fifth starter spot), there are still eight other guys (Bruce Billings, Robert Coello, Matt Daley, Brian Gordon, David Herndon, Chris Leroux, Yoshinori Tateyama, and Jim Miller), who were either signed or re-signed and added to the pile of relievers trying to make the 25-man roster. Instead of profiling them all myself, I'll direct you to Andrew's post, which does that very thing. Most/all of these relievers may end up in Scranton or in someone else's system after being released, but, if there's one guy who may have a fairly decent chance at cracking the team, it's Matt Daley. Daley, believe it or not, was one of the better relievers for the Yankees in September, allowing no runs in six innings and seven appearances. He has some experience in the big leagues (4.38 ERA and 3.65 FIP in 86 1/3 innings), and, if all else fails, his brief look last season could be enough to make the team.

With only three real, guaranteed options to make the 2014 bullpen (excluding Claiborne), there are four spots up for grabs. For an extremely early prediction, I'll say Warren (as the primary long man), Phelps (as a long man/multi-inning setup-ish man), Claiborne, and Cabral make it. That's just a huge guess on my part, obviously, but those four are all currently on the 40-man roster, thus having a (theoretical) leg up on those who aren't. We're still a long ways away from this sorting itself out, but I'm pretty intrigued at how it goes nonetheless. Competition usually brings out the best in players.

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