The Yankees built a super bullpen in 2016, adding Aroldis Chapman to the already formidable pairing of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. After trading Chapman and Miller at the deadline, the team stands to require another bullpen rebuild. Instead of going the free agent route, the Yankees might be able to create a much more balanced group of relievers through trades.
The trio proved to be effective, but it didn’t do much for the team’s middle relief group, which struggled for most of the season. In order to refill the bullpen for 2017, the Yankees are expected to pursue Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, or Aroldis Chapman. Pairing one of them with the already fantastic Betances would give them another strong duo at the back of the bullpen, like they had in 2015.
The only problem with this solution is that it would not help the middle relief all that much. Sure, it would push Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard into the sixth and seventh innings, but what if there was a different way? What if the Yankees targeted some of the best relievers from the 2016 season?
Thornburg sounds like the perfect trade candidate for the Yankees this year. After suffering an elbow injury in 2014 and ultimately avoiding Tommy John surgery, Thornburg was finally back to full strength in 2016. The Brewers made him a full-time reliever, and the decision worked out well for everyone.
He had a career year where he pitched to a 2.15 ERA and 2.83 FIP with a ridiculous 12.1 K/9 over 67 innings pitched. His success earned him the closer role in August when Jeremy Jeffress was traded at the deadline. It was a great year, but it’s possible he won’t be in a Brewers uniform for long.
The 28-year-old right-hander could be the team’s future in the bullpen, but it’s hard to say how long that future will last. Milwaukee just finished a 73-89 season where they ended 30.5 games out of the division lead with no sign of better times to come. Thornburg will not be part of the next good Brewers team. He will be arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, and is due to hit free agency in 2020.
The $2.2 million he is projected to make isn’t budget-breaking, but it could be more than the Brewers want to spent on a guy who is sure to be a real commodity if made available. As the team continues to rebuild, they might find the prospects Thornburg could command to be more valuable than what he can do at the back of the bullpen.
In 2016, a healthy Thornburg saw a slight jump in velocity from his move to the bullpen. He also eliminated his reliance on a changeup as a third pitch and focused more intently on the fastball and curveball. These changes helped him overpower hitters, resulting in a 12.09 K/9, which was much higher than anything he’s ever done before. Thornburg unlocked something this year, and the Yankees should bring him into the fold if they can.
A replacement level starting pitcher with the Marlins for five years, the Padres selected Hand off waivers in April and used him exclusively out of the bullpen. He turned in an incredible effort of a season, pitching to a 2.92 ERA and 3.07 FIP with an 11.2 K/9 in 89.1 innings while with San Diego.
Previously a four-pitch pitcher as a starter, Hand has dropped his curveball usage and almost completely ditched his change to focus more on his slider. As a fastball-slider guy–a type the Yankees have loved for years–his strikeout numbers improved drastically. The 26-year-old left-hander would offer New York a reliable lefty option for their bullpen, something they lacked in 2016. His high ground ball tendencies would also help him fit right in at Yankee Stadium.
Hand is due to make $1.4 million in his first year of arbitration, but it’s difficult to tell if the Padres should see him as a long-term investment. The team has been terrible and most of their front office has been torn apart this offseason, so it’s possible the team could clear house at some point. As good as his season was, it’s hard to say definitively that this is who Hand is from here on, however, even a slight drop off would still be an improvement over some of the other options the Yankees have.
A former Twins prospect who has done extremely well for himself since making the move to the bullpen, Hendriks finds himself on an Oakland Athletics team that is destined to go nowhere. As he hits arbitration for the first time, he is projected to earn $1 million, but it will only go up from there. It’s more than likely the A’s could look to move him before he becomes too expensive.
The 27-year-old right-hander pitched to a 3.76 ERA but a 2.85 FIP tells us that he would have done even better if he played for anyone other than the league’s worst fielding team in 2016. His quality peripherals of 9.8 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 with limited flyball tendencies says he could be effective in the Bronx, and he might even improve behind a competent defense.
Maybe the Yankees can acquire one of them, or maybe they will have to look elsewhere. The point is that the free agent market is not their only hope to improve the 2017 bullpen. Instead of working from the top down, maybe it makes sense to plug talent in where it’s needed most. Betances should be trusted in the ninth inning, Clippard has proven to be reliable, and Warren can improve with a full season under Larry Rothschild. The Yankees could use another reliable arm in the bullpen without accruing all the risk associated with the free agent market.