There’s a saying that a team is only as strong as its weakest player. I’m not quite sure how accurate that is (after all, the 1927 Yankees had a .238 hitter on the roster), but there are some instances when the expression holds some water. The Yankees’ bullpen may be one of these cases, at least in some ways.
The backend of a bullpen will define the whole relief corps, as they tend to be the best arms and are used as such. But there’s more to a ‘pen than the set-up men and closer(s). Everyone knows about Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller, who are affectionately referred to as No-Runs DMC, but these three can’t throw every day. Also seeing innings on a daily basis are the middle relief arms. They may not be quite as important as late inning relievers, but those pitchers complete a bullpen and are necessary for a team. This part of the bullpen, the lower-level arms, are where the Yankees’ special bullpen has failed.
Sure, Yankees relievers rank first in K%, second in BB% and fWAR, and third in FIP, but they’ve failed gravely when it comes to relievers not included in no-Runs DMC. For an organization widely recognized for their ability to develop relievers and maintain excellent depth at the position, there has been a worrying lack of good relievers from the farm system.
The plan going into this spring training was for the Yankees to reach into their considerable pool of talented young, but unestablished, relievers (about eight total), throw them against the proverbial wall of spring competition, and see which stuck. If that didn’t work, they’d repeat the whole throwing humans against walls process against regular season competition until a respectable group of pitchers was created. Given the sheer number of promising arms the Yankees were working with, this strategy made plenty of sense and should have worked.
The team knew injuries would happen, but they certainly had the depth to overcome the standard wear and tear that comes from pitchers hurling baseballs at superhuman speeds over and over again. Alas, there was nothing standard about the onslaught of injuries the Yankees suffered to kick off the season.
Nick Rumbelow made it just one inning into 2016 before he needed Tommy John Surgery, Branden Pinder merely six, and at the end of spring training, Bryan Mitchell underwent foot surgery that could cost him the season. Jacob Lindgren lasted seven walk-riddled innings in the minors before going on the disabled list with an elbow injury and is without a timetable for return.
Just like that, the eight pitchers the Yankees were planning on trying out for middle relief were halved. Johnny Barbato looked like he was ready to stick, armed with an explosive fastball and deadly slider. It wasn’t until April 19th that the 23-year old gave up a run. He would then give up seven runs over the next four innings and was sent down to Triple-A on May 8th with a 5.54 ERA to his name.
Chasen Shreve was given another chance with a spot on the Opening Day roster as well, but slowly imploded due to a new inability to keep the ball in the yard. A 5.21 ERA, disabled list stint, and demotion to Triple-A crossed his name from the list as well.
Nick Goody would be called up at the end of April to try and provide some help, but he was also fairly awful and after 22 innings of 4.91 ERA ball was also banished to Triple-A. James Pazos, owner of a 1.09 ERA in Triple-A last season, didn’t even get a chance in the big leagues. He’s completely lost his control and currently has 19 walks in 22 Triple-A innings. Needless to say, a call up to the Yankees doesn’t look imminent for him, either.
With that, the Yankees had little to fill their middle innings with. Joe Girardi has been stuck with using veterans Kirby Yates (5.72 ERA) and Anthony Swarzak (5.40 ERA) to patrol these innings for now, also throwing in some of Phil Coke, Richard Bleier, and Luis Cessa. Obviously, this is far from the young and effective bullpen that was imagined prior to the start of this season, and it’s concerning to see.
Not only are the Yankees in trouble for this season, as they completely lack trustworthy options outside of The Big Three, but the next wave of future Yankees relievers have been a bit of a bust so far. With Chapman (hopefully) gone next season, there isn’t much to use behind Betances and Miller. Sure, there’s hope that talented pitchers can figure it out, but it will require a lot of positive developments for a squad that has only struggled thus far from their young relievers.