For the past two seasons, the defining characteristic of the New York Yankees was their bullpen. Triple-digit heat, strikeouts, and shutdown innings were a given, with the late frames of the 2015 and 2016 clubs being dominated by the likes of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, Justin Wilson, Chasen Shreve, and Aroldis Chapman. Now, three out of those five relievers are gone, and another one is sitting in Triple-A after a poor second half of 2015 and 2016. The Yankees bullpen has immediately gone from first to, well, almost worst, and just as the team needs to rebuild their offense and rotation, the bullpen is a project.
Luckily, New York does have a bullpen anchor that provides the perfect starting point. 6’8” behemoth Dellin Betances has been striking fear into opposing batters’ hearts for three straight seasons now, and despite a ‘higher’ ERA (currently at 2.45), the 28-year-old is arguably on his way to the best season of his career. Under team control through 2019, Betances is a bullpen workhorse who is just about as good as it gets.
The problem is that Betances’ job as closer is pointless if the Yankees never have a lead for him to protect. A lost lead could come from poor offense or starting pitching, sure, but it may be a better bet for the problems to come from the remainder of the bullpen. That’s because, to put it lightly, the rest of the Yankees ‘pen is a liability.
Currently, the next best option in Joe Girardi’s famous binder is Tyler Clippard, an increasingly homer-prone flyball pitcher, now throwing at Yankee Stadium. The 31-year old previously has three straight seasons with an ERA under 3.00, but that mark has jumped to 4.19 in 2016. He’s still striking out plenty of batters, so improvement can be expected, but Clippard has the look of a middle reliever at best.
The veteran is under contract through next season, but shouldn’t be in the Yankees’ long term plans. Also falling into this category are Richard Bleier and Anthony Swarzak, who can fill up some low-leverage middle innings now but don’t have a real place in the center of a contender’s bullpen.
The Yankees’ bullpen will presumably look like the rest of the club over the next couple seasons: future-focused with young talent who should turn into proven assets. This concept is much easier said than done, though, especially when it comes to relief pitchers. A similar strategy was adopted going into this season behind the big three; a bevy of young relief pitchers who were successful in the minors competed for jobs in spring training, and the Yankees hoped a few would stick to give the Yankees a thoroughly dominant (and relatively cheap) bullpen.
Unfortunately, that plan went horribly awry. Jacob Lindgren, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow soon needed Tommy John surgery, and Bryan Mitchell was knocked out for much of the season with a toe injury…all before the end of spring training. Nick Goody has struck hitters out and limited walks, but home runs have victimized him and he currently has a 4.26 ERA. James Pazos has lost the strikezone and currently has 19 walks in 22 Triple-A innings. He hasn’t pitched in the big leagues. Barbato started strong before everything went south—he was banished to Triple-A with a 5.54 ERA to his name in early May.
The Yankees started with seven promising young arms and all of them ‘failed’. There is hope yet, but the early returns have been extremely disappointing. This fact makes the future of the Yankees’ bullpen uncertain, but the team is gearing up for round two.
J.P. Feyereisen and Ben Heller, acquired at the trade deadline, both show promise, and the Yankees have depth in the minor leagues. Chad Green and Luis Cessa have bounced between the rotation and the bullpen, and the team still has hope in Barbato and Goody. Mitchell is making a recovery from his toe injury, and should be back this season. All seven pitchers are considered near-MLB ready and could be in the majors come September. In addition, Jonathan Holder and Tyler Webb have dominated the high minors and are now in Triple-A.
This sounds like a strong crop of names, especially when one considers Adam Warren’s presence as well. All of these arms are talented, and on paper, the Yankees’ plan to give these pitchers a shot and see who have the talent to make it in the big leagues seems like a wise plan.
This strategy is far from foolproof though, especially after seeing what happened in 2016. “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again” is likely the motto the Yankees will live by with their bullpen, and maybe the team won’t encounter such bad luck this time. Still, it would be a good idea for the Yankees to buy some insurance by dipping back into the free agent market in the near future, as that may be the best way for them to build up the bullpen. As a whole, the Yankees may have a roster developed from ‘homegrown players,” but in the bullpen, supplementing that with free agents (and maybe even trades) might do wonders.