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Incremental upgrades could boost a top-heavy Yankees bullpen

The Yankees are smart to keep their eyes on the middle relief market.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees came into the offseason with the goal of upgrading their bullpen. Brian Cashman depleted the Yankees’ reliable relief pitching depth during last summer’s trade deadline sell-off. They addressed this by re-signing top closer Aroldis Chapman to a record-shattering $86 million contract in mid-December.

Things have gone quiet in the weeks since the Chapman signing. Cashman briefly indicated that he’s monitoring the periphery of the pitching market. There are rumblings that the team checked in on Jose Quintana. The most consistent rumors, however, place the Yankees in the mix for additional bullpen arms. The club has been frequently connected to the likes of Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins.

At first glance, this seems strange. The Yankees have a number of holes to patch in the rotation. They added the game’s premier impact reliever to compliment Dellin Betances, himself a three-time All-Star. The bullpen appears situated. Or is it? A closer look reveals that the Yankees’ relief corps might be shakier than it seems.

FanGraphs and Dan Szymborski published the 2017 ZiPS projections for the Yankees last week. Although not a crystal ball, ZiPS does a fine job of projecting a baseline for players. The program didn’t look kindly on the vast majority of the Yankees’ bullpen arms. In fact, Chapman and Betances project as the only two above-average relievers.

The middle relief corps proves the most suspect. Tommy Layne, Chasen Shreve, Richard Bleier, Ben Heller, and Johnny Barbato combine to a projected 0.4 WAR. For comparison’s sake, Tyler Clippard projects to a 0.5 WAR on his own. These projections aren’t inspiring at all.

This isn’t too surprising. Layne had a nice run with the Yankees down the stretch last season, but he’s strictly a matchup reliever at this point of his career. Shreve proved that his success in the first-half of 2015 was the exception, not the norm. Bleier has an alarmingly low career strikeout rate for a reliever. Heller and Barbato are young, which is promising, but both struggled during their brief stints in the majors. The low projections are grounded in past performance.

The Yankees can’t expect much length from their starting pitchers. Middle relief will play a prominent role in the 2017 season. With that in mind, it makes sense to explore possible upgrades. Logan is no longer the pitcher he was with the Yankees from 2010 - 2013, but he’s turned consecutive 0.6 bWAR seasons the last two years. Blevins was also worth 0.6 bWAR last season. They’re not the most exciting names, but they would boost the middle relief staff.

The heavy lifting is done at this point of the offseason. Teams are now focusing on incremental upgrades. For the Yankees, starting pitching proves the area most in need of a boost. If rotation help doesn’t come, however, the front office should buttress the top-heavy bullpen. After all, if the Yankees are to succeed in 2017, somebody has to hand Betances and Chapman the lead.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.