Regular readers will know that this winter I’ve firmly stood for the Yankees flexing their financial muscles. I was the unofficial PSA Patrick Corbin stan, and I think that missing out on both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper would be borderline dereliction of duty on the part of the Yankee front office.
That belief changes when I think about the relief pitching available in free agency. The big names on the market are David Robertson, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller and Adam Ottavino, and with at least two open slots in the bullpen, we should expect the Yankees to spend on at least one of these Big Four, right?
Maybe not, actually. I think there’s an argument out there that the Yankees would be best served to avoid the free agent relief market completely, and focus on in-house replacements.
First of all, the Yankees have a lot of pitching depth in the minor league system. Chance Adams, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Stephen Tarpley all made their MLB debuts in 2018. Mike King, Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu are all expected to be MLB-ready in 2019, although that of course doesn’t guarantee they’ll actually see time on the roster.
The thing is, and I’ve made this point before, none of these pitchers are high FV-type prospects. The Yankees have a lot of depth when it comes to pitching, but not much upside. Fortunately for where the Yankees are right now, that lack of upside should make it more agreeable for at least a couple of those six prospects to become average or better MLB relievers.
I wrote a year ago about Chance Adams’ likelihood to end up in the bullpen, and after 2018 nothing really has changed my mind about that. Of those six prospects in the system, I think that while they all deserve the opportunity to start, only King and Loaisiga really show the tools to be an MLB starter. That means that it’s probable that four guys can compete for those two open bullpen slots.
Why do this? To start, relief pitching is the easiest element of a team to develop. The Yankees have had a long run of success with building their own relievers, and while it’s fair to criticize the organization for failing to develop good starting pitching, a natural consequence of that is the surplus of homegrown relievers the team seems to be able to churn out at will. Combine this with the fact that stuff really does “play up” in the bullpen, and so-so starters can become ace relievers when working an inning at a time, and it stands to reason that some of the 40-ish FV pitchers in the Yankee system would be much better suited to relief roles.
As well, this strategy mitigates the risks of free agency. Relief pitchers by nature are the most volatile of position groups, mostly because they work so few innings relative to starters. Two or three bad innings for a guy making 30 starts isn’t even a radar blip. Three bad innings from a 50-inning reliever can dramatically change how we view their entire season. The usual lack of a third pitch also contributes to this - if a starter’s secondary breaking ball isn’t working by the fourth inning, he can usually work around it. If David Robertson doesn’t have a good feel for his curve in an appearance, it becomes very difficult for him to get his requisite three outs.
The other thing that allowing in-house options to take over the bullpen gives you is options, in a literal sense. With guys like Dellin Betances in his final arbitration year and Aroldis Chapman already on a free agent contract, the Yankees run low on guys who have minor league options. Options come in handy for two reasons. First, we all remember that ridiculous stretch of 2018 where the Yankees had 41 games in 41 days, right? The toughest part of navigating that schedule was keeping fresh arms available, which is what having the ability to send players to Scranton for ten days gives you.
The other benefit to maintaining minor league options is they help mitigate the risk of volatility. Wouldn’t it have been nice to send Chapman down for a week last summer when he really struggled to find the strike zone? The Yankees could have moved him to Triple-A, given him a largely risk-free environment to work out his concentration or mechanical issues, and there’s a good chance the problems would have been fixed without Chapman’s ineffectiveness potentially costing the Yankees real games.
The same applies to a hypothetical world where Adams isn’t performing for a stretch. Instead of being forced to keep him on the 25-man roster, you send him down, call up one of the other guys we’ve talked about, and hopefully keep on trucking.
There’s risk in every contract, and the risk is part of the pricing of that contract. Maybe Ottavino or D-Rob are signed and never have any issues, play out their contracts at acceptable levels of performance, and all this is for naught. Comparing the risk of yet another free agent reliever, and the constraints it places on the roster, though, has me awful gun-shy, and wondering why Albert Abreu isn’t a better option.