A few weeks ago, I argued that the Yankees had the ability to take their time with Aroldis Chapman’s injury timeline and that the remaining relievers would be able to step up and take his place, unlike when the Yankees were left high and dry when Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Jordan Montgomery went down.
Admittedly, I was wrong.
While that bullpen did still look good on paper and there were some encouraging trends, paper and trends don’t win ballgames. The players do. And since Chapman’s recurring knee tendinitis became too much to bear, the Yankees’ relievers haven’t been good.
Dellin Betances has taken over as the quasi-closer, and while he hasn’t been truly bad, he also has gotten into a few too many jams and made games too interesting in the ninth inning. Additionally, David Robertson has been up and down and Jonathan Holder has given up runs in three of his last five outings. The guys who were supposed to hold down the fort with Chapman out haven’t quite done their jobs.
The relievers who were struggling the most when Chapman went to the DL have actually picked things up, though. Zach Britton has been much better lately; he’s throwing more strikes and his ground ball rate is back up. Chad Green has been used more in a multi-inning role, and he’s been solid too. However, it takes more than two guys to make up a bullpen.
While Aaron Boone doesn’t necessarily designate his relievers on an inning-by-inning basis, his bullpen hierarchy has been messed up with Chapman out. If Betances is now the closer, who is the lockdown 8th-inning guy? Britton has taken on that role, which has given Robertson and Holder more middle inning relief appearances than they’re used to.
This in turn, has increased the presence of Tommy Kahnle, A.J. Cole and Jonathan Loaisiga, who quite frankly, aren’t reliable at this point. Every time it seems that Kahnle has turned a corner, he takes two steps backward. Cole has run out of his early-season magic, and while Loaisiga is an intriguing prospect, this is still a kid who has never pitched a game in Triple-A. He’s got the stuff, but consistency still eludes him sometimes.
This is the real problem in the Yankees’ bullpen. Last year, Tommy Kahnle played a huge role down the stretch. He even notched a postseason save last year! However, the club hasn’t been able to find a new Kahnle. The bullpen, right now at least, is a man short.
Two men can help fill this void. Obviously, Chapman’s impending return restores order in the bullpen and gives the Yankees their best relief pitcher again. The second option is Justus Sheffield, who is still being used in relief at Triple-A. He will likely remain in Scranton until their playoff run is over, but with the Yankees scuffling, their bullpen running on empty, and Brian Cashman on the record saying that Sheffield will be recalled, I’d advise Sheffield to stay close to his phone in the coming days.
Any player who goes down with injury is technically irreplaceable, even if their roster spot does get repurposed. The Yankees haven’t been able to replace Chapman, and it has cost them. However, the Yankees can’t rush him back just because things look bleak. We’ve seen many times the dangers of bringing players back too early (Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird), and the Yankees may be finally understanding that it’s too risky to keep doing that. CC Sabathia recently had a phantom DL stint in August where he wasn’t truly hurt but just took a breather and rested his achy knee. Sabathia has mostly looked like his old self since then, so maybe Chapman’s rest period will refresh him just long enough for the playoffs.
If the Yankees are going to make any noise in October, their bullpen is going to have to pitch better, and the impending return of Aroldis Chapman would help out a ton. Still, the Yankees have to be smart. They can’t bring him back too early and risk re-injury, but if he truly can return next week for a little tune up before the postseason, the Yankees would benefit greatly. There was a real chance that Chapman wouldn’t come back this year, but his return might give the Yankees bullpen the spark that it needs to get back on track come October.