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Yankees triple down and sign Adam Ottavino

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The Yankees have signed Adam Ottavino to cement their brand of bullpen excellence and long-term flexibility.

Colorado Rockies v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

The Yankees have just completed another signing, locking down free-agent right-handed reliever Adam Ottavino. ESPN’s Jeff Passan first reported the agreement, while Fancred’s Jon Heyman reported the terms: three years and $27 million. With Ottavino, the team’s super-bullpen is now fully operational.

Ottavino is coming off a sensational season with the Rockies. He struck out nearly 13 batters per nine innings, maintaining a 2.43 ERA across 77.2 innings. That run prevention figure looks even more eye-popping from a league- and park-adjusted standpoint; his 53 ERA- ranked eighth in baseball among relievers.

That kind of production is what the Yankees are looking for as they add the 33-year-old Ottavino to their star-studded relief corps. Coming closely on the heels of Zach Britton’s own three-year deal, Ottavino’s signing sees the Yankees tripling down in multiple ways. Not only are they tripling down on bullpen dominance, but they appear to be going all-in with their strategy of spreading money around in free agency by signing several players to short-term deals, while avoiding long-term commitments to star-caliber free agents.

Truly, we’ve never seen a team try to construct a bullpen this monstrous. The group already featured four potential relief aces after adding Britton to the trio of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Chad Green. Signing Ottavino brings the Yankees up to five possible closer-caliber relievers, with most teams hoping to happen across one or two.

It’s hard to overstate the gap the Yankees are putting between themselves and the rest of the league in terms of bullpen superiority. Prior to the Ottavino acquisition, the Yankees still projected as by far the best bullpen in baseball according to FanGraphs’ current depth chart projections. If we simply add in Steamer’s projection for Ottavino to the Yankees’ forecast, the Yankees’ bullpen would project as a full 2.7 WAR better than the second-place Astros. That gap would be the same as the distance between the Astros and the 19th-ranked White Sox.

This is consistent with the Yankees’ strategy in recent years. They added David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to an excellent bullpen prior to the 2017 trade deadline, and jumped on Britton this past July. The team clearly believes that shutdown relief work can be a difference maker, especially in the playoffs when every inning is a high-leverage inning.

Yet signing Ottavino helps the Yankees remain consistent in another crucial way. Both Ottavino and Britton came on three-year deals. The Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu for two years and $24 million. They brought in Troy Tulowitzki for one year at the league minimum. They re-signed veterans CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner on one-year contracts, and also traded for James Paxton, who sits two seasons from free agency.

The Yankees seem to be prioritizing some sort of long-term flexibility by committing themselves exclusively to players over short terms. They have stayed away thus far from the superstar free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, that might require decade-long contracts. They haven’t even targeted players in the tier below that, such as Patrick Corbin for six years, or the likes of Dallas Keuchel, Nathan Eovaldi, Yusei Kikuchi, and Craig Kimbrel in the four-to-five-year range.

From a business standpoint, this tactic makes sense; the Yankees, in all likelihood, will maximize profits this way, by keeping their long-term books open and focusing on shorter, cheaper veterans. From a baseball standpoint, well, they appear to be leaving opportunities to make high-impact moves on the table.

This deal doesn’t close the book on any pursuit of Harper or Machado, but it does push the Yankees further over the luxury tax threshold, something that’s sure to make Hal Steinbrenner shudder. In any event, the Yankees are better today. They got better by remaining consistent. They tripled down on their brand, solidifying their all-world bullpen, and continuing to make lower-profile, less splashy moves in free agency.