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Yankees maintain MLB’s most dominant bullpen by signing Adam Ottavino

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Cashman keeps his word, and in the process may have successfully assembled the greatest bullpen ever.

The Yankees have never issued #0. Will Adam Ottavino be the first?
The Yankees have never issued #0. Will Adam Ottavino be the first?
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Following his club’s Division Series elimination at the hands of the rival Red Sox in October, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman laid out four key objectives for the offseason: improve the starting rotation, maintain the dominant bullpen, find a replacement for the injured Didi Gregorius, and trade Sonny Gray. Cashman took a step toward accomplishing that second objective when he signed Zach Britton a couple of weeks ago, and he just nailed it down by signing Adam Ottavino.

The 33-year-old right-hander produced 2.6 WAR pitching for the Colorado Rockies last year. That figure represents the third-best production among non-closer relief pitchers in MLB. For the sake of comparison, consider that Chad Green led Yankees setup men with 2.3 WAR last season and 2.7 WAR during his historic 2017 breakout campaign.

Ottavino’s impact on the Yankees’ roster

As I wrote just a few days ago, Ottavino’s acquisition will help ensure that the Yankees maintain their greatest strength. The pitching staff set a major-league record in 2018 by averaging 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in high-leverage situations. The improvement of one strikeout per nine from 2017 allowed New York to re-take the record from the Indians. The Bombers held it in 2016 (9.6) and ‘15 (9.5).

Last season, Ottavino struck out 12.98 batters per nine in high-leverage situations. Only eight pitchers in baseball (minimum 60 innings overall) displayed more punch-out power in such scenarios: Josh Hader (16.54), Matt Barnes (15.49), Dellin Betances (15.16), Edwin Diaz (15.16), Craig Kimbrel (13.5), Brad Peacock (13.5), Domingo German (13.17), and David Robertson (13.16). With Robertson departing for Philadelphia, it makes perfect sense that the Yankees would replace him with a flamethrower who appears to be following in his footsteps.

On paper, the Yankees bullpen is even better right now than it was heading into the 2018 campaign. A year ago, the Bombers’ relef corps had a pecking order headed by closer Aroldis Chapman, and followed by four-time All-Star Dellin Betances, Robertson, and Green. Uncertainty lurked beyond that, with Adam Warren, Chasen Shreve, Domingo German, Jonathan Holder, Luis Cessa, and Tommy Kahnle competing for the remaining spots. Truthfully, there was a lack of confidence in both Chapman and Betances as well. In 2017, the former lost his closer job due to ineffectiveness, while the latter essentially got benched during the Yankees’ 13-game postseason run for the same reason.

Both Chapman and Betances returned to their familiar dominance in 2018, and will now be backed by Green, Ottavino, and a healthy Britton – who is just three years removed from one of the greatest seasons ever produced by a reliever. That’s an absolutely eye-popping quintet.

Barring further moves, Holder, German, Kahnle, Cessa, and Stephen Tarpley will vie for the remaining two spots in the bullpen. Tarpley was so impressive in limited action at the end of last season that he actually made the team’s postseason roster. The Yankees bullpen portends to be dominant indeed, with intriguing depth beyond the big names.

Ottavino’s impact on the Yankees’ payroll

Ottavino’s $27 million three-year pact is just one million per year less than what MLB Trade Rumors predicted he’d fetch this winter. With Ottavino’s salary included, the Yankees’ projected 2019 payroll for luxury tax purposes stands at approximately $221,017,500. That figure includes $150.255 million committed to the 11 players under contract, $45.4625 million for the eight arbitration agreements that were announced, $5.1 million that MLB Trade Rumors estimates will be awarded to Luis Severino in arbitration, and $5.7 million for pre-arbitration players under team control and 40-man roster players in the minors. It also includes the estimated $14.5 million in player benefits.

The $221.0175 million payroll estimate puts the Yankees over the $206 million luxury tax line by about $15,017,500. If that ends up being their final payroll, then they would pay a 20% tax on the overage. In that case, their projected penalty would be about $3 million.

The team can add around $4.9 million more to the payroll without seeing an increase in their 2019 tax rate. Once their payroll hits $226 million, they would pay a 32% tax on every dollar spent over that $226 million threshold. If their payroll exceeds $246 million, they would be required to cough up a 62.5% tax on every dollar spent above that $246 million threshold.

As I wrote previously, the Yankees can sign Ottavino, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado to a combined $70 million per year and end up with a CBT payroll of about $282 million for the 2019 season. With their revenues expected to eclipse $680 million, the Yankees would still be well below league average in terms of percentage of revenue spent on payroll.

Whether the Yankees do that or not remains to be seen. So far, Cashman is having a very productive offseason, with Ottavino’s signing being the latest big move. Let’s hope it continues.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: Ottavino wore #0 in Colorado, but the Yankees have never issued that uniform number. Will Ottavino be the first? We thought we’d seen the last of the single digits. Perhaps we were wrong? Stay tuned.