The depth of the Yankees’ bullpen has long been one of the unit’s strong suits. As currently constructed, six of the eight spots in the team’s bullpen are all but set: Aroldis Chapman is is the closer, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Tommy Kahnle are the set-up men, and Chad Green and Luis Cessa are the versatile middle relievers.
That leaves two spots up for grabs in the relief corps. One of them will probably go to an established big leaguer, either by re-signing Dellin Betances or acquiring a replacement such as Blake Treinen. At that point, the Yankees’ bullpen will arguably be the deepest in the league, going seven strong.
That still leaves one open spot, which could go to an up-and-comer in the Yankees’ minor league system. While the Bombers will undoubtedly utilize the Scranton Shuttle for their final spot at times this season, which players might get the first crack at the spot?
At this point, the Yankees probably hope that Jonathan Loaisiga can take the position. After two years as a top prospect in the system, the team hasn’t seen Loaisiga fully put it together. For all of his high strikeout totals, they’ve been undone by an equal amount of long innings due to high walk totals and nibbling around the strike zone.
Loaisiga has done better as a reliever than a starter in his career, in part because it lets him focus on his two primary pitches, the fastball and the curveball. Although Loaisiga’s curveball has been exceptional in his brief big-league trial, his fastball has been lit up to the tune of a lifetime .329 batting average against, and his changeup hasn’t been much better (.285). Loaisiga hasn’t been able to establish three consistent pitches as a starter, but his stuff plays up far better in the bullpen. He could also help provide length for the team as a long reliever if needed.
If Loaisiga still isn’t ready, or the Yankees want to try him as a starter again, Ben Heller could be an interesting option. Heller was somewhat surprisingly recalled when CC Sabathia went on the injured list during the 2019 playoffs, so the Yankees obviously see something in him after hanging onto him through Tommy John surgery.
Heller is intriguing because he strikes out a high volume of batters (over 30% in the majors and minors in 2019) while also not walking too many, he had the second-lowest walk rate of the five Yankees relievers in this piece. At 28 years old and finally fully healthy, Heller might be looking to capitalize on his best chance yet to make an impact in the Yankees’ bullpen.
Jonathan Holder missed most of the 2019 season with a shoulder injury, but has the most big-league experience of any of the candidates. Although Holder struggles with the home-run ball at times and is coming off of injury, the Yankees might want to give him one more chance to bounce back to his 2018 form, when he was a reliable member of the team’s bullpen.
If the Yankees want to go with a high-risk, high-reward option, Stephen Tarpley or Mike King could also be in the running. Tarpley gets an extremely high whiff rate on his slider (41.9%), but also walks way too many batters (5.47 BB/9) and had an absurd 44.9% hard-hit rate in 24.2 innings. King is the real wild card here, after he earned a late-season call-up. Still, it would probably be best for King’s development to stay in the rotation.
While all five of these players will probably see time with the big club this year, I’d bet on Heller or Holder getting the job first. The Yankees have stuck with these guys through injury, and they fit the role of the last guy in the bullpen well. In the meantime, Loaisiga is in no-man’s land; he either has to figure out his third pitch to become a starter, or scrap it to stick as a reliever.
The eighth and final reliever on Opening Day may not seem like a big job, but it could become one as injuries pile up and opportunities arise. The Yankees have a host of candidates for the job, and just one of them stepping forward into Aaron Boone’s bullpen circle of trust could be a massive boost for the group that is already the team’s biggest strength.