The Yankees have repeatedly built one of the top bullpens in baseball over the last few season. A new rule limiting September roster sizes, however, will cause bullpen-reliant pitching staffs to become more vulnerable heading into the pressure cooker that is the playoffs.
All reports indicate that the Yankees are placing a priority on starting pitching this offseason, with one of the best free agent starting pitching classes in recent years. They must capitalize on this market to preserve a bullpen advantage and protect their high-leverage assets from overuse and overexposure.
Beginning in 2020, teams will no longer be allowed to increase their rosters to 40 players in September. This is a rule that the Yankees have taken advantage of, expanding their active major-league roster size into the mid-30s while giving their manager numerous additional arms capable of negotiating the late-season innings. In an effort to speed up games, and stop managers from an endless cycle of pitching changes, rosters will be limited to 28 players in September. For playoff teams built to rely heavily on their bullpen, this will prevent teams from resting their bullpens as much as they may like.
The 2019 Yankees rested their best relievers down the stretch. With a big division lead throughout much of the second half and into September, the Yankees backed down the workload for their four best relief pitchers in September. Aroldis Chapman, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, and Zack Britton all had season lows in appearances and innings pitched in the final month of the regular season.
While the rule change will be a factor every season, the 2020 schedule provides an immediate incentive to add more starters. Over the course of a five- or seven-game playoff series, teams can lock in on a relief pitcher’s limited arsenal, and it was clearly on the mind of one Yankees reliever following the ALCS. "The more times you face a guy, obviously, as relievers, you get uber-exposed,” Zack Britton told a reporter for The Athletic. Britton continued, saying “It’s the one thing I always say: that’s why we’re relievers, not starters, You overexpose guys, it’s inevitable that eventually they’re going to get got a little bit.”
The Yankees finish the 2020 season with 10 of their last 13 games against likely playoff competition in Tampa Bay and Houston. While there are many ways that the season could play out, it is possible that the AL East, home-field advantage, and even just making the playoffs could be on the line over the last two weeks of September. The Yankees could also have a replay of 2019, where they had the division title locked up relatively early, but without the expanded rosters, it is certain that both teams will get extra first hand looks at the key members of the Yankees bullpen right before the playoffs begin.
Even without the scheduling quirk, the Yankees are going to have innings on their mind throughout the 2020 season. Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery are both coming off seasons where they threw fewer than 50 competitive innings between the minors and majors. There is a very real chance that both hit a wall with their performance, and that the team will want to limit their work load with a goal of playing late into October.
Beyond Severino and Montgomery’s long term health concerns, the Yankees will be looking to avoid triggering J.A. Happ’s $17 million vesting option as well, should the lefty remain on the team next year. It may seem easy to say that Happ will never reach 27 starts or 165 innings pitched, but without the extra September arms to absorb innings down the stretch, Happ could be knocking right on the door for his innings totals.
Help from the minors could also run into an innings wall as recent 40-man roster additions Mike King and Nick Nelson are both coming off injury-shortened seasons. Top pitching prospect Deivi Garcia has yet to work a full minor league season as a starter after beginning the 2018 season in June, and moving to a relief role in August of this year.
Enter the elite starters on the market. Gerrit Cole has thrown over 200 innings four times in his career, including the last three seasons. He is considered by many to be the best pitcher in the game, and is exactly the type of pitcher that every team wants. Stephen Strasburg does not have a reputation as an innings eater, but he has averaged 168 innings a season since 2012. Madison Bumgarner comes with a tremendous postseason resume, and rebounded from two injury-shortened seasons to throw 207.2 innings in 2019. Even Dallas Keuchel has thrown over 200 innings multiple times in his career, and as recently as his last full season in 2018. Bottom line, just sign Gerrit Cole.
While it is always good to have an elite bullpen, the time is right for the Yankees to focus on signing starting pitching. The new rules for 2020 will only emphasize the need for starters who can work through lineups multiple times. Teams will not be able to rely on expanded rosters to eat the innings in September blowouts or when they want to give their relievers an extra day off. In addition, the Yankees are staring at a season where they are finishing the season against likely playoff teams, and numerous members of their starting rotation are facing situations where their expected innings will be limited. Yankees fans don’t need another rationale for pushing their team to chase Cole or Strasburg, but there really does seem to be a plethora of reasons pointing the team in that direction.