Despite a rough start to the season, the Yankees’ bullpen has been one of the team’s biggest strengths on the year. Yankees relievers have posted a 3.92 ERA, and opposing hitters have just a .690 OPS against them; additionally, they are fourth in all of baseball with 10.12 K/9 innings. Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, and Zack Britton have been even better, posting a combined ERA of 2.16 — all four of them, it can be argued, deserve trips to Cleveland on July 9 for the All-Star Game.
And, due to Dellin Betance being sidelined since he opened the season on the IL with shoulder soreness, the bullpen has the potential to be even better. His innings have been filled by Stephen Tarpley, David Hale, and Nestor Cortes Jr — and admirably so for the most part, I may add — but a collection of journeymen and rookies are no replacement for a four-time All-Star reliever. While Hale and Cortes have been able to serve as followers on bullpen days, they cannot provide the high-leverage innings that Betances can, which has led to an over-reliance on the other four elite relievers.
At first, that might seem like a ridiculous statement. All four of Chapman, Ottavino, Kahnle, and Britton would be closers on most other teams, and most teams would push the struggling Chad Green as far as possible to get him to return to his 2017-2018 self. However, the Yankees’ starters have put the bullpen under high stress; as a whole, they have provided a little more than 5 innings per start, and five starters — Luis Severino, Domingo German, CC Sabathia, Jonathan Loaisiga, and James Paxton — have all spent time on the IL. For these reasons, manager Aaron Boone and the Yankees have had to rely on their bullpen for a large number of innings so far, many of them of the high-leverage variety.
While Betances’ return from injury would help lighten the load on the “Big Four” at the back end of the bullpen, his recent setback puts the Yankees’ bullpen into a sort of limbo. While the bullpen has, for the most part, been the dominant force it was expected to be, the team’s reliance on it makes it susceptible to injury and underperformance. Despite all the injuries, the team has largely avoided injuries to its top relievers, but we have seen some cracks in the armor, such as Sunday afternoon’s bullpen meltdown against Cleveland. If injuries occur or these meltdowns become a pattern, it might become time for the Yankees to look into the relief pitchers that are available on the trade market.
That is not to say that Brian Cashman needs to go out there and pursue a top relief arm right away. Far from it, in fact. Dellin Betance’s MRI might come back clean, and he could resume his rehab assignment in the next few of weeks. Or maybe Chad Green could continue his resurgence and return to being the elite firefighter that he once was. Either way, with the lack of rotation depth, the Yankees’ bullpen needs to continue to be the strength that it has been, and that requires taking a load off of its top four arms. Although many fans are clamoring for starting pitching help, another bullpen arm might not be amiss.