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Yankees postseason roster: Bubble pitchers

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Which pitchers should round out the bullpen come October?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

With their ticket to the ALDS punched, the Yankees can use the rest of the regular season to construct their roster for the playoffs. While the endgame relievers are established, the team is sure to carry a few flex pitchers. Pitching has been dicey all season, so the team will have tough decisions to make. Like Caitlin did with position players yesterday, I asked some of our staff writers to talk about the pitchers who could grab the final bullpen spots.

The Yankees appear to be holding an audition for Jonathan Loaisiga. What have you seen from the right-hander to justify a postseason roster spot?

Dan: Strikeouts. Since coming of the IL on August 15, Loaisiga has a 12.06 K/9, but that does not make him stand out in the Yankees’ bullpen by any means. What does raise his stock is that he is trending upward with 10 strikeouts in his last six innings. Six innings makes for a very small sample size, but other candidates like Ben Heller, Stephen Tarpley, and Jordan Montgomery don’t have much of a résumé at this point. He also hit a career-high 100 mph in his last outing, showing that he may be adjusting to the bullpen role and getting the most out of his short appearances.

John: Had you asked me a week ago whether or not Johnny Lasagna would be making the postseason roster, I would have answered with a resounding no. With the sudden thinning of the team’s pitching depth, there’s another spot for a multi-inning reliever, and Loaisiga could be that guy. Out of the bullpen, his fastball has been playing up, hitting 100 mph this past week. He does, however, walk a lot of batters and is a bit prone to the long ball. Don’t expect him to pitch in any high-leverage situations, but he could provide two or three innings in middle relief if a starter gets knocked out early.

Josh: I’m pretty much the low guy on Loaisiga: his strikeouts and groundballs are down, and his walks are up. The Yankees obviously really like his fastball, which, fine, whatever. It has a fairly high spin rate, but a lack of control leaves him as essentially Rick Porcello—not really a guy you want pitching in the highest leverage spots.

CC Sabathia will pitch out of the bullpen in the final two series, according to Aaron Boone. Can the veteran make for an effective lefty specialist?

Dan: In 101 plate appearances against lefties this season, CC has held them to a .200 batting average against and a .273 on-base percentage. Those numbers are in the context of starting and working multiple times through the order. The part that is concerning is that some of the contact has been very hard, as they are slugging .456, with seven home runs in that stretch.

My biggest concern with Sabathia coming out of the bullpen is regarding how much time he’s going to need to get ready. As a starter with failing knees, he has built a routine over the last several seasons that allows him to get ready for the start of a game. If the Yankees think he can neutralize Yordan Alvarez or another lefty in a big spot, how long will he need to get ready? With only two auditions, I don’t know if CC the reliever will function more as a guy who can plan on coming into a clean inning, or if he will be able to work through the process of getting ready quickly in the bullpen.

John: I think this week is going to tell us, when he comes out of the bullpen for the first time since his only previous relief appearance in Game Five of the 2011 ALDS. He’s been able to shut down left-handed batters at a much higher rate than righties. That said, we’re asking a former workhorse to switch into a one-to-two batter role, with a completely different style of preparation. He might even be entering the game in a jam! While CC would probably tell you that these things do not matter, in truth, he has never had to deal with either of these elements before, and we don’t know how he will respond.

Josh: The lefty specialist thing is really interesting. The Twins especially have some lefty bats that you’d want to try and neutralize: Max Kepler is first and foremost, along lesser hitters like Jason Castro and Eddie Rosario. The problem with CC in particular is asking a guy that’s never really worked out of the bullpen to completely change his routine. Can Sabathia warm up, stay loose, and come in to face one batter? After 20 years of starting, I’m not sure he can change his preparation so quickly and so effectively. Factor in how much trouble he’s had with hard contact, and how powerful a team the Twins are? Yeah, Sabathia scares me in that role.

If CC makes the roster, what does that mean for other candidates such as J.A. Happ and Stephen Tarpley?

Dan: If Happ is healthy, then he is on the postseason roster. He has pitched much better in his last five outings. He also is stretched out as a starter and can be counted on to help preserve the bullpen if a game is turning into a blowout in either direction. I don’t think Tarpley is making the roster unless he just pitches lights out the rest of the way. He currently has a WHIP of 2.14 and an ERA of 7.36 on the season. Even in Sunday’s game against Toronto, he managed to load the bases with an eight run lead and threw a ton of pitches. It was hardly an outing that will inspire confidence from the front office.

John: In my opinion, absolutely nothing. Sabathia’s role on the roster is just as much out of deference to the guy than performance, as Tarpley would almost certainly be a better option as a lefty specialist. Happ, who has quietly put together a very good month of September, will give the Yankees more flexibility, as he can work either as a multi-inning reliever or as a starter if necessary.

Josh: I think everything will become clear once the team confirms the rotation plans. We know that Boone said the team is going to get creative with its pitching, and the bullpen is certainly deep enough to do that. If they want to have a conventional starter begin games, it feels like those four will be James Paxton, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and Happ. Tarpley I guess could factor into the remaining pitchers, but I can’t imagine he’d get on a roster that already includes Britton and Sabathia as left-handers.

For all the ire he draws, Luis Cessa has had a serviceable season out of the bullpen. What are the odds he makes the ALDS roster?

Dan: I’d say pretty good at this point. Cessa is sixth on the 2019 Yankees in innings pitched. He has had two small slumps this season, one in June and one in August, but has bounced back again. In fact, he’s only allowed one earned run in his last 14.1 innings.

John: At the moment, we do not know whether the Yankees will be carrying 12 or 13 pitchers. What we do know, however, is that Cessa’s spot on the postseason roster is fairly safe, as he is either 11th or 12th on the pitching staff’s pecking order. Cessa has served as a quality multi-inning reliever this year, and that can be a big difference-maker.

Josh: I think he has the inside track over Tarpley, but he and Loiaisiga are pretty close. Cessa has better command, but strikes fewer batters out. You don’t want to issue free passes in the postseason, but you also don’t want balls in play doing weird things. Cessa’s actually been worse by FIP and only a hair better by K-BB% over last year, so I’m not sure he should be trusted with more than mop-up work anyway.

If Cessa does make the team, what do you envision as his role?

Dan: Cessa has been the bodyguard of the bullpen this season, protecting the high-leverage arms from having to come into blowout-type games. That is the same role he will have in the 2019 postseason. Cessa will pitch if the Yankees have a big lead, big deficit, or if the game is in extra innings. While Cessa has pitched better this season, he still isn’t getting the call with Nelson Cruz up in a big spot.

John: Despite his success this year, he still is ranked at the bottom of the bullpen. Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, and Chad Green are above him for one-inning work, and Happ (along with whichever starters happen to be rested that day) will probably rank above him for multi-inning duty. For the most part, Yankees fans will either be very happy before he enters the game, or very sad. Chances are, his presence and performance in the game will not have a major impact on that feeling. That said, those innings need to be pitched, and keeping the actual high-leverage guys fresh is important.

Josh: See above.

Lastly, who is YOUR guy? Which bubble pitcher should make the roster and why? Who are you really pulling for?

Dan: My guy is Loaisiga, because I think his bullpen role on the team is becoming defined, and he is on the cusp of thriving. Next season he could be in the bullpen as long as he is healthy. The 2019 postseason might be the first significant chapter in Loaisiga’s Yankees story.

John: I’d be very surprised if anybody else says this, but Nestor Cortes Jr. The lefty has had a very up-and-down season, peaking in July as the long man in bullpen games, although his performance of late has been...bad, to say the least.

In all honesty, all the numbers say that Cortes should not be on the postseason roster. If he were left off, I wouldn’t argue. That said, there’s something to be said for being able to throw out a guy with a completely different style of pitching than the overpowering relievers the Yankees have at the back of their bullpen. Call it a gut feeling, but I could see Cortes finding success in October if given the chance.

Josh: I don’t know what the plan is with Jordan Montgomery, but I would prefer he work, either as a piggyback to Happ or Severino, or even as the mop-up guy at the back of the bullpen. I have so little trust in the other three bubble pitchers, but at least we’ve seen Gumby have a reliable ability to get batters out.