The Yankees’ bullpen is once again one of the biggest strengths of the team, and one of the most dominant in baseball. They have finished with a WAR of 9.3 over the past two seasons but look to fall short of that mark this year having a pace of about 8.0 WAR. However, even with the drop in performance, the Yankees currently rank first place among all bullpens in MLB per FanGraphs. The biggest difference compared to the past two seasons —aside from the absence of Dellin Betances, whose production could close the gap in WAR— has been the introduction of the opener. The new role has provided more opportunities for long relievers like Luis Cessa and Nestor Cortes Jr., who are needed to bridge the opener to the elite arms in the bullpen.
Bullpen innings continue to rise for organizations across the league, and the same goes for the Yankees who are currently on pace to pitch about 625 relief innings, 30 more than last season. The opener has contributed to this rise as Cessa and Cortes Jr. will both have pitched around 70 innings each at season’s end. Who would have guessed that the pair would lead the Yankees in relief innings? The reality is these two pitchers have taken on roles this season that not many could have expected to be available, while pitching to a WAR of 0.3 between them all credited to Cessa.
This exact area is where the Yankees can improve their bullpen next season. If they plan on using the opener as much as they have this year, having long relievers producing better results could make a great difference. Let’s take Chad Green for example. During his break out season in 2017 he lead the Yankees in relief innings and had the highest WAR of all the relievers, pitching to a 1.61 ERA, and averaging more than five outs an appearance. He threw two or more innings 17 times that season throughout 40 games. However, since Green has found success as the opener for the Yankees he isn’t a realistic option. There are candidates within the organization that could take advantage of this newer “bulk” role. These candidates don’t have to pitch to a 2.4 WAR like Green did in 2017, but aiming for a WAR over 0.3 should be the within the realm of possibility.
When the 2020 season begins the Yankees will hopefully have Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and Domingo German in the starting rotation. Additionally, the upcoming free agency pool will feature a deep market for starting pitchers, meaning the remaining spot on the rotation could possibly go to a pitcher not currently in the organization. With Tanaka, Paxton, and J.A. Happ (if contract doesn’t vest) becoming free agents after the 2020 season, the possibility of signing a pitcher heavily increases. Younger depth options like Jordan Montgomery, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Deivi Garcia will have to wait one more season if this is the case.
All three of these depth options could see time in Triple-A refining their roles and preparing for the Yankees, but if the Yankees see something during spring training or in Scranton and decide to make one of them a “bulk” reliever, they could make the Yankees’ bullpen even scarier because the mark set by Cessa and Cortes Jr. isn’t very high. It’s hard not to mention imagine this scenario if Betances is re-signed and Aroldis Chapman stays on the club. Such a bullpen could pass the 9.3 WAR mark set during 2017 and 2018.
Admittedly, the Yankees do project Montgomery and Garcia to be starters in the future and not “bulk” relievers, but if someone like Gerrit Cole, Hyun-Jin Ryu, or Madison Bumgarner were to be added, the next best thing would be coming out of the bullpen throwing three or four innings after Green. During 2020, long relief could be the best way for a depth option to make his case for the rotation, unless a barrage of injuries to the regular starters forces the Yankees to add depth pitchers every fifth day. Overall, this a good problem for the Yankees to have as top arms in the organization will be battling for a spot in the 2021 rotation.
We don’t know what to expect from many pitchers as September starts to unfold. Severino, Betances, and Montgomery are returning from injury, and Garcia could make his debut when Scranton’s season comes to an end. If these players are as effective as they can be, the Yankees could raise their chances of winning while Green is opening for an injured CC Sabathia. This month could preview a role Loaisiga, Garcia, and Montgomery could embrace come next season.
Overall, about 190 innings have been pitched by long relievers Cessa, Cortes Jr., David Hale, and Chance Adams for a total of 0.8 WAR. That’s about 34% of all innings currently pitched by the bullpen, as Hale leads the way with an impressive 0.7 WAR in 37.1 frames according to FanGraphs. With Montgomery returning, Garcia knocking on the door, and Loaisiga being moved to the bullpen, these are the names that could inherit these 190 innings next year. Most importantly, they could immediately help the Yankees win games in a close home-field advantage race.