For the better part of this past decade, the most unique aspect of the Yankees wasn’t their starting pitching or even their lineup, but their bullpen. Year after year, the Yankees went out and acquired big-name relievers, from Andrew Miller to Zack Britton to Aroldis Chapman (twice). This strategy was mainly born out of necessity, as the Yankees’ rotation was weak in both talent and depth, so shortening the game with a “super-bullpen” was a viable option.
This year though, the Yankees seem to have shifted from that strategy. Not only have the Yankees not added to their bullpen, they’ve actually lost a key piece, four-time All-Star Dellin Betances. Instead, the Yankees used their money to get the best starting pitcher the market has seen in years in Gerrit Cole, which was undoubtedly both a necessary move and one that firmly establishes the Yankees as American League favorites.
Now, the Yankees’ pitching power structure is a little different from the way it was the last few years. Instead of hoping and praying for five or six innings from a starter and then turning the game over to the bullpen, the Yankees now boast one of the best rotations in the American League. The staff is easily the best one they’ve assembled since the early 2000s, when Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and David Wells were all on the same team.
This might be a good thing for the Yankees’ bullpen, which just isn’t as deep as it has been in past years. Although the Yankees’ big four relievers (Chapman, Britton, Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle) are all coming off excellent seasons and are still viewed as premier late-inning options, there’s not much behind them. Chad Green is probably the league’s best fifth reliever, but he got hit around a bit more than usual in 2019. And if injuries strike anywhere in the top five? There aren’t any reinforcements coming in, no Adam Warren, David Robertson or Dellin Betances. Instead, you end up with a year where Luis Cessa leads all relievers in innings pitched, which somewhat surprisingly was the case in 2019.
Now, it’s a little nitpicky to be complaining about the Yankees’ fifth- and sixth-most important relievers when they have four top relievers ahead of them and a significantly improved starting rotation. But, you can never have enough depth in baseball, particularly among pitchers. The Yankees seem to be hoping that some natural starting pitchers, like Jordan Montgomery, J.A. Happ or Jonathan Loaisiga, can effectively pitch out of relief. With Domingo German suspended for half the season, the Yankees are quite short on available pitchers, so swinging a minor trade or making a bargain depth signing might be a good idea to fortify the back end of the bullpen.
Again, this isn’t a huge problem for the 2020 Yankees. However, we still seem headed for a season rife with overuse of the team’s top relievers, which often creates fatigue and under-performance as the season goes on. Before, it was because the team’s rotation was too weak and the top five or six relievers had to pitch too much. Now, even though the team will hopefully be using the bullpen less, they don’t have as many trustworthy options as they once did. Yes, there’s a give and take when it comes to resource allocation, but the Yankees probably could have spent the $10.5 million it cost the Mets to poach Betances to provide even more insurance.
Although the team’s top relievers are still elite now, that may not be the case down the line. Chapman, Britton, Ottavino and Kahnle are all over 30, and each have shown minor signs of aging, whether it’s reduced velocity or a more pronounced lack of control. Even if they’re still productive this year (which they should be), the Yankees may have to restock the cupboard a little bit and grab some more young relievers moving forward.
The Yankees’ bullpen should still be a key asset in 2020, a year where the Yankees have their highest championship aspirations in years. Although the top end is still the best in the MLB, the team might want to explore some younger options for both the immediate and long-term future of the team’s relief corps.