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The Yankees need to diversify their bullpen

The Yankees have a ton of money tied up in their bullpen. They didn’t have a lot to show for it in 2020.

New York Yankees v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Coming into the season, it looked like the Yankees had finally assembled a championship-caliber squad. In Gerrit Cole they had found their ace while the batting order was a year healthier. Perhaps most importantly, they still had their five-headed monster in the bullpen capable of locking down any lead they were handed.

As my colleague John pointed out yesterday, those plans came unraveled in a hurry. Luis Severino and Domingo German were unavailable from the word go, while James Paxton was a non-entity by mid season. This thrust the likes of Jordan Montgomery and Deivi García into starting roles when they otherwise might have been used as bulk guys out of the pen, thus depleting the dependable bullpen options.

Nonetheless, with their fearsome fivesome still intact, the Yankees’ bullpen looked to be a threat to opposition lineups. That is until 40% of it came crashing down. Tommy Kahnle was lost for the year to Tommy John after making only a single appearance, while Adam Ottavino relegated himself to replacement level hell. With the losses of these two weapons, the Yankees bullpen was exposed as the house of cards it really was.

Instead of an arsenal of shutdown arms, the Yankees bullpen consisted of a cobbled together patchwork of non-roster invitees, garbage time inning eaters, and raw Triple-A starter types thrown into the fire of the big leagues. And in a season that they should have been among the league leaders, New York’s bullpen was distinctly mediocre.

The Yankees sat in the middle-to-bottom of the pack when it came to team bullpen ERA (4.51), FIP (4.69), WHIP (1.34), K-BB% (13.3%) and home runs per nine (1.4). And to make matters worse, the crumbling foundations of this once-imposing bullpen were left unreinforced. The Yankees had plenty of opportunity leading up to the trade deadline to strengthen this compromised group, yet decided to roll the dice with the group they had. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the exact same strategy as last year’s deadline! And here we are, still awaiting the team’s first World Series appearance since 2009.

The Bombers’ ignominious dumping out of the postseason at the hands of the Rays put the differences in the two teams’ bullpen construction strategies into sharp focus. How was it that a team who had invested as much money into their bullpen as the Yankees be so thoroughly outclassed by a group of no-name reclamation projects and former farmhands earning close to the league minimum? What kind of value were the Yankees even getting for all the payroll tied up in the bullpen?

2020 MLB postseason teams’ bullpen expenditures

Team 2020 Payroll Dollars 2020 Bullpen fWAR Value of 2020 fWAR in $ Surplus value provided by bullpen
Team 2020 Payroll Dollars 2020 Bullpen fWAR Value of 2020 fWAR in $ Surplus value provided by bullpen
Rays $1,959,382 3.6 28800000 $26,840,618
Twins $6,673,635 3.6 28800000 $22,126,365
Indians $5,201,034 3.4 27200000 $21,998,966
Brewers $5,695,117 2.8 22400000 $16,704,883
Athletics $9,224,560 3 24000000 $14,775,440
White Sox $6,886,164 2.5 20000000 $13,113,836
Blue Jays $2,811,972 1.8 14400000 $11,588,028
Dodgers $17,243,624 3.5 28000000 $10,756,376
Padres $11,560,052 2 16000000 $4,439,948
Astros $4,370,144 1.1 8800000 $4,429,856
Reds $8,357,959 1.4 11200000 $2,842,041
Cardinals $5,895,723 0.8 6400000 $504,277
Cubs $12,250,020 0.9 7200000 -$5,050,020
Braves $22,596,251 2.1 16800000 -$5,796,251
Yankees $17,994,956 0.7 5600000 -$12,394,956
Marlins $3,114,359 -1.4 -11200000 -$14,314,359

As it turns out, of the sixteen playoff teams, the Yankees trailed only the Marlins in terms of worst return on investment into the bullpen. That’s a lot of money to be tied up in a failing endeavor. Thus the Yankees have come to a major crossroads heading into the offseason. With the potential loss of two of their best relievers — Zack Britton to a player opt-out option should the Yankees decline their option and Tommy Kahnle to a possibly lengthy recovery — the bullpen is at it’s most vulnerable state. The Yankees find themselves at a three-pronged fork in the road and the path they choose will have serious implications for their title aspirations.

The first option continues straight ahead, and would see the Yankees stay the course with their bullpen construction. This entails continuing to invest in top of the market options at a premium price. In a vacuum, it is not necessarily a flawed strategy, as two teams (the Braves and Dodgers) have leveraged it into an NLCS appearance. The reliever free agent market projects to be quite robust, with big names like Trevor Rosenthal, Blake Treinen, Liam Hendriks, and potentially Brad Hand headlining the class.

That being said, this strategy has not exactly panned out for the Yankees the last few years. Placing all of one’s eggs into the baskets of a few highly-paid relievers only works if each of them are A) healthy and B) effective. When you start losing trustworthy arms, you are effectively hamstrung by the payroll committed, reducing your options to plug those holes.

The second option involves redoubling their efforts to develop from within, hoping they can hit on a lottery ticket the way it seemed the Rays were able to with every single one of their relievers. This hasn’t been all that successful either. Maybe they just don’t have the same player development resources as those teams whose smaller markets necessitate such efforts. What I do know is that I never want to see Jonathan Loáisiga or Michael King or [insert converted minor league starter name here] ever pitching in a high leverage playoff scenario again.

The third and final option sees the Yankees spread the wealth around in their bullpen, going with more of a volume approach to raise the talent level floor. The drop-off in ability from Green/Britton/Chapman to literally anybody else is unsustainable. Having 15% of the team payroll tied up in three over-30 relievers is foolhardy.

Maybe the Yankees begin exploring trades that would help them shed the payroll attached to guys like Aroldis Chapman and Adam Ottavino. Maybe they try to flip one of their young position players currently blocked by the logjam of DH/corner outfielder types for a reliever with multiple years of team control. This may sound like an overreaction, but these are the difficult discussions the Yankees need to open up this winter.