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Remodeling the Yankees’ Bullpen

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The Yankees’ bullpen isn’t super anymore. Looking to the two teams in the World Series could help them find their way again.

American League Division Series Game 5: New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Not all that long ago, the Yankees had a veritable “super-bullpen.” Even after the retirement of Mariano Rivera, the team had “No Runs DMC,” then reacquired David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, and then got Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino. The team spent big bucks on the bullpen knowing that the starting pitching core wasn’t good enough to consistently go deep into games. After the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015 with a similar formula, it seemed like a viable strategy.

However, five years later, the Yankees’ bullpen isn’t super anymore. Aroldis Chapman is still really good, but no longer unhittable. The team has wisely opted into the last two years of Britton’s contract, but other than Chad Green (who himself is coming off the worst season of his career but is still mostly reliable), there isn’t anyone in the Yankees’ bullpen that Aaron Boone can trust late in games. With the team’s starting pitching still weak, this leaves the Yankees in a precarious pitching position.

The Dodgers and Rays made it to the World Series in part due to their strong pitching, particularly their bullpens. The Rays had the best bullpen in baseball, and while the Dodgers had some notable relief hiccups, they also had a respectable 2.74 bullpen ERA and 3.5 bullpen WAR. That’s a big improvement over the Yankees’ 4.51 bullpen ERA and 0.7 reliever WAR.

How the Dodgers constructed their bullpen is similar to the Yankees, but the results have been so much better. Each team’s closer makes at least $17 million per year, and they each have two expensive setup men (Britton and Ottavino cost the Yankees $22 million a year, while Joe Kelly and Blake Treinen cost the Dodgers $18 million this season). No one else in either bullpen is beyond the arbitration stage. Essentially, these two large-market teams decided that there’s enough spending room for one expensive closer and two pricey setup men with the rest of the ‘pen being made up of arbitration-eligible arms.

The difference is, the Dodgers get value out of their cheap, young arms. Victor Gonzalez was dynamic as a rookie, Dylan Floro and Adam Kolarek were effective, and the addition of Brusdar Graterol via trade gave the unit some swagger and serious velocity. Even veteran minimum add Jake McGee led all their relievers with 0.7 WAR in 20 innings thanks to an absurd 41.8 strikeout percentage.

What did the Yankees get out of their bottom tier of the bullpen? Green wasn’t himself for parts of the year, Luis Cessa had his best year but is mostly a low-leverage guy, Jonathan Loáisiga struggled with command, and no one from veterans Jonathan Holder, Luis Avilán, Tyler Lyons and David Hale or young guns Miguel Yajure, Clarke Schmidt, Brooks Kriske and Nick Nelson could become a reliable option like Green did back in 2017.

Los Angeles’ bullpen pitches differently than New York’s. The Yankees’ biggest problem with their relievers is that they struggle immensely with walks and home runs. They strike out a good share of batters, but not enough to outweigh the free passes and long balls. However, the Dodgers had far better walk and home run rates, while even striking out a slightly higher percentage of batters than the Yankees.

Many of the Dodgers’ biggest outs from their bullpen this postseason came from inexperienced players on cheap deals. The same can be said for the Rays, who have barely spent a dime on their bullpen. Instead, they thrive on diversity in their ‘pen: their relievers come from several different arm angles and have guys that range from crafty lefties to fireballing over-the-top righties. The Rays’ bullpen has someone to match up with everyone.

This is important because the Yankees can learn how to revitalize their relievers by looking at two sterling examples of the modern bullpen. They need to walk less batters, and could stand to gain a little diversity in the ‘pen instead of just relying on high-velocity righties with suspect command.

Is Ottavino worth $9 million for the Yankees right now? Probably not. His 12.0 K/9 as a Yankee is great, but his 5.2 BB/9 undoes much of it. Perhaps he could be traded to another reliever-desperate team and the Yankees could spend the $9 million on a guy like Brad Hand instead, who fills the Yankees’ needs better as a ground-ball-heavy lefty coming off another successful season.

Furthermore, seeing one of the kids step up would go a long way. Yajure flashed potential, and the Yankees are also giving valuable 40-man roster spots to Luis Medina, Luis Gil, Kriske and Nelson. Can any of them become a competent middle reliever? If they can’t, these are wasted 40-man roster spots at this point, because that is their immediate path to success with New York.

If the Yankees are to remodel their bullpen, they’ll have to focus on development more so than external additions, given the volatility of relievers. There’s room for one more veteran addition, but at this point, the onus is on Matt Blake to develop some of these kids into the next Peter Fairbanks, Ryan Thompson or Victor Gonzalez. Chapman, Britton and Green are still an elite big three for the Yankees, but they’re going to need some help, especially with the team’s rotation on shaky ground.