With the beginning of spring training upon us, the Yankees roster has reached another phase of its development. Before exhibition games even begin, some decisions are easy, while a handful of 26-man roster spots are still up for grabs. Two of those spots are in the Yankees’ bullpen, and three pitchers are in prime position to break camp with the major league team.
The main body of the Yankees bullpen figures to be made up of stalwarts like Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, and Chad Green, as well as Luis Cessa. These players have pretty much established themselves at various levels, ranging from among the best in the game, to a steady hand that can eat innings when needed. The Yankees are expected to carry the maximum of 13 pitchers allowed under the new 26-man roster rules, leaving two spots up for grabs.
Jonathan Loaisiga, Jonathan Holder, and Ben Heller all enter camp with two key components in hand that make this a battle: major league experience, and a minor league option year remaining. All three of the candidates have flashed their potential at times, only to fall victim to the ebbs and flows of relief pitching at the highest level.
Holder has the most experience, having been up and down with the major league club since 2016. Heller returned late last season from the Tommy John surgery he underwent following spring training in 2018. His return to the majors was delayed by forearm tightness that caused him to be shut down after he had already worked his way back to the Triple-A level in rehab starts. Loaisiga could be in the running for the fifth starter role with James Paxton on the shelf, but he has proven repeatedly that he cannot handle a starting workload without hitting the injured list.
For all of Holder’s experience that does include long stretches of high-level performance, he has also struggled at times and found himself back in the minors. Heller has thrown very few innings since 2017, and has the least amount of major league innings out of these three players. Loaisiga has the least experience working as a reliever. This was on display during the ALCS, when he was called upon to pitch on back-to-back days for the first time in his career.
Several other players could position themselves for a look at the major leagues, such as Deivi Garcia and Nick Nelson, who had some of the best strikeout rates of Yankees minor league starters last season. The high strikeout numbers are something that can likely translate to the majors in the short stretches that would be asked of relievers. Yet with the Yankees already down two starting pitchers, with James Paxton injured and Domingo German suspended, the Yankees may look to keep their next-best options stretched out from an innings and pitch count stand-point.
The bullpen has been one of the Yankees’ strong points for nearly the entirety of Brian Cashman’s time as general manager. This coming year, the top six members of the bullpen will return with obvious track records and expectations of success. The contest for the final spots should be an interesting story-line throughout camp, with the three top candidates entering the spring with an edge, but still in need of a quality exhibition season to hold off the young arms on the verge of their major league debuts.