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Breaking down the roles in the Yankees’ bullpen

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More length in the rotation and a new relief rule could change the team’s look

New York Yankees Pitcher Aroldis Chapman During Spring Training Photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday via Getty Images

The Yankees have defined the trend towards more bullpen oriented games, and while full seasons from Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino will likely lessen the need for relief pitching compared to previous seasons, you can expect the relief corps will still play a huge role in 2020. Aroldis Chapman is as sure a thing as any to be working the ninth inning, but the team has a few options for how to deploy the rest of the group.

The Setup Man

Although the Yankees have dabbled with unconventional relief strategies, they still do seem to stick to the idea of an eighth-and-ninth inning guy. Part of this is probably psychological - baseball players are creatures of habit, and it’s no surprise that the guys given regular roles are veterans. David Robertson set up Chapman in his second go-round with the Yankees, and this year it looks like that job is Zack Britton’s to lose.

Britton had a stellar 2019, posting a sub-2.00 ERA while switching up his pitch mix just a little bit to stay less predictable. Projection systems haven’t ever really given Britton a fair shake because of his less-than-great strikeout rate, but his ability to consistently induce ground balls has kept his ERA below his FIP every year since 2014, and you can expect another soft-contact-based year in 2020.

The High Leverage Pieces

Tommy Kahnle and Adam Ottavino have a few things in common besides their current team. They both reworked their repertoires around a specialty pitch - Kahnle’s changeup and Ottavino’s slider - and that change has led to them both being in the top-15 in strikeout rate among all relievers the past two years.

These two are going to be counted on to work the sticky spots in 2020 - if Luis Severino goes 6.1 innings, puts two men on and gets pulled, Kahnle’s going to be called upon to put out the fire. The new three batter rule could affect the usage of guys like Ottavino and Kahnle, but generally, if they’re coming in midway through an inning, that’s going to be just about the highest leverage plate appearance of the game.

The Long Arms

This is probably the most interesting section of the bullpen, and the part that I think will actually be most affected by the three batter rule. Reducing strategic decisions with one move will lead to new decisions with others, and that’s where the likes of Chad Green, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga come in.

It feels like we’ve been saying for a while that the next development in pitching is the piggyback system, where two pitchers work in tandem, three innings or so at a time. I’m not sure the Yankees are quite ready to commit to that, but with J.A. Happ’s vesting option and Jordan Montgomery almost certainly going to be eased back into the rotation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see an unofficial piggyback system.

That’s where the addition of a guy like Gerrit Cole can really give Aaron Boone more options. You generally run out of tactical choices in games where your starter gets knocked out early and multiple relievers have to work multiple innings. This also has a resulting domino effect on subsequent games.

Cole has thrown fewer than five innings just once in the last two years, and works at least seven innings a full one-third of his starts. This kind of workload allows Boone much more flexibility should he decide to ease Montgomery into the majors again, or the team try to tamp down on Happ’s innings by giving them to a long man instead.

The Rest

With 13 pitchers on the roster, the Yankees will carry eight relievers and we’ve named seven of them. The last guy in the bullpen is going to be up for debate - Jonathan Holder has seen MLB time, but Ben Heller has his share of potential, and at 28 and coming off Tommy John surgery in 2018, the Yankees kind of have to see what they’ve got in him.

The bullpen’s going to be another area of focus, and a big part of success in 2020 for the Yankees. While some roles are clearly set in stone, the particular usage of the long guys, and whatever Ben Heller can bring to the table, will be things to watch for...after Gerrit Cole has thrown 7.1 innings of one-run ball.