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Breaking down whether the Yankees should carry a third lefty in the pen

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Tyler Lyons and Luis Avilan have impressed in limited work this spring, but are they worth a roster spot?

New York Yankees v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

What do private yachts on the Adriatic, IV drips to treat hangovers, and gold toilets have in common? They’re things you absolutely never, ever need, but are probably pretty fun to have (at least for some people).

Baseball, too, has its luxury items of potentially questionable utility. I’m not referring to the extravagant wealth of owners or the lush perks of players. I’m talking about a third lefty in the bullpen.

Now, I say “potentially” questionable utility because they can be quite useful for certain teams. But they may not represent the optimal use of a valuable roster spot.

Which brings us to the Yankees. Prior to the remainder of spring training being canceled due to the growing coronavirus outbreak, two non-roster lefty relievers were making a push to be added to the bullpen, which of course already features two high-leverage southpaws in Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton. The question is whether it makes sense for the Yankees to use that roster slot on what could be seen as a luxury item.

The two arms in question belong to Tyler Lyons and Luis Avilan.

Lyons, 32, is a seven-year big league veteran who signed with the Yankees on a minor league deal last August after being released by Pittsburgh. He joined the major league club in September and did…fine, compiling a 4.15 ERA (5.98 FIP) and 1.03 WHIP in just 8.2 innings while striking out 12 and walking two. For his career, he’s got a 4.20 ERA (4.05 FIP) across 281 innings.

He apparently did enough to convince the Yankees to add him to both the ALDS and ALCS rosters. This spring, he’s been impressive in limited work, yielding zero runs and two hits across 4.1 innings while striking out seven and walking one.

Avilan, the other candidate, is a 30-year-old with eight seasons under his belt, compiling a 3.28 ERA (3.41 FIP) across 340.2 innings. He was a part of the Mets’ beleaguered bullpen last season, struggling to a 5.06 ERA (4.96 FIP) in 32 innings. However, those numbers were weighed down by a weak start to the season, which culminated in an IL stint in May. He returned in July and posted a 3.00 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in the second half.

This spring, though, he’s thrown 5.2 innings, sporting a 3.18 ERA, 0.70 WHIP with 10 strikeouts and one walk.

Let’s assume the Yankees will carry eight relievers, with six spots pretty much locked down: Chapman, Britton, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle and Luis Cessa (if for no other reason than he’s out of options, though he’s looked pretty good in the spring).

That leaves two spots. Jonathan Holder is a favorite to snag one, as he’s the most experienced Yankee of the remaining candidates, though he struggled last year after pitching well the previous two seasons. Ben Heller, Brooks Kriske and Nick Nelson — all righties ­— are also in the mix. They have the advantage of being on the 40-man roster. David Hale, another known quantity to the Yankees, is a right-hander invited to camp as a non-roster player.

The case for carrying a third lefty

It’s a pretty simple one: Lyons or Avilan just have to be the Yankees’ eighth best reliever option for this to make sense. That means being better Heller, Kriske and Nelson, who have thrown a combined 25.1 innings at the major league level (all belonging to Heller).

Both southpaws have more established big-league careers and aren’t traditional loogies who get hammered by righty batters. Lyons’ career OPS against righties is .767 — not fantastic, but not horrible. For reference, the average OPS across the majors was .758 last year, according to Baseball-Reference. His career OPS against lefties is .631. Avilan’s career OPS against righties is even better at .714; against lefties, it’s an anemic .564.

Also, the fact that they’re not on the 40-man shouldn’t be a factor. The Yankees are almost certain to shift Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks to the 60-day IL, freeing up two slots.

The case against carrying a third lefty

The elephant in the room is the new rule mandating pitchers face a minimum of three batters, unless they finish an inning. One-batter specialists have effectively been legislated out of the game and nothing screams one-batter specialist more than third lefties, at least traditionally. Lyons and Avilan would have to get righties out, and while I highlighted their respectable career numbers in those matchups, the more recent results haven’t been as encouraging.

Last year, Lyons’ OPS against righties was .894 — though to be fair, his OPS against lefties was 1.032. in 2018, his mark against righties was 1.108. Avilan’s OPS against righties in 2019 was 1.046; in 2018, it was a respectable .733. Small sample size concerns aside, if the downward trend against righties continues, carrying either would be untenable due to the new rule.

Perhaps an even bigger obstacle is the current state of the Yankees’ rotation. With the injuries to Severino and James Paxton, and the suspension of Domingo German, the back end of the rotation will be a question mark. Jordan Montgomery, coming off Tommy John surgery, looks like a lock for the fourth spot, and Jonathan Loaisiga — whose career has been marked by durability concerns — seems the favorite for the fifth spot. If starter longevity is in doubt, the value of another multi-inning reliever may be paramount and neither Lyons nor Avilan fit the bill. David Hale, the non-roster righty, could enter the mix at that point.

So what will the Yankees do? For what it’s worth, Roster Resource projects Lyons to land one of the bullpen spots. Personally, I think the questions surrounding the back end of the rotation give a multi-inning reliever like Hale a leg up, at least to start the year. But I’ll be shocked if the Yankees don’t luxuriate in the presence of a third lefty at some point in the season.