Although the Yankees’ rotation is still a bit thin, it’s starting to come into shape. With the signing of Corey Kluber, the team can now roll out a rotation of Gerrit Cole, Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, Deivi García and Domingo Germán, plus Luis Severino once he gets healthy again. Although Kluber comes with risks, he is still a good addition for a team that desperately needed a veteran starting pitcher.
Kluber’s arrival also affects the Yankees’ hoard of pitching prospects. Whereas the Yankees were previously talking about needing someone from the group of Clarke Schmidt, Miguel Yajure, Michael King or Albert Abreu to step up into the rotation, the Yankees can now be a little more patient with their development. If they’re ready to help the big league club, they’ll get their chance, but at least now it doesn’t have to be forced upon them.
However, the Yankees could have another use for some of these arms – the bullpen. For all the hopes that the club might spend some money and overhaul their relief corps, the Yankees’ bullpen looks about the same in 2021 as it did in 2020, when it took a marked step back. It seems that instead of bringing in fresh arms, the Yankees are looking for rebounds from Adam Ottavino and (to a lesser extent) both Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman.
While there still could be some new faces in the bullpen, chances are that they’d be in the form of the aforementioned rookie pitchers. Although the top six relievers of Chapman, Zack Britton, Green, Ottavino, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loáisiga is pretty much set, there are still two spots up for grabs in the back end of the ‘pen. And, depending on how the veterans perform, there might even be an opening in Aaron Boone’s “circle of trust.”
Fortunately, the Yankees have plenty of young arms who could stake their claim for that spot. Michael King pitched the sixth-most innings of any Yankee last year, and seems to be a better fit out of the ‘pen than in the rotation. Nick Nelson actually made the ninth-most appearances for the team last year, and although he wasn’t terribly impressive, it shows that the Yankees were at least intrigued by him. Brooks Kriske’s 95-mph fastball stood out in his brief trial, and Miguel Yajure showed an impressive spin rate on both his fastball and curveball in his seven-inning cup of coffee.
The most interesting options to contribute in relief are probably the two that Yankees fans saw the least of in 2020 – Clarke Schmidt and Albert Abreu. They were lit up for a combined eight earned runs in 7 2⁄3 innings in their debut seasons, but it was an extremely small sample size and they could get longer looks in a more normal 2021 season. Abreu is out of minor league options, and although he’s never cashed in on his full potential as a starter due to control issues, his 96-mph fastball could play up well out of the bullpen. Schmidt’s repertoire is more becoming of a starting pitcher, but with an opening in the bullpen, it might be worth discovering if one of the Yankees’ top pitching prospects could help the team in that capacity.
Although it would have been risky to rely on some of these pitchers in the rotation of a contending team, the bullpen is a more friendly home. For one, there is a veteran safety net with Chapman, Britton and Green in case the kids flop, and the rookies likely won’t have to be used in high-leverage situations right out of the gate. Whereas letting them sink or swim in the starting rotation for a hopeful championship contender would have been ill-advised, the bullpen offers these young arms the chance to grow at their own pace.
Plenty of Yankees pitchers have found success out of the bullpen in recent years. Chad Green was a an average pitcher as a starter, but has become a true weapon out of the bullpen. Before him, Dellin Betances and Phil Hughes (to an extent) followed similar paths. Could Abreu, Schmidt, Yajure, King, Kriske or Nelson be next in that lineage? The opportunity is certainly there. The Yankees’ bullpen will likely look very different in just two years, when Chapman and Britton will be free agents in their mid-30s. The two bullpen spots up for grabs aren't just a chance to make the big leagues in 2021 – they’ll serve as a sneak peek of what could be the future of the Yankees’ bullpen.