The Yankees spent the bulk of their free agent slush fund retaining DJ LeMahieu and edifying the starting rotation. Now, however, that’s left the club with a top-heavy bullpen that has been somewhat neglected.
Assuming the Yankees refrain from making a significant addition, the 2021 edition of the bullpen is basically 2020’s roster with one Adam (Ottavino) likely swapped out for another (Warren). The injured Tommy Kahnle is now a Dodger, and the middling Jonathan Holder signed with the Cubs.
The team finished the 2020 regular season with the 20th best reliever WAR in the majors. In 2019, with a bullpen that looks a lot like 2021’s version plus Kahnle and the best of Ottavino, the Yankees finished with the fourth-best reliver WAR in the majors. Without their fourth (Kahnle) and second (Ottavino) biggest contributors of their dominant 2019 season, this team’s is probably still far off from all-around elite, but it should be better than last year’s shaky bunch.
The Yankees’ holy trinity of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Chad Green is still one of the best relief trios in all of baseball. They’ve provided the backbone of the team’s relief corps for the past two and a half seasons, beginning when the Yankees first traded for Britton, and they have accounted for 5.3 of the Yankees’ 8.4 reliever WAR over the past two seasons. That trio alone would rank as the league’s 11th best staff during that stretch. However, in 2020, the Chapman-Britton-Green trifecta ate up 27.4 percent of all Yankee relief innings, after accounting for just 19.3 percent of their total innings during the season prior.
While Green spent a short stint with the RailRiders after being optioned to Triple-A in 2019, Chapman missed a few weeks of 2020 with COVID, and it seems less feasible for just three relievers to eat up a third of all the Yankees’ relief innings in a 2021 season that should be more than two-and-a-half times the length of the 2020 campaign. The club’s highest leverage innings should still go to the cream of the Yankees’ crop, but they’ll have to take on 162 games without 127 2⁄3 combined innings from Kahnle and Ottavino in their last full season, 2019.
With Ottavino primed for a return to form, it’s a bummer to see him walk for nothing in return. With little else of value to roll out after the Yanks’ top trio, they’ll have to make work with what scraps they’ve retained.
Of the relief corps’ latter group, Luis Cessa is the most primed for a breakout. He’s coming off of a legitimately good, albeit short, 2020 campaign in which he posted a 3.32 ERA, easily the best of his career. Although his counting stats improved from 2019, his expected actually regressed slightly, though both seasons were much better than the ones prior. Since he’s effectively swapped his fastball and slider usage, he’s become much more effective. 2021 should give the club a better understanding if Cessa’s adjustment caught the league off guard or he’s grown into being a better pitcher.
The Yankees only semi-addition was that of Adam Warren, continuing his third stint on the club with another minor league deal. Since losing a tick on his fastball following his stellar 2017 campaign, Warren outperformed his peripherals in 2018, then fell off a cliff in 2019. After 2019, Warren got Tommy John surgery, and is only now theoretically healthy and again ready to pitch. Though the Yankees shouldn’t expect much from the 33-year-old reliever, it’s possible he returns to at least innings-eating competency after a couple months of rust removal. He’ll likely have to earn his bullpen spot in spring training.
Nick Nelson threw the fourth-most innings of any Yankee reliever, but he’s proven to be approximately replacement-player quality. He’s still just 25, and he throws quite hard, occasionally brushing the upper-nineties with his fastball, but its low spin and poor location have led to a series of struggles so far.
Jonathan Loaisiga and Michael King are each around replacement level arms, and shouldn’t be asked to do much more than long-relief outing when pure innings-eating is the immediate objective.
It’s hard to say exactly where Deivi Garciá fits on the Yankees’ staff coming into 2021. After some solid regular season starts, and a bad playoff inning, Garciá would have been eyeing a slot in the rotation had the Yankees not just added a couple of starters. He’s still only 21, and can grow into a legitimate force on the mound if he continues to add velocity to his fastball. There’s no doubt the Yankees will be keen on continuing his development by feeding him innings whenever possible. A starting nod at the back of the Opening Day rotation seems likely, but time will tell.
Though he threw just 6.1 innings in 2020, former first round draft pick Clarke Schmidt has some of the highest upside of any Yankee reliever, and is currently the team’s second-highest ranked prospect. His super-sharp slurve and above average fastball make him a far more appealing prospect than his 7.11 ERA from last year might suggest. If he can reign in his command over the course of his first full big-league season, he has a chance to be at least as good as any reliever the Yankees have let go over the past couple of seasons.
With the additions of Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, as well as the potential returns of Luis Severino and Domingo Germán, the Yankees will hope to have the strongest assembly of starting pitching they’ve had in years. If they can get a consistent five-to-seven innings from at least three or four of their starters each time through the rotation, they’d be able to relieve a significant amount of pressure from the back-end of the bullpen, a place of considerable weakness through 2020.
With myriad health concerns among the aforementioned pitchers, their production is anything but a sure thing. In the case of a Klubot malfunction or a stumble from Sevy, the Yankees will again be forced to rely on an underqualified assortment of arms, only a couple of which could even possibly be up to the task.