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Yankees dig in on high-risk, high-upside strategy with Darren O’Day signing

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The Yankees are gambling on Darren O’Day, who hasn’t thrown more than 20 innings since 2017, being the fourth horseman of the 2021 bullpen.

Division Series - Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After the Yankees shipped off Adam Ottavino to the Boston Red Sox for $9 million in salary relief earlier this week, many expected that it was the predecessor to another move, with a Brett Gardner reunion seeming the most likely. While that still might happen, it seems that Brian Cashman’s main concern was improving the back end of the bullpen by replacing Ottavino with former Orioles and Braves reliever Darren O’Day, whom they signed to a one-year contract with a team/player option for 2022.

The thirteen-year veteran, known for his submarine action, represents a departure from the typical high-velocity pitcher, as his fastball has sat in the 88 MPH range throughout his career. Despite this, he’s been a high-strikeout/low-walk pitcher, with a 31.5 percent strikeout rate and 7.5 percent walk rate since 2015, both better than league-average — the former, substantially so. When batters do make contact, they generally don’t hit it hard, either. In all, this has allowed him to maintain his success even as he’s aged.

As with every acquisition the Yankees have made to bolster the pitching staff this winter, however, O’Day comes with a major risk — he’s pitched only 21 23 innings over the past two seasons, having missed most of 2019 with a forearm injury suffered in spring training. Additionally, he only pitched 20 innings in 2018, as he had season-ending surgery to repair a hamstring injury. This lack of mileage on his arm the last three seasons is a major reason why the Atlanta Braves declined his very reasonable $3.5 million team option for 2021: as teams cry poor following a season of losses lower profits, even a cheap bullpen arm is a luxury if you’re afraid he’s going to miss too much time, no matter the potential upside.

And really, that has been the modus operandi of the Yankees this winter: acquiring high-upside players that other teams may be wary of due to injury concerns. Should O’Day pitch to his career norms — and in truth, there’s little reason to expect that he won’t — then he is going to slot right in alongside Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and his former teammate Zack Britton to once again give the Yankees one of the best corps of late-inning relievers in the league. If not, the Yankees are only out $1.75 million (although, due to the way the contract is structured, $2.45 million for luxury tax purposes). Injuries, not performance, have been O’Day’s Achilles heel.

Most significantly, perhaps, O’Day’s price means that the Yankees have, in the last three days, likely improved their bullpen while saving a few million dollars, which gives the team a bit more room under their self-imposed $210 million limit. As such, the team still has room to make another acquisition, although with the forty-man roster currently full, another trade is probably on the horizon.

Ultimately, this seems to me to be a very obvious move for the Yankees to make, although one that I admittedly did not see coming, as I expected the team to fill out the bullpen with the Scranton Shuttle. If all goes well, the Yankees have a key middle reliever locked up at a very reasonable rate for not only this year, but 2022 as well. And with the question marks filling out the starting rotation, a deep bullpen will almost certainly be a necessity.