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The Yankees have proven the “plug in and play” relief strategy in the second half

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The high-priced relief arms aren’t the ones delivering wins.

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Remember Darren O’Day? How about Justin Wilson? Zack Britton?

The Yankees committed $32 million in guaranteed money to those three relievers over the winter, hoping they would combine to form the backbone of a perennially excellent bullpen. Between that trio, closer Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga coming off a strong shortened 2020, the club was expected to have one of the best relief corps in the game once again.

Fast forward to October 2021, and the Yankees have one of the five best bullpens in all of baseball, but the personnel are radically different. Those three arms, two free agent signings and one the beneficiary of a swellopt, threw just 47 innings in pinstripes, combined for a 5.93 ERA, and none of them are on the active roster for the final series of the season. Wilson was dealt away to the Reds, O’Day and Britton are on the 60-day IL. Tremendous return on investment.

Instead, the value in the Yankees ‘pen has come from guys that either weren’t on the team to start the season, or were afterthoughts, and cumulatively make about three million dollars. Clay Holmes has been the obvious jackpot, coming over at the deadline from Pittsburgh, but Wandy Peralta has been a workhorse in the second half, with a 3.26 ERA that only cost the team Mike Tauchman, who has since been DFA’d clear off the Giants 40-man roster.

Michael King has been absolute dynamite in a relief role, especially since returning from the IL. Lucas Luetge is, in many ways, the unsung hero of the bullpen, throwing 70 innings of 2.93 ERA ball. Even Joely Rodríguez, who we all probably get the least excited by of these five, has a 2.81 ERA/2.22 FIP in his 16 innings.

The Yankees aren’t paying anything for Rodríguez, and the other four combine for $2.775 million in CBT hit. For that, the Yankees have yielded 185 innings of 2.48 ERA ball, with a sterling 19 percent K-BB rate. Jonathan Loáisiga is the best relief pitcher in this bullpen, and Aroldis Chapman is still the closer, but the backbone of the corps are five guys the Yankees found in scrap piles and under-the-radar trades, and cumulatively cost a little less than three Gerrit Cole starts.

We talk about finances a lot on this blog, more than I’d like to, since we all follow a team that places considerable weight on the $210 million CBT threshold. Being active in the relief market is a calling card of Brian Cashman’s over the past decade or so — as the team has struggled to develop plus-plus starting pitching in-house, he’s shifted resources to signing and trading for name-brand relievers in order to pick up the slack of underwhelming starting pitching.

But here’s the kicker: relief pitching is exactly where you don’t need the name brand. Ironically enough, the Yankees have proven that by rebuilding one of the game’s best bullpens on the fly, using more than one pitcher that had fans questioning the acquisition at the time. I’ve given up wishing the Yankees would blow past the first CBT ring, but even if they’re committed to that, we can see more than one big splash in the rotation if the team recognizes that the value of the bullpen is how much you get for so little relative cost.

I think we will look back at the days of spending $30 million on two or three relievers the way we look at the designated pinch runner or intentional Baltimore chop: a quaint idea that maybe worked in one specific context, but isn’t something you want to build a competitive team around. The Yankees spend more money than anyone on the final three innings of the game, despite being able to reconstruct, in the aggregate, a collection of the best relievers in baseball for a tenth of the price. That should be the strategy moving forward, and taking the eight figures saved and devoting it to rotation pieces that can deliver leads to a backbone relief corps as strong as the Yankees deliver every year.