Throughout most of last offseason, the reliable sources that tracked a player’s minor league option years reported that Yankees pitcher Albert Abreu was out of options. That made it curious that the team with playoff ambitions and needs on the roster was holding onto a player with only two games of major league experience and no clear track record of success.
Only in the early days of spring training was it reported that Abreu fit into a narrow window of rules that allowed him to have a fourth minor league option year, and the Yankees were prepared to take full advantage of it. Moving Abreu out of a starting role and into the bullpen, he became a key piece to the Scranton Shuttle and was called up 12 times when the team needed a fresh arm or injury replacement.
2021 Statistics (MLB): 28 games, 36.2 IP, 5.15 ERA, 5.90 FIP, 4.97 xFIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.7 BB/9, -0.6 fWAR
2021 Statistics (Triple-A): 10 games, 16.2 IP, 3.78, 1.80 FIP, 2.87 xFIP, 16.7 K/9, 5.9 BB/9
2021 Contract Status: Pre-arbitration, no minor league options left
After reaching the major leagues for the first time in the shortened 2020 season, Albert Abreu took on a much larger role with the Yankees in 2021. His overall numbers were not very good but he certainly flashed his potential on multiple occasions as he settled into a reliever’s role.
The strongest part of Abreu’s game is his fastball that has velocity in 98th percentile of major league pitchers. He used that pitch, combined with his slider and curveball, to hold opponents to a average exit velocity of just 83.8 mph. The major league leader for qualified pitchers this past season was Zach Wheeler with an 84.4-mph average exit velocity, indicating that opponents had a hard time barreling up Abreu’s pitches.
Many of Abreu’s issues on the season stem from his poor control that has plagued him throughout his professional career. Like he has for most of his time in the minors, Abreu walked a lot of batters in 2021, posting a 4.7 BB/9 rate at the major league level and a 5.9 BB/9 for Triple-A Scranton.
The majority of Abreu’s innings came in medium and low-leverage situations — the Yankees’ coaching staff did not trust him with too many big spots during the season. His inflated ERA came at the hands of two disastrous outings: on July 29th, he allowed six runs without recording an out against the Tampa Bay Rays, he was then tagged heavily again on September 18th against Cleveland, when he allowed five runs in just 0.2 innings pitched. Outside of those two performances, Abreu only allowed more than one run in an outing one other time at the major league level. He did not achieve that by being a one inning pitcher either, as six times during the season he pitched two innings or more in an outing.
Despite doing most of his work outside of high stress situations, he put up his best numbers when he was called upon in high leverage spots. In those chances he held opponents to just a .557 OPS, and picked up his first major league save on August 14th against the Chicago White Sox. In that game he came on in relief of Zack Britton in the 10th inning to record the final two outs with the bases loaded and the Yankees holding a two run lead.
The Yankees have shown patience in the past with talented arms and been rewarded. Dellin Betances and Jonathan Loáisiga are two of those arms, but it comes with risk. If Abreu cannot take the next step forward next season, then the Yankees are using a 40-man roster spot on a player who overall has pitched to a below replacement level value so far in the major leagues. It is possible that the Yankees move on from Abreu this winter to find the next player who can provide the up and down flexibility of the Scranton Shuttle. It is also possible that the Yankees see a player pitching exclusively out of the bullpen for his first full season and realize that there could be more to come in that role.
Albert Abreu spent the entire season coming and going from the Yankees major league roster. In his first full season as a reliver he flashed potential, but also failed to fully lock down a position on the roster. The Yankees will have to make the call on where he fits with the roster and bullpen moving forward. He could be the next power arm to put it all together and become a fixture in the Yankees bullpen, or just a player with big fastball numbers who cannot clear the final hurdles of major league success.