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Should the Yankees trade from their bullpen depth?

The Yankees have plenty of bullpen depth, but their value on the trade market is uncertain.

MLB: Game One-Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

With the deadline to protect players in the Rule 5 Draft coming up and the team’s 40-man roster currently filled, the Yankees have been the center of a number of trade rumors over the last few days, with everyone from Oakland first baseman Matt Olson to Reds ace Luis Castillo to Pittsburgh center fielder Bryan Reynolds linked in some capacity to the Bronx. And while it’s likely that most of these trades will primarily involve prospects, especially those who are Rule 5-eligible, earlier this week I broke down a few players on the Major League roster who the Yankees might dangle in trade talks.

All four of those players were position players, those who were at one point or another penciled into the Yankees lineup as important contributors but who have — through some combination of injuries, regression, or price tag — become expendable to varying degrees. Unsurprisingly, several comments highlighted the lack of pitchers as notable, considering the Yankees’ depth at the position, particularly in the bullpen, and the fact that Cashman himself has noted that teams have called to inquire about the Yankees’ relievers. As such, I thought it prudent to circle back to the topic of potential trade chips, and in particular discuss the pros and cons of drawing from the team’s bullpen depth.

At time of writing, the Yankees have a number of quality relievers. Jonathan Loáisiga and Chad Green were two of the most valuable relievers by fWAR in 2021, with the former accruing 2.4 (tied for third-most) and the latter 1.6 (tied for 14th-most). Additionally, Clay Holmes, Lucas Luetge, Joely Rodríguez, and Wandy Peralta put together strong performances in pinstripes, while Michael King, Albert Abreu, and Stephen Ridings flashed the potential to be the next Loáisiga or Green. Despite losing Luis Cessa in a Justin Wilson-induced salary dump and both Darren O’Day and Zack Britton to injuries, the Yankees had an elite bullpen, ranking fWAR (7.5) and K-BB% (17.7 percent), fourth in ERA (3.56), and fifth in FIP (3.76). Even assuming that Aroldis Chapman continues to break down in the final year of his deal, there’s already an immense amount of relief depth.

This depth presents an interesting conundrum. As both Peter and Josh discussed over the past two months, relievers are quite fungible, and if a team knows what it’s doing, it can rebuild a bullpen pretty much on the fly via minor league arms, the waiver wire, and seemingly-inconsequential trades.

Further, if there’s one thing that the Yankees front office knows, it’s how to build a bullpen; after all, they acquired Peralta for Mike Tauchman (an outfielder who was designated for assignment before the trade deadline), Holmes for minor league infielders Hoy Park and Diego Castillo, Rodríguez as a throw-in in the Joey Gallo trade, and Luetge as a minor league free agent prior to the 2021 season. Although he later became a rotation piece, Nestor Cortes Jr. can be lumped into that group as well. There’s every reason to trust that the team can rebuild the bullpen in 2022 if they ship out some of those guys this winter.

Of course, the fungibility of relievers works both ways. Other teams know that a bullpen can be built and rebuilt on the fly, which brings down the value of relievers on the trade market, especially during the winter. Once you get past the top of the market (e.g., Craig Kimbrel, Kendall Graveman), you’re not going to receive all that much in return. Because of this, the only pitchers worth any substantial amount on the trade market would be Green and Loáisiga, as they would immediately become the best reliever in the vast majority of the league’s bullpens. At the same time, however, the days of massive prospect hauls for relievers, such as the ones the Yankees received for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller and the Mariners received for Edwin Díaz, are likely in the rearview mirror. It’s entirely plausible that no team would make an offer for either pitcher that would be more valuable than simply having them in the bullpen would be.

All of this combines to say that while the Yankees could easily trade from their bullpen depth in order to free up some spots on the 40-man roster, they probably won’t be able to use them as major trade chips this winter. Best-case scenario: a reliever or two might be a secondary or tertiary piece as part of a larger trade for a big bat or a No. 2 starter. Otherwise, if any of them are traded at all, it will be for a low-level minor league pitcher or two, a simple move to free up a roster spot in exchange for some lottery tickets.