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Bad contracts vs. rookie arms: Rethinking bullpen construction

Have the Yankees discovered a sustainable approach to building a cost-effective relief corps?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Yankees bullpen was one of the biggest surprises of the season, and a major factor in the team winning 92 games. The unit was third in MLB in fWAR (7.5) and K-BB% (17.7 percent), fourth in ERA (3.56), and fifth in FIP (3.76). This is made all the more impressive considering Zack Britton pitched 18.1 ineffective innings, Adam Ottavino was traded during the preseason, and winter signings Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson were replaced on the fly with Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta, and Joely Rodríguez.

Back at the beginning of October, Josh praised the Yankees for reinventing their bullpen using a plug-and-play strategy, ultimately ending up with one of the best relief corps in baseball. Three weeks later, Esteban examined the three young pitchers with the best chance of becoming the Yankees’ next homegrown relief ace. Today, I’d like to draw on the insights each provided, and synthesize what I believe to be the best strategy for bullpen construction going forward.

As Josh mentioned in his piece, committing heavy investment in one’s bullpen is an irresponsible and inefficient use of funds. Relievers are the most fungible players on a roster, as evidenced by the success of the mid-season acquisitions. And given the limited inning workload of even the best relievers in the game, each additional dollar spent to compete at the top of the free agent market produces diminishing returns.

Having $35 million allotted to four relievers is not ideal. Granted, it wouldn’t be as problematic with an unlimited budget, but when ownership artificially caps spending at $210 million, all of a sudden that’s one-sixth of the payroll tied up in a quartet of relievers. A quartet, I might add, who pitched a grand total of 103.1 innings out of 1435.1 total innings pitched by the New York pitching staff.

This is why a lightbulb went on in my head after reading Esteban’s article. The Yankees pitching department has shown a remarkable aptitude for transitioning failed starting pitching prospects into shutdown relief aces. Dellin Betances and Jonathan Loáisiga are the prototypical recent examples, and now with Sam Briend and Matt Blake fully entrenched in their roles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar success in the future.

The Yankees have quite a pool of pitching prospects to draw from. Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, Luis Gil, and Luis Medina all came up carrying the luster of starting pitching potential. The sheen has worn off to varying degrees, and now some of that quartet looks ticketed for the bullpen. And that’s OK. There is perhaps no more fickle creature in baseball than a starting pitching prospect. However, just because they don’t pan out in the rotation does not mean they lose value to their organization.

I’ve long been a proponent of the school of thought that says: buy starters, develop relievers. The move from minors to majors is a leap that few pitching prospects can make, and I’d rather spend the extra dollars on a tried and true major league starter than bet on one of my shiny young minor league arms. Too often we’ve seen the Yankees’ top starting pitching prospects not pan out. And too often the Yankees have passed on impact starting pitchers in free agency or at the trade deadline because they’re caught up dreaming on the affordability of their minor leaguers. García and Schmidt both cracked top-100 prospect lists at one point, but now they look closer to pumpkins than viable big league starters. So why not transition them into a role where they can at least be useful?

Just look at Loáisiga, once an oft-injured starter producing a mixed bag of results, now the most reliable option in the Yankees’ bullpen. During the season, I speculated that Albert Abreu would be the next to follow in Loáisiga’s footsteps. He started off the season strong, but ultimately a pair of blow-up outings torpedoed his overall numbers to the tune of a 5.15 ERA across 36.2 innings. However, if you remove those two duds — six runs against the Rays in July and five runs against Cleveland in September — the resulting 2.50 ERA looks a lot more palatable.

I bring up these instances not necessarily to say that Abreu was better than his top-line stats suggest — there are plenty of areas for improvement — but more so to remind ourselves that every reliever is prone to a blow-up outing. Loáisiga suffered three instances giving up four or more runs without getting out of the inning. The larger sample size of appearances — he pitched roughly twice as many innings as Abreu — mitigated that handful of duds.

The book on Abreu said that he possesses electric raw stuff, but walks way too many guys to be a starter. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the exact same refrain we heard first with Loáisiga, and now with Gil and Medina. Fortunately, the Yankees have proven they possess the solution.

This was the first season for Loáisiga as a full time reliever, and he cut his walk rate in half. Clay Holmes gave up 25 walks in 42 innings for the Pirates before being traded to New York, but issued only four free passes in 28 innings in pinstripes. It follows the same strategy as the one that likely won Robbie Ray the 2021 AL Cy Young award. The stuff is good enough to overpower any major league hitter, just throw it in the zone.

Hopefully the developmental success of guys like Loáisiga ushers in a paradigm shift in bullpen construction. Some might argue that it’s premature to “relegate” a starting pitching prospect like Gil or Medina to the bullpen — I reject the premise, however, that moving from the rotation to the bullpen is somehow a step down. More importantly though, it would behoove the Yankees to accept that spending tens of millions of dollars on an uber-bullpen in the mold of the 2015 Royals is not the winning strategy that it appeared to be, and that they have the capacity to home-grow a dominant relief corps for a fraction of the cost.