One of the tricky parts about building a bullpen is that you always need to be looking for a way to improve it. Between the fungibility of relievers and how often pitchers get hurt, it only takes a short time for a dominant unit to become of the worst in the league. Since the Yankees had one of the best bullpens in baseball last year, they probably don’t need to go out and add significant veteran depth.
That said, Brian Cashman would be remiss if he didn’t at least look into some buy-low candidates who might be able to fill in at the back of the bullpen. He did that last winter with old friend Adam Warren, who missed all of 2020 with Tommy John surgery and who ultimately spent the entire season at Triple-A Scranton; perhaps this year, he might give a look towards another old friend: Dellin Betances.
Once upon a time, Betances was one of the league’s premier relief pitchers. Among relievers from 2014 to 2018, he ranked second in baseball in fWAR (11.2, behind only teammate Aroldis Chapman, who had 11.3), eighth in ERA (2.22), fourth in FIP (2.26), sixth in SIERA (2.17), third in strikeout percentage (40.3), and seventh in K-BB% (29.6). Additionally, he was a bullpen workhorse; his 373.1 innings in relief led the majors by almost 20 innings in that span. He was very much deserving of his third-place finish in the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year race, the down-ballot vote he received for Cy Young in 2015, and his four straight All-Star appearances (2014-2017).
Had he hit free agency at this point in his career, Betances likely would have received a massive contract, and rightfully so. Unfortunately for the tall right-hander, his career went off the rails in 2019. After he opened the season on the injured list with a right shoulder impingement of his career, it was discovered that he had a bone spur behind his shoulder. A lat strain further delayed his rehab. Betances finally returned to action on September 15th, striking out both batters that he faced; unfortunately, he landed awkwardly on his ankle and tore his Achilles tendon.
Things, however, only got worse. After signing a one-year deal with a player option with the Mets, Betances struggled in 2020, posting a 7.71 ERA (4.91 FIP) across 11.2 innings in 15 games. Although he avoided hard contact fairly well — batters were not able to barrel up a ball against him and had only a 17.6-percent hard-hit rate that year, third among relievers — he could not find the strike zone, walking 12 batters while striking out only 11. Ultimately, he had a WHIP above two; putting more than twice as many runners on base as you strike out is certainly not a recipe for success.
2021 was somehow even worse than 2020 for Betances, albeit in the same way as 2019. On April 7th, the Mets’ third game of the season, Betances entered the game in the bottom of the sixth. He hit Roman Quinn with a 3-1 fastball to lead off the inning. With Andrew McCutchen at the plate, Quinn stole second, though McCutchen walked on five pitches to render it meaningless. Betances battled to punch out Rhys Hoskins looking for the first out of the inning. On the first pitch to Bryce Harper, Quinn and McCutchen performed a double-steal, allowing Quinn to score on a groundout to the first baseman. J.T. Realmuto ended the frame by grounding out to short.
One inning, one walk, one run, three stolen bases, nine strikes on 21 pitches: This was the sum total of Betances’ 2021 season, as he found himself on the injured list the next day with the second right shoulder impingement of his career. On June 30th, he opted for surgery to repair the shoulder, ending his season. For the second time in three years, Betances enters free agency after throwing one inning or fewer in an injury-filled season. This time around, however, it has been three years since he last put together an effective season, which will certainly eliminate a good portion of his market value.
So what exactly might the Yankees find appealing about a reunion with Betances? On a big league contract, absolutely nothing; in truth, I’d be very shocked if any team is willing to give guaranteed money to a near-34-year-old relief pitcher who has thrown 13.1 innings since the end of the 2018 season.
On a minor league deal, however, Betances may be worth the risk. Sure, he’s probably not going to be the same dominant pitcher he was in his prime, but he still has good stuff: His fastball’s spin rate of 2256 was identical to Shane McClanahan (3.43 ERA, 4.57 xERA in 123.1 innings) and Eric Lauer (3.19 ERA, 3.87 xERA) and ahead of Jose Berríos, Shohei Ohtani, and Nestor Cortes Jr., while his curveball’s spin rate of 2514 sat between Hyun Jin Ryu (4.37 ERA, 4.45 xERA) and Marcus Stroman (3.02 ERA, 4.30 xERA) and ahead of Berríos, Ohtani, Lance Lynn, Jack Flaherty, and Chris Bassitt. Granted, small sample size alert here, but still, it shows that he can still succeed with the stuff that he has, even if it’s not as dominant as it once was.
If a minor league deal works out, Betances could be this year’s Lucas Luetge or Daniel Bard. And if it doesn’t ... well, in truth, from the team’s perspective, there’s no such thing as a bad minor league deal — only one that doesn’t work out.