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Yankees sign Justin Wilson to bolster bullpen

Justin Wilson returns to the Yankees’ relief corps for a second go-around.

Wild Card Game - Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

For the past several days, the Yankees have been in discussions to add another solid arm to their bullpen: lefty Justin Wilson. It took a three-day weekend of rumors in the lead-up to pitchers and catchers reporting, but according to Sweeny Murti of WFAN, the two sides have seemingly come to an agreement. SNY’s Andy Martino reports that it will be worth $4 million.

This will be Wilson’s second Yankees tenure. He first joined the team in 2015, as he came over from Pittsburgh in the Francisco Cervelli trade. Although Wilson only spent one season in pinstripes, it wasn’t because of any specific weakness in his game. He acquitted himself quite nicely for a team that contended for the AL East and earned a Wild Card spot, pitching to a 3.10 ERA, 2.69 FIP, and 1.131 WHIP in 61 innings (74 games). Wilson was probably the third-most reliable man in the bullpen that year, outside of only the dominant duo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances.

The following offseason, the Yankees made some bullpen additions and found an opportunity to flip the arbitration-eligible Wilson to relief-starved Detroit for a couple pitching prospects. That turned out to be a brilliant move, as Chad Green joined the team along with Luis Cessa. As Green ascended in the Yankees bullpen, Wilson continued to be a steady relief arm around the game. Over the past five years with the Tigers, Cubs, and Mets, he has notched a 3.48 ERA, 3.45 FIP, and 1.348 WHIP while also increasing his strikeout numbers to 11.0 K/9. Wilson has walked 4.1 batters per nine in his career and that figure stayed about the same in 2020, but while that’s the drawback of his game, it’s at least less consequential in middle relief (he’ll still miss bats anyway).

For most of Wilson’s career, he has been equally strong against both lefties and righties, but he took a more lefty-focused approach in 2020. Righties had a modest .719 OPS against him, but lefties were abysmal; he shut them down to the tune of a .115/.207/.231 triple slash, albeit in just 30 plate appearances due to the shortened season.

Still, in this relatively new LOOGY-proof era with a three-batter minimum, the Yankees must have confidence that Wilson can still get righties out, too. Considering that the .719 OPS in 2020 wasn’t terribly far off from the .687 OPS against in 2019, they’re probably correct. That’s not much of a difference, and I don’t see much harm in him facing a righty in the middle of two lefties, or any other permutations like that. Wilson is just a good reliever to have hanging around.

It certainly helps that Wilson is not likely going to be near the top of the bullpen depth chart this time around. The Yankees have Green, Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman to handle the game’s final innings, leaving Wilson and Darren O’Day to provide more low-stakes (but still valuable) coverage in the sixth or the seventh.

The Yankees will need to clear a 40-man roster spot at some point to make room for Wilson, but either way, we’ll have more on the signing soon.