The Yankees are bringing back a familiar face in Justin Wilson to solidify the bullpen, and this most likely concludes the team’s winter shopping in the major league pitching market. The story of the offseason for New York has been their steadfast determination to field a payroll below the $210 million CBT threshold. Nowhere has this spending cap been felt more than the pitching corps.
The Yankees’ self-imposed budget forced them to shop in the mid-tier pitching market when they needed to pursue top-tier talent. When an organization’s roster building objective lies not in fielding the best possible team but in resetting a tax rate to save a few million dollars down the line, the competitiveness of the team is going to suffer. And that is exactly how and why the Yankees’ pitching staff took a significant step back this winter.
To recap the changes to the Yankees pitching staff: they lost starters Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ to free agency. Tommy Kahnle was non-tendered and is now with the Dodgers, Adam Ottavino was traded to Boston in a salary dump, Jonathan Holder was non-tendered and picked up by the Cubs, and Ben Heller was released to make room on the 40-man roster. To replace these departing arms, in the rotation the Yankees signed Corey Kluber and traded for Jameson Taillon while in the bullpen they signed Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson.
At first glance, it would appear the Yankees replaced seven players with four. Of course, there will be opportunity for one or more of their minor league youngsters or veteran NRIs to fill the remaining gaps. My initial evaluation of the Kluber and Taillon additions was that of cautious optimism mixed with a stronger sense of concern that the task was left incomplete, and I feel the same way about the state of the bullpen.
My immediate reaction to Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson’s signings was mild satisfaction. Two guys with proven track records, at good prices that didn’t push the payroll over the threshold*, but nothing special. In O’Day and Wilson, the Yankees acquired two of the premier generators of soft contact in all of baseball. Among all relievers with at least 190 innings pitched since the start of the Statcast era, O’Day ranks fourth in hard hit rate and Wilson 31st. Both pitchers keep the ball in the park, surrendering less than a home run per nine in their careers. These are essential skills in the pitcher-unfriendly confines of Yankee Stadium.
(*Disclaimer: I do not for one minute support the motive to arbitrarily cap spending to reset the luxury tax rates. That being said I have resigned myself to the reality that the Yankees are pursuing this goal above all else this winter.)
Stepping back and looking at Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson as the primary bullpen reinforcements, one cannot help but feel the Yankees could have done better. Granted, they were probably never in on Liam Hendriks’ market, which is for the best considering the substantial investment already tied up in two bullpen arms. And don’t get me wrong, O’Day and Wilson certainly can be effective options out of the ‘pen. However, for a few million dollars more than the Yankees committed to O’Day and Wilson, they could have vastly improved the ceiling of their relief corps when you look at the deals signed by guys like Kirby Yates, Archie Bradley, Alex Colomé, Trevor May, and Blake Treinen.
It is also important to consider the prospective inning loads that may be placed on pitchers around the league coming off the shortened season. In an attempt to protect pitchers’ arms, teams may move even further away from the traditional five-man rotation of 200+ inning horses, instead opting for a rotation by committee. We may see starters pulled rigidly after five innings, aces topping out at 150-160 innings on the season, and an ungodly delegation of innings to the bullpen.
Given the manner in which they have constructed their pitching staff, there may be no contender that struggles with this potential shift in pitching philosophy more than the Yankees. Outside of Gerrit Cole, the Yankees have little in the way of guarantees in the rotation. Jordan Montgomery, Kluber, and Taillon have combined for 122 innings over the last two seasons, so it is difficult to envision a scenario where all three can suddenly surpass that threshold. And in the case of the latter two, they are equally likely to be ineffective as they are to be productive. Domingo Germán has not pitched since 2019, Deivi García looked effective at times and raw at others, and Clarke Schmidt and Michael King are far from ready to be major league starters.
This lack of seasoning for the back half of the rotation options means the Yankees will have to lean on their bullpen perhaps more than in any recent season. Therefore, they cannot afford to have any of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green, O’Day, or Wilson fall out of the circle of trust the way Ottavino did last year. Even if all five perform as advertised, there will still be an unprecedented number of innings that will fall to those who have struggled with effectiveness in the past (Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loáisiga) or are relatively unproven (Nick Nelson, Brooks Kriske, Albert Abreu).
The budgetary framework that has guided the Yankees’ offseason decisions has left the pitching staff in a fragile state. Every addition has to hit their ninetieth percentile projection for the Yankees pitching staff to be on a par with the likes of the Dodgers and Padres, and it is the unlikelihood of that scenario that could jeopardize the team’s World Series ambitions. If only ownership had been willing to spend that extra bit, we might have greater confidence as pitchers and catchers report to training camp.