After years of being known for their veritable “super-bullpens,” the Yankees’ relievers were merely average in 2020. Adding insult to injury, the team that eliminated them from the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Rays, had one of the game’s best bullpens last season. It was a slap in the face for a Yankees team that had prided itself on relief excellence.
Shortly after they were eliminated, I took a stab at “fixing” the Yankees’ bullpen. I explained that bullpens in today’s MLB have room for an expensive closer and setup man, but the most successful groups these days are filled out by cheap options who provide a variety of skillsets. The Rays were known for having pitchers who threw with varying arm angles and velocities, while the Dodgers had soft-contact and control specialists who focused less on blowing hitters away and more on keeping the ball in the ballpark.
It seems the Yankees’ front office has either been reading Pinstripe Alley, or they just closely studied their biggest competition, because the Yankees executed on this plan over the offseason. The Yankees have upgraded their bullpen this winter, but they’ve done so by adding different types of pitchers, and without breaking the bank. Essentially, they’ve taken the best of what the Rays’ and Dodgers’ bullpens each do best and made it into a potentially formidable Yankees relief squad.
First, the Yankees re-allocated their bullpen spending. Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton are worth the combined $30 million they’re being paid, but in order to foot that cost, Adam Ottavino’s $9 million salary was going to have to be redistributed. Instead, the Yankees turned an overpay for one inconsistent reliever into new contracts for Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson — two for the price of one, as it were.
More importantly, the Yankees added relievers who will fit well into the new model of a diverse bullpen. O’Day has long stood out for his submarine windup, impeccable control and ability to generate soft contact, and the addition of Wilson gives the Yankees a lefty they can deploy in middle relief with a penchant for keeping the ball in the park. In past years, the Yankees may have gone for the big fish or the guy who threw 98 mph, but after a postseason where the team only had three relievers they could trust, the front office wisely decided that depth and diversity is more important than more heat.
While the top five bullpen arms are now set, the team also has plenty of depth options. Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loáisiga look a lot better as secondary choices rather than seventh-inning guys, and someone from the bunch of Michael King, Nick Nelson or Albert Abreu could step into a long relief role. In the inevitable event of injury or a COVID-related shortage, the Yankees have the quantity and quality in their bullpen to cover themselves.
The Yankees have essentially turned Adam Ottavino and Jonathan Holder into Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson — it’s hard not to call that a win, at least on paper. They’ve effectively remade their bullpen bridge while also keeping themselves under budget at the same time. Thanks to a shrewd offseason, the Bombers’ 2021 relief core looks better than it has in years.