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Internal bullpen options need to step up for the Yankees

There is still time and money to bring another veteran reliever, but the unit won’t be elite unless a couple of pitchers already on the roster take the next step.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Late in January, he New York Yankees addressed their bullpen with the addition of sidearmer Darren O’Day, who has a career 2.51 ERA and had a 1.10 mark in 2020 with Atlanta. However, having lost Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, and Jonathan Holder during the offseason, the unit still needs one or two more reliable arms.

We have said numerous times that relying on Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and Zack Britton isn’t ideal (now, we can add O’Day to that mix). It’s not because they aren’t good; they are. In fact, they’ll probably be great. However, given the modern focus on relief pitching, a bullpen with only three or four trustworthy arms just won’t cut it in today’s game.

Now, the Yankees have several talented arms to round out their ‘pen. They’re just not reliable for a variety of reasons. Will any of them be capable of fully breaking out and gaining manager Aaron Boone’s trust?

The Yankees need to develop at least a couple of contributing pieces to the big league bullpen in 2021. After the aforementioned departures, some relievers will need to step up, and the team needs to provide them with the proper tools.

At least one or two of the internal options — such as Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loáisiga, Brooks Kriske, Adam Warren, and Ben Heller — will need to step up for the unit to be considered an elite one. Assuming they don’t start, Michael King and Nick Nelson could be weapons from the bullpen, and Tyler Lyons and Kyle Barraclough are low-risk fliers who have been successful in the past and represent a couple of lottery tickets. That’s especially true of Barraclough, who was once a steady presence in the Marlins’ relief corps.

Now would be an ideal time for one of the young pitching arms to make moves. Loáisiga (3.52 ERA, 4.41 FIP in 2020) could thrive if given a clear role from the beginning. He has multiple secondary pitches, and from the bullpen, his fastball velocity could theoretically rise. He just needs consistency and, of course, to avoid injuries, but he carries considerable potential as a reliever. Maybe the Yankees can help Loáisiga make his four-seamer play up in the zone by adding some rise effect through a mechanical change (in this case, the release angle of the hand on the baseball), as Max Greenfield of Pitcher List suggests.

For years, the Yankees toyed with Cessa in different roles. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he raised his game once the Yankees stopped occasionally starting him. From 2019-20, he notched a 3.94 ERA, 113 ERA+, and 8.1 K/9 in 102.2 innings — all in relief. Another full year of regular relief pitching might do the trick to make Cessa improve yet again. His fastball isn’t particularly good despite having good velo, but his slider is great (.257 xwOBA and a 35.1 whiff rate in 2020) and both his sinker and changeup are usable.

I like Kriske’s fastball-splitter combination and think he could be a dark-horse candidate to contribute in 2021. (Here is a much larger look at him.) King could also really thrive in a reliever role, as Peter Brody suggests, but he has been working on his secondaries, specifically refining the axis of his changeup, and has turned his slider into a curveball, so the Yankees may choose to keep developing him as a starter.

Warren and Barraclough have an outside chance of finding themselves in the circle of trust at some point. Oddly, both Warren and Barraclough have a 3.53 career ERA, so if they are healthy and in-form, they have the potential to help.

Yes, there is still time, names available, and a little money to bring another veteran reliever. That being said, it seems likely that this is the group that Aaron Boone will have to choose from over the next month and a half. The Yankees have several options outside of the top-four who can make their presence felt in a bullpen that badly needs more trustworthy players. Will any of them actually achieve that?