The Yankees’ approach toward constructing the roster this season has been ... varied to say the least. The self-imposed mandate to avoid the luxury tax threshold has placed additional constraints on the already-difficult task of signing players at the right price. Therefore, the Yankees have had to roll out a high-variance, high-reward strategy to plug holes in the roster, whereas in previous years they would have been more flexible to the idea of pursuing reliable options.
Particularly as it pertains to the pitching staff, the vacancies in the rotation and bullpen have been filled with a patchwork of veteran pitchers, players returning from injury, and fringe major leaguers. Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and Darren O’Day can only take up a few of these spots. Most of the remaining players — Jhoulys Chacín, Adam Warren, Kyle Barraclough, Asher Wojciechowski, Luis García, Nestor Cortes Jr., and Tyler Lyons — were added on minor league deals.
Whether or not you agree with this course of action, that is who the Yankees appear to be stuck with as they enter spring training. Here are the best-case scenarios as well as more realistic expectations for what this septet of non-roster invitees could contribute to the Yankees this coming season.
Chacín is a 12-year journeyman who probably has the best shot of any member of this list to impact the Yankees’ starting rotation in 2021. His most recent claim to fame was as a Brewer in 2018. He was the best starter on their staff, going 15-8 with a 3.50 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 192.2 innings, and was a major contributor in reaching Game 7 of the NLCS that year.
Though Chacín has not replicated that success in the years since — getting DFA’d by the Braves after two appearances in 2020 — there is still a chance that he could provide a spot start here or there for the Yankees. His most effective pitch is the slider, which ranked among the best in the league with a -20 and -25 run value in 2017 and 2018 respectively according to Statcast. Curiously, he scrapped the pitch in 2020, so it is worth speculating whether its reintroduction into his repertoire would pay off.
This is the name that I am certain the majority of you are most familiar with, as he enters his third stint with the Yankees. Drafted by the club back in 2009, Warren flashed potential in various stints from 2012-15 until being traded to the Cubs for Starlin Castro during the 2015-16 offseason. His stay in Chicago was brief, as Brian Cashman reacquired him as part of the Gleyber Torres deadline deal in 2016, and he remained a good bullpen option for the Yankees until he was sent to the Mariners in late July 2018. While Warren has never possessed overpowering raw stuff, he has always been a steady relief presence. He achieves this with a varied pitch mix and by limiting barrels.
Warren is coming off Tommy John surgery rehab, so obviously expectations should be tempered, but I still think he is the most likely of his peers signed to minor league deals to secure a spot in the bullpen. In 2018 — his last full season before Tommy John interrupted his career — he posted a 3.14 ERA and 3.93 FIP in 47 games with the Yankees and M’s. The familiarity between Warren and the Yanks cannot hurt, and assuming he is fully healed from his rehab, there is no reason to believe that he cannot approach the 3.18 ERA reliever he was in his previous seven years in pinstripes.
For the first three years of his career, Barraclough was your typical hard-throwing reliever. In those years with Miami, he sat in the 90th percentile or better in nearly every batted ball metric. With his mid-nineties fastball and sharp-breaking slider, he totaled more than 12 strikeouts per nine and a sub-three ERA and FIP.
The righty’s career began to turn south as he began to lose velocity and spin on the fastball. Barraclough’s home run numbers and corresponding rate stats soared in the years since, leading to multiple designations for assignment. There is a chance that he could break onto the major league roster in a Luis Cessa-type role, but because of his high career walk rate (14.1 percent, a third percentile result in 2017 and 2018) he will probably not step into a high leverage role for the Yankees.
Wojciechowski has bounced between the big leagues and the minors since making his major league debut in 2015, and has never shown the consistency that would allow him to stick to a major league roster (most recently flailing with the Orioles). He possesses underwhelming stuff, which no doubt has led to his high career home run rate and 5.95 ERA. At age 32, it is unlikely that Non-NBA Woj’s stuff will improve, so I do not expect him to make much more than a cameo appearance for the Yankees this season.
García was once a decent reliever on the middling mid-2010s Phillies, but he had a pretty miserable 2020 in Texas. The righty walked more than 20 percent of the batters he faced while surrendering an almost 50 percent hard hit rate. Still, his average fastball velocity of 96.5 mph placed him in the 95th percentile league-wide.
If García can reign in the free passes and lean more on his slider (which carries a lifetime .209 xwOBA against), I think he could force his way into the Yankees bullpen conversation as a replacement for either Kahnle or Ottavino.
Nestor Cortes Jr.
Cortes was one of the first signings announced by the Yankees this winter, much to the consternation of some supporters I would imagine. Most Yankees fans will remember him as the multi-inning reliever with the funky angles who usually followed Chad Green in his role as an opener in 2019.
Even though the Yankees won 20 out of the 33 games Cortes appeared in, this had little to do with Cortes’ performances. On the year in 2019, he finished with a 5.67 ERA and 5.57 FIP... not exactly lights out. I suppose if the Yankees were to revisit the opener strategy, Cortes could finagle some playing time; at the very least his varied delivery gives hitters another thing to worry about.
Yankees fans will also be familiar with Lyons, as he has appeared sporadically for the team across the last two seasons. He has not been particularly effective since the 2017 season with the Cardinals, and there is not much reason to hope that his fortunes will change for the better. Pretty much the only thing he has going for him is that he is a southpaw, however going to a lefty purely for handedness’ sake is always inferior to a righty who can actually get guys out.