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Dissecting the bottom of the Yankees’ bullpen

Most competitions in camp seem clear cut, but the bullpen is a different matter.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For most of the competitions that the Yankees have in spring, there’s a clear head to head matchup. For the fifth starter, the Yankees will either run Domingo Germán or Deivi García. The extra outfielder slot could go to Mike Tauchman, or Jay Bruce could take it from him. The backup infielder job is between the incumbent Tyler Wade or the veteran Derek Dietrich.

The final spots in the bullpen, however, have a wide field of candidates. Michael King, Jonathan Loáisiga, Luis Cessa, Nick Nelson, Lucas Luetge, and Tyler Lyons are all still vying for a handful of slots in the front end of the ‘pen. The team may be entering 2021 with a lack of answers in the starting rotation beyond their gambles on Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, but their other options provide a solid floor for relievers to fill the gap in innings that will almost certainly emerge this year.

The gap between these pitchers is extremely narrow, making the choice of who to rely on a difficult one. As far as roster construction goes, there are a few factors to consider. 40-man slots are an inherent advantage, and everyone except Luetge and Lyons benefits there. Handedness is also important, especially in the wake of Zack Britton’s injury, and there Luetge and Lyons are the benefactors. Spring performance, as much as we can read into it, should push some up and some down.

The most important factor in this competition, however, is the ability to cover multiple innings. The Yankees have a few locks in the bullpen already, but in the back end of the ‘pen only Chad Green can be considered a multi-inning reliever. Aroldis Chapman has been asked to get a two-inning save on occasion, but it’s safe to say that the team would prefer to have him handle just one. Josh Wilson and Darren O’Day are more traditional relievers as well, and are expected to handle the later innings where one frame is the standard.

That leaves the responsibility to sponge up innings to the middle relievers, something that the Yankees are well-built to accomplish. The group of Loáisiga, Cessa, King, and Nelson all have experience as starters in the minors, and have seen extended outings in the majors already. Besides Cessa, the remaining three all have minor league options left as well, which will matter as it’s highly unlikely that all four make the roster. Based on how camp has played out it appears that King would be the odd man out here, as Loáisiga figures to be a bridge to the back end and Nelson has impressed in his short time with the team.

We’ve arrived at an answer as to who should come away with the roster spots, but how should the Yankees utilize each of these pitchers? Loáisiga, as previously mentioned, appears to have the slight edge in terms of priority out of the gate. Of the bunch Loáisiga has perhaps the most potential, though he’s dampened that somewhat by being unavailable thanks to injury more often. His results have improved every year — his ERA dropped from 5.11 in 2018 to 3.52 in 2020 and his ERA+ has shown that he’s gone from slightly-below average to slightly-above average.

The concern, however, is that Loáisiga’s FIP suggests that his progress hasn’t been as pronounced. His 5.11 ERA in 2018 was buoyed by a 3.52 FIP, but the last two years as his ERA improved his FIP actually decreased. At the same time, Loáisiga has found a harder time striking out batters, which would fall in line with Loáisiga having to rely on his defense to bail him out a bit more. That being said, Loaisiga’s also cut down significantly on his walks allowed and reined in his home run rate as well, so it’s fair to believe that the Yankees’ confidence in him isn’t misplaced.

Cessa enters 2021 off of a career year that has instilled some confidence that he may have finally found his footing. A career-low 3.32 ERA and 1.246 WHIP was likely enough to cement his place in the ‘pen regardless of his lack of options, though he’ll have to prove it all over again this year. Cessa figures to be the closest the Yankees will have to a true long reliever, having pitched 81 innings solely in relief back in 2019. A similar workload would likely be available this year, and although most of them should be in low-pressure situations, Cessa could challenge Loáisiga for the task of being the bridge reliever.

Nelson’s inclusion isn’t guaranteed by any means, but his results so far warrant at least a stint in the majors. He’s the least experienced of the bunch, so it’s likely that Nelson will get looks only when the higher priority guys need a day off, but he has the capability to rise fast should he succeed. He flew through the system in 2019 and got a brief look last year at the lowest point of the totem pole, and that’s where he should start his 2021 season as well.

On top of this trio, Luetge deserves a mention as a high riser through camp. His window opened the day Britton went down due to elbow surgery, and he’s done everything to seize the opportunity. When Britton eventually winds up on the Injured List, Luetge could very well be the replacement that the team has in mind, though where that would leave him when Britton returns would be a looming question mark. For now though, he fits the mold well enough to earn a spot.

The Yankees bullpen will be a vital part of the team’s success this year, and not just because of the top arms. The front end will matter more than ever thanks to how starters will be managed returning to a full year of games, and the Yankees are uniquely situated to cover this scenario better than most.