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Long relief is key for the Yankees’ April plans

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A rotation full of question marks leaves the bullpen needing to step up.

MLB: New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Tyson once said that everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face. I don’t know much about being punched in the face, but I know a thing or two about sports narratives, and I propose an edit to Mr Tyson: Everyone has a narrative until the games start.

So much of the focus of the 2021 Yankees is around the lineup, since we’re all hoping that this is the year Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and the rest are healthy and productive, giving the team the best offense in the AL. Instead, the focus as I see it after the first series with the Blue Jays, is that the Yankees once again have the best bullpen in the game, and they’ve also thrown 15.2 innings headed into play Monday night.

Mike King is the early hero of the season, working six shutout innings in Sunday’s loss, but I have a feeling he won’t be the only reliever asked to work more this month than normal. The Yankees have assembled a high-ceiling rotation, but as we saw against the Jays, working out the rust and kinks in it means the bullpen needs to be effective right out of the gate.

Gerrit Cole is one of baseball’s last workhorses, but he’s really the only known entity in the rotation. We saw with both Corey Kluber and Domingo Germán how much rust can not only affect a pitcher’s ability to go deep into games, but also have to be overriding concerns around usage and innings limits. The Yankees have already juggled the rotation to delay Jameson Taillon’s usage, and trying to get everyone ramped up for full seasons when most of the rotation barely pitched in 2020 is going to lead to even more creativity.

I think we’ll see the most of this come in April, since we have so little information on how much Kluber, Germán, and Taillon will be used, and what their bodies will be able to manage. We’re going to see more games like we saw Saturday and Sunday, where relief pitching was asked to cover 11 of the 18 combined innings. Hopefully, outings like Germán’s on Sunday are few and far between, but we should certainly expect a near 50/50 distribution of innings —something not many fans would be used to.

This is possible partially due to the early schedule, with the Yankees getting an off day this Thursday and next. The team’s first 15 games — what would traditionally be three times through the rotation — come with four off days, giving opportunities to rest relief arms and possibly even schedule double days off, with someone resting the day before or after an off day then called to work in back to back games.

It’s also possible because of who is in the bullpen. King showed that he can go through a lineup multiple times, but eight of Jonathan Loaisiga’s twelve outings last year were more than one inning of work, and Nick Nelson went multiple innings in seven of eleven appearances in 2020. Chad Green might not be able to record six-plus outs, but he can work into the second inning of an appearance as well.

So the Yankees have the arms to cover for shorter starts — intentional or not — in the early goings, but that reinforces the need for proper rest. Michael King was obviously unavailable Monday against the Orioles, and the Yankees would probably prefer he take Tuesday off as well. It’s certainly likely this week, with Jordan Montgomery and Gerrit Cole throwing back to back days, but could get more challenging as the rest of the rotation figures out what they’re capable of.