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How $30 million is hampering the Yankees

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Two big investments in the bullpen are preventing additions anywhere else.

Philadelphia Phillies v. New York Yankees Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Everything about this Yankee season goes back to the team committing to resetting the CBT threshold, finishing the season with a payroll below $210 million, and avoiding the repeater penalties. Since this is the driving force behind the year, every decision they make must be viewed through the CBT lens — not bringing Masahiro Tanaka back is because of the CBT hit, for example.

When you artificially cap your resources like this, efficiency becomes more important. If the Yankees ran a $270 million payroll, they could afford to have some money tied up in less-efficient areas, or certain players underperforming in their roles. Instead, because they’re right up against this ceiling of allocation, they need those dollars to bring more and more efficient returns.

Which brings me to the twin cases of Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton. They are, at their best, two of the five or so best relievers in baseball. They combine for a $30,466,667 CBT hit, about 14.5 percent of the threshold limit. More than that, they also combine to take up 87 percent of the team’s overall spending on the bullpen. And they have not done well this year.

So much of the reason the Yankees are in the position they’re in is because of devastating bullpen meltdowns. The Tigers, Twins, Angels, Mets, Astros and Red Sox have all won games they had no business winning, because the Yankee bullpen couldn’t hold leads that their much-maligned offense and oft-questioned starting pitching had built for them. The Yankees are 50-46; give them back five of those six losses and they’re a Wild Card team, and we’re having very different conversations about how this team has fared.

So much of the reason the Yankees are in the position they’re in is because of devastating bullpen meltdowns, meltdowns that Chapman has been instrumental in, meltdowns that Britton has been unavailable for, meltdowns that the Yankees went to other, nominally lesser relievers for because of a combination of ineffectiveness and injury.

Really, this financial commitment to the back of the bullpen is the same critique lobbed at Giancarlo Stanton. The difference is, Giancarlo Stanton has actually been good, and available. He has a 124 OPS+, 24 percent better than league average. Chapman’s ERA is exactly league average, the worst mark of his career. Britton’s 53 ERA+ has only come in 6.1 innings.

But I don’t blame any player for their contract. Contracts are a two-way street, the player and the team come to an agreement about what the player will be paid, and the Yankees have made it clear in the past (read: eight months ago) that if they don’t feel like a player is worth the contract, that player walks. So, the Yankees, with their finite resources, have decided that spending $30 million on two bullpen pieces is better than the next best alternative.

This is, I believe, misguided. Investments in the bullpen are tricky things, since relief pitching is the most volatile, and most fungible, part of a roster. Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga prove that, two pitchers that as recently as last year we’d all roll our eyes to see them brought into a game. Now, with a mechanical tweak or increase in pitch usage, is there a Yankee fan out there that would prefer Chapman or Britton to Loaisiga? He is objectively the best reliever on the team and the Yankees are paying him $600,000.

Because of that fungibility and volatility, bullpen spending for a team with a self-imposed cap on salaries needs to be the most efficient part of the team. If the Yankees were outspending the Dodgers, or willing to blow past the CBT line to bring in Max Scherzer AND Joey Gallo, the financial commitment to two relievers would be much less of an issue. Instead, the push to finish the season at $209,999,999.99 coupled with the performance of the two nominal highest-leverage arms in the bullpen is hamstringing the team’s ability to make any real moves.