In a season fraught with injuries, underperformance, and a virus that can’t be controlled, Brian Cashman’s ability to rebuild a bullpen out of spare parts has kept the unit functioning well amidst the chaos of the rest of the team.
A roster will change and develop from Opening Day throughout the season due to injuries, trades, and minor league moves, but the bullpen has undergone a major facelift out of necessity. A glance at the Opening Day roster shows that the team carried:
- Aroldis Chapman
- Chad Green
- Darren O’Day*
- Luis Cessa
- Jonathan Loaisiga
- Michael King
- Nick Nelson
- Lucas Luetge
*Darren O’Day, New York Yankee — were we ever so young?
That was missing familiar faces in Zack Britton and Justin Wilson due to injuries. Britton has returned, but currently, Chapman, O’Day, and King are on the IL, Cessa and Wilson were traded to the Reds, and Nelson has been up-and-down from Triple-A Scranton due to inconsistent performance. As of today, only three relievers remain from the group that the Yankees took north out of spring training. And yet the bullpen ERA is 3.62, seventh in MLB, and their collective 5.6 fWAR ranks even better at No. 2 overall.
The current relief corps now includes:
- Chad Green
- Jonathan Loaisiga
- Zack Britton
- Lucas Luetge
- Wandy Peralta
- Joely Rodríguez
- Albert Abreu
- Stephen Ridings
Nelson, Brooks Kriske, and Brody Koerner are also in tow, but they’re more likely to be temporary replacements as those afflicted by COVID — including recent Cashman find Clay Holmes — make their way back. The question must be asked: How has the bullpen avoided the crushing depth issues hammering the rest of the team?
One of Cashman’s greatest strengths has been building bullpens. Chapman and Britton came to the team established as star closers, but they haven’t been essential to the Yankees’ success outside of Chapman’s first couple months. Britton has battled injuries and ineffectiveness all season, and Chapman had been sloppy since the end of May prior to landing on the IL. The rest of the bullpen, however, is a case study in finding value in unexpected places.
Take the ‘pen’s current de facto ace, Green, an 11th-round draft pick traded alongside Cessa from the Tigers to New York for … Wilson, who came back to the team anyway as a free agent. Green’s surprising ascent has been well-documented and was one of the best stories of the memorable 2017 campaign. Outside of a rocky start to 2019, he has been about as steady as one could hope for a reliever. By fWAR, only Liam Hendriks and Josh Hader have been better since 2017 — not bad for half the return for Wilson.
The reason that dealing Cessa and his sub-3.00 ERA was even palatable (considering the team’s overall struggles to climb in the standings) was because of the emergence of unexpected stalwarts. Loaisiga emerged as an effective pitcher in the shortened 2020 season, but he’s fully broken out this season with a 2.57 FIP and gives Aaron Boone an option besides Green for multiple high-leverage innings.
One could reasonably argue that he’s been even better than Green, and Cashman originally plucked Loaisiga off the scrap heap as a minor leaguer in the 2015-16 offseason after his original team, the Giants, cut him loose.
Luetge’s remarkable journey of returning to the big leagues after last appearing in 2015 with the Mariners is practically brought up every time he appears on the mound, but Cashman taking a flyer on him and finding a 2.79 FIP reliever does warrant a lot of praise. It’s not every year that a non-roster invitee to spring training ends up pitching the third-most innings out of the bullpen (and doing so quite capably).
The swap of Mike Tauchman for Peralta caused some gnashing of teeth due to New York’s total inability to get production from center fielders in 2021, but Peralta appears to be a decent innings-eater with multiple seasons of control. Meanwhile, after a hot start by Tauchman in San Francisco, he was designated for assignment and sent to Triple-A, where it’s looked like he belongs for more than a season now.
Smaller contributors have played their parts as well. Although Rodríguez was overlooked as part of the Joey Gallo trade, he’s thrown shutout ball in six of seven appearances early on, including work the last three days in a row — something that Boone rarely asks of his relievers — to give the rest of his bullpenmates a breather. Abreu has piloted the Scranton Shuttle for most of 2021, but he’s done the job in 12 of his 13 games, allowing the team to dream again on the once-top-100 prospect.
Even some pitchers who were way off the radar have managed to answer the call when needed. Ridings, for example, will have to pitch quite a bit more than the four innings he has under his belt, but it’s easy to look at his red mane and six strikeouts and see the makings of a fan favorite relief ace. Ridings was another impressive find for Cashman, arriving as a minor league free agent this offseason after last being seen recording a dismal 5.91 ERA in Rookie ball in 2019 with Kansas City. Now, he’s flashing triple-digits.
If only the offense had the sort of depth that the bullpen has displayed, where the unheralded and the unexpected have continually made positive impacts on the field. If the rotation’s health is going to keep getting challenged (or Andrew Heaney keeps getting starts), the bullpen will have to remain the stalwart of the team.