The playoffs can be a grind on even the deepest and most talented bullpens, facing talented offensive teams day after day in their attempt to win it all. For years Yankees fans were spoiled by Mariano Rivera’s greatness as he trotted in from the bullpen and shut down situations that made many of his peers wither. More recently, every team in the playoffs takes advantage of the schedule to push one or more of their starters into a bullpen role. These pitchers can frequently pay big dividends for their team by getting through the lineup multiple times, and this year the Yankees are set up to have a fleet of starting-caliber pitchers coming out of the bullpen.
In three of the last four World Series a starting pitcher working in a relief role has thrown the last pitch for the winning team. Even in the outlier year of those recent examples, the Washington Nationals used Patrick Corbin for three innings of relief before he turned it over to Daniel Hudson to close out the last inning. Gerrit Cole was warming up in the Astros bullpen during the same game but never made it into action. In the playoffs, teams go to the well as often as necessary to win, and often starters are their best options.
Yankees postseason history is ripe with examples of starting pitchers coming out of the bullpen in a big spot. Mike Mussina’s shutdown innings in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is one of the most famous. Even though he was past his prime and not one of Joe Torre’s most frequent options by 2000, David Cone was used to shut down Mike Piazza when it mattered most.
Starters generally have the pitch selection to work through major league hitters multiple times in a game, and that trait becomes valuable when teams face each other repeatedly. After a disappointing postseason exit in 2019, Yankees reliever Zack Britton summed up the challenges that relievers face in long postseason series.
“The more times you face guys, obviously, as relivers, you get uber exposed,” Britton said. “It’s the one thing I always say. That’s why we’re relievers, not starters. You overexpose guys, it’s inevitable that eventually, they’re going to get got a little bit.”
This season the Yankees are uniquely positioned to take advantage of starting pitchers moving to the bullpen. They have an abundance of starting pitching around the team all of a sudden. Gerrit Cole has been the ace of the staff, but he is backed up steadily by Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montgomery.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Néstor Cortes Jr. exploded onto the scene and has been one of the Yankees most consistent and reliable options this season. The lefty who came up through the system before finding major league time in Baltimore and Seattle has flourished this season and quickly become a fan favorite.
The list of talented starters is about to grow deeper as various pitchers are attempting to work their way back from injury. Corey Kluber will start for the Yankees on Monday, working his way back from months on the shelf. After a slow start to the season, he was coming on strong back in May before he went to the Injured List, highlighting his year with a no-hitter. Michael King is another pitcher who had worked in multiple roles for the team this year before hitting the IL in early July. He was recently throwing a bullpen at Double-A Somerset and could hit the rehab trail very soon.
Behind King is one of the Yankees most exciting options in Luis Severino. Once one of the best pitchers in the American League for several seasons, Severino has battled through Tommy John surgery and several setbacks. After being shut down during his rehab, he has now been cleared again to throw. There is almost no way that he will be built back up to a starter’s workload by the end of the year, but he could find himself back in the relief role that he thrived in early in his career.
As the Yankees battled injuries, they reached out to the Angels and acquired Andrew Heaney at the trade deadline. After two disastrous starts to open his Yankees career, he has proved to be serviceable in short stints during recent starts. He could prove to be a bullpen piece down the stretch.
One more arm to keep an eye on is one of the Yankees top pitching prospects, Luis Gil. He made a ton of noise by tossing 15.2 scoreless innings to start his major league career. With an elite fastball and strong slider combination, he would seem to have the tools to jump into the bullpen if needed down the stretch. He has displayed tremendous poise during his time in the major leagues.
This list alone would show that the Yankees have several starters who could jump into the bullpen and potentially impact a postseason series. They also still have Domingo Germán attempting to work his way back from injury, but it is unclear if he will be cleared and healthy enough by early October to be a factor.
The team is also still just seeing the early returns on Clarke Schmidt, who has yet to throw 20 innings on the season after suffering an elbow strain during spring training. Schmidt would have to show the Yankees very soon that he is worthy of a late season call up, but would give the Yankees another option with a starter’s arsenal.
After years of focusing on the bullpen, the Yankees have the depth in hand to put together a truly flexible postseason pitching staff. Starting pitchers used in their non-standard roles have proved invaluable for numerous teams over the years in high pressure series, and this year the Yankees have those players waiting to fill the roles they will be assigned.