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The Yankees relief corps enters uncharted waters

Why small external additions to the bullpen might still make sense this offseason.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

I like visualizing things in chart form, even simple things. That includes how dominant the Yankees bullpen has been over the last decade. Having one of the top-five bullpens in baseball by WAR for seven consecutive full seasons is both well- and poorly- (mostly poorly) represented by the sight of a bunch of small numbers stacked on top of each other. It does give some sense of longevity, though. You have to reach back to days when Vernon Wells and Alfonso Soriano patrolled the outfield to find the last time the Yankees even sniffed fielding a truly below-average overall relief corps for a full-length season.

Ranking by ERA and fWAR — which here mostly just means FIP — is far from an exhaustive way to do things. But it generally tracks with what we’ve all watched. Even in 2016, the last time the Yankees missed the playoffs, they famously used the elite arms at the back of their bullpen to bolster the core of the winners they’ve produced since. They’ve been doing bullpens right for a while.

As of now, one thing is going to be different in 2023. Homegrown stars are nothing new to the Yankees bullpen: Dellin Betances and Chad Green are the top Yankees relievers by fWAR since 2015. But for the first time since a 2013 unit led by Mo, David Robertson and Adam Warren, the Yankees bullpen projects to contain zero players signed to a major league deal from outside the organization.

That’s not a bad necessarily thing. The Yankees are really good at developing pitchers! And nobody’s champing at the bit to make any splashy additions just as $30 million in payroll space that was previously occupied by Chapman and Zack Britton is coming free. Besides, an elite bullpen led entirely by reclamation projects and internally-developed workhorses isn’t theoretical: It’s more or less what happened in 2022, when the aforementioned two failed to make any positive impact.

MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

That doesn’t mean the Yankees should be passive about potentially adding to it this offseason, even as other parts of their roster surely take priority. One could be forgiven for being quite satisfied with what they’ve got. They’re returning six pitchers who posted an ERA+ better than 140 last season, a seventh who sat at 125 in limited action, and an eighth — Jonathan Loaísigia — who’s certainly better than his 4.12 ERA that translated to a 95 ERA+. If staying elite is the goal, though — and given the current lack of large volumes of reliable innings behind Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes, maintaining a créme-de-la-créme bullpen sure seems like a big part of the plan — the Yankees might do well to at least dip their toe into the free agent pool in advance of 2023.

There are a couple reasons why being proactive in recruiting another proven pitcher from outside the org (or perhaps a few, at varying levels of “need to be on the MLB roster NOW”) could be beneficial to their player evaluation and roster flexibility farther down the line. It doesn’t have to be a significant addition by any means, but spending for some low-risk, high-reward innings from someone with a history of success might go a long way towards making the rest of the organization’s pitching machine work at the highest level. There’s not a ton of downside to giving a relatively small — small enough that moving or cutting it early- or mid-season if necessary shouldn’t be an obstacle — major league deal to someone like Trevor May, Archie Bradley, or Matt Strahm. Ditto a minor league show-me tryout to perhaps Jimmy Nelson, Mike Mayers, or Hirokazu Sawamura.

There’s the injury component. Pitchers get hurt. It’s unclear when exactly Michael King will be fully healthy, and teams often carry an extra reliever early in the season for a reason: It’s almost inevitable that not quite all of the team’s top arms are 100% ramped up and ready to go on opening day. The Yankees system is no doubt capable of producing more breakout pitchers like King and Ron Marinaccio, but you also need time in spring training and early in the season to figure out who those players are.

Marinaccio and Lou Trivino are expected to fill many of the early-season innings that previously went to players like the departed Chapman, Green, and Miguel Castro. With most of last season upper-minors pitching depth either injured or in the A’s organization, an extra layer of external help on either the major or minor league side might serve both as quality depth in case of injury on the major league side early in the season and also as a buffer between the middle of the team’s bullpen and a bundle of minor league depth that may take a few weeks to sort itself out clearly.

MLB: New York Yankees at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at this particular group of Yankees pitchers, it seems that the only thing left to do to remain elite in an ever-evolving league is to simply ensure their innings on the margins are as high-quality as possible, given the regression that’s likely in some areas. Asking Wandy Peralta and Lucas Luetge to both remain 40% better than average at preventing runs is easier said than done, given the volatility that comes with their age, approach, and suppressing homers for an extended period of time. The latter point can also be made about Marinaccio and Trivino, in their times in pinstripes. Keeping home run rates low is a skill and function of approach but still prone to randomness, and it might not be reasonable to expect that duo and a healthy King to pitch to the 170 ERA+ they did as a group a year ago.

There are only so many players inside an organization, and just a few small additions can relieve a pressure on a minor league system to produce quality players at a faster rate and higher volume than it might be capable of in a given year. The Yankees pitching development is among the best, but with the last vestiges of the old era gone, they’re undeniably asking a lot of it in 2023. Their bullpen already has one of the highest ceilings in the game, so while it’ll almost certainly be good in any case, one or two of those small external additions might be an easy way to help them stay at the top of the league even they don’t catch quite as many breakouts as they did this past summer.