In a surprising and under-the-radar set of moves, the Yankees signed Tyler Duffey, Chi Chi González, and Jacob Barnes to minor league contracts within the last 48 hours. What motivations could be behind the organization adding three right-handed pitchers with major league experience to the Triple-A roster? Let’s find out who these guys are and what they could possibly offer the Yankees.
Duffey spent the first eight years of his major league career with the Twins after they drafted him back in 2012. He was designated for assignment at the beginning of the month after pitching to a 4.91 ERA and 4.81 FIP with diminished strikeouts and elevated home run rates. He briefly signed with the Rangers on a minor league deal before opting out and joining the Yankees.
Duffey was one of the best relievers in baseball between 2019 and 2020, placing seventh in K-BB% (28.2 percent) and xFIP (2.80) and 13th in fWAR (1.9) among qualified relievers. That’s far from the case this season, with the 31-year-old losing roughly a mph off his fastball velocity from his peak. As is the case when a pitcher loses velocity, the performance of his other pitches suffered. The command also took a step back, with his walk rate between 2021 and 2022 jumping almost four points relative to his previous career average while his first pitch strike rate sank to a career-low.
Given the somewhat tenuous health of the Yankees’ bullpen this season, it’s easy to see why they would want additional depth of relievers with major league high leverage experience in Triple-A. If Matt Blake can tease out even a portion of the effectiveness that made Duffey one of the most consistent setup men at the turn of the decade, he could be a valuable option waiting in the wings to reinforce the major league bullpen.
Chi Chi González
González started out with the Rangers his first two years in the bigs before moving over to the Rockies for three seasons. He bounced between the minors and majors with the Twins, Brewers, and Tigers this season before opting out of his minor league deal and landing with the Yankees.
It’s a little more difficult to see the fit here than with Duffey. Between 2015 and 2022, González was one of the worst starting pitchers in MLB, owner of the second-worst K-BB% (3.6 percent), third-worst ERA (5.93), fourth-worst xFIP (5.28), sixth-worst FIP (5.54), and ninth-worst fWAR (0.4) among starters with at least 200 innings pitched. He truly hit rock bottom last season, placing in the first percentile in strikeout rate, whiff rate, xBA, xSLG, xERA, and xwOBA.
He doesn’t throw particularly hard and his pitches don’t move all that much, but if you squint there are some intriguing aspects of his pitching profile. In recent years, he’s employed a fastball, cutter, slider mix like we’ve seen from many of the pitchers on the Yankees this year. This provides him a gradient of movement separation across the three pitches, which recent research suggests is optimal over an approach of maximizing separation in movement particularly on the horizontal plane.
Barnes is your typical journeyman reliever, having played for six different organizations in his six years in the bigs, with all those relocations happening over the last four years. He was quite effective his first three seasons with the Brewers, pitching to a 3.54 ERA (121 ERA+) and 3.55 FIP across 149 relief appearances totaling 147.1 innings. That effectiveness fell off the face of the Earth beginning in 2019, with Barnes the owner of a 6.48 ERA (68 ERA+) and 5.04 FIP, much of this due to the fact that he is allowing almost three times as many home runs per nine than in those first three seasons.
After carrying a roughly league average strikeout rate for a reliever his first six years in the league, his punchouts cratered to the point that he’s barely striking out more people than he’s walking. He’s giving up the hardest average exit velocity of his career, although the exit velocity and groundball rates are some of the best marks of his career.
I think Barnes is the most fascinating of the three pitchers the Yankees signed. His cutter exhibited the fifth-most horizontal movement versus average of any cutter in baseball in 2021. It’s actually bizarre that his slider is simply average in terms of sweep given the seam-shifted wake characteristics of both pitches, and I wonder if the Yankees could get more movement out of cutter and slider given the success with the cutter and whirly this year. In addition, his four-seamer was comfortably in the 90th percentile in vertical movement last year. Could he join Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes as the next high-spin rising fastball in the Yankees’ ranks?
I still find myself asking what exactly these signings mean? What do their additions say about internal evaluations of the state of the bullpen? On the one hand, this could just be replenishing reliever depth in Triple-A of guys traded away like Waldichuk and Wesneski who might’ve been called up in September. On the other hand, given the injuries that have plagued the Yankees bullpen — Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Michael King, Chad Green, Scott Effross, Miguel Castro, Stephen Ridings, and Albert Abreu are all currently on the IL — any of these three players could find a roll on the major league roster sooner rather than later. In addition, as the only one of the trio with starting experience, González could be used as an emergency or spot starter given the uncertainty surrounding Jameson Taillon’s forearm contusion (though Taillon did sound confident that he wouldn’t miss a start) and the lack of other viable starting options in the minors with Luis Gil out for the year with TJS and Deivi García only recently re-promoted to Triple-A.