According to the numbers, the New York Yankees have one of the best bullpens in the league. Their 5.6 fWAR and 3.09 in 527 innings entering play on Monday both rank fifth in baseball, and their 34.2-percent hard-hit rate is behind only the Mariners. While their 14.7 K-BB% rate isn’t ideal at the middle of the pack, their overall performance suggests that Yankees fans ought to feel comfortable whenever the lineup and rotation hand a lead to the bullpen.
And yet, when I look over the names that populate the Yankees bullpen, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. Aroldis Chapman has not been a reliable reliever since the first half of last season, and has at times been downright bad this year. He has failed to record an out three times this year and been walked off on multiple times. Clay Holmes had a first half for the ages, but he’s recorded as many losses as saves (4) since July 9th. Jonathan Loáisiga seems to mostly be figuring it out after returning from the injured list, but he also gave up a run three times in four games (including a three spot in September 20th’s future Yankees Classic). Clarke Schmidt and Ron Marinaccio have been good, but they’re both rookies that have interspersed rough patches amongst dominant stretches.
I could keep going, but you get the point. The Yankees bullpen is filled with arms that Aaron Boone shouldn’t exactly distrust. There isn’t really anybody currently on the roster who has a metaphorical “use only as a last resort” sign on their seat out in right field — even Chapman, by far the most inconsistent of the team’s relievers, has had numerous stretches this season in which he returned to being a lockdown reliever capable of getting high-leverage outs on a nightly basis. But ever since Michael King hit the injured list right after the All-Star break, the Yankees have lacked a reliever that was truly trustworthy, one that, when he was called upon with the game on fire, you had absolute faith that he would put the fire out unscathed. There’s reasons to trust everybody ... but there’s reasons to be wary, too.
The good news is that reinforcements have arrived in recent days. Zack Britton and Scott Effross returned from the injured list on Thursday. Additionally, Miguel Castro, Albert Abreu, and Stephen Ridings are on minor league rehab assignments, and while it’s unlikely that all three would be activated, they are options at the team’s disposal. Questions, of course, still abound. Will the 2018-20 version of Britton return, or was 2021 the beginning of the end? Will Effross continue his breakout campaign, or is he merely another 28-year-old rookie who had a random stretch as a top reliever? While there’s still time to uncover the answers to these questions, there isn’t exactly much.
In recent years, teams have overcome a less-than-stellar bullpen in the postseason, with the 2018 Red Sox and 2019 Nationals most notably utilizing starters in relief to cover up weaknesses at the back end. That a talented relief corps is still dealing with inconsistency problems is an issue that needs to be solved, and right now, the Yankees are running out of time to find the solution for this particular paradox-filled puzzle.