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Have the Yankees learned their lesson from the “super-bullpen” boondoggle of 2019?

No, Yankees, the “bullpen of death” is not the answer to fixing the rotation.

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MLB: Game One-New York Yankees at Texas Rangers Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees’ pursuit of pitching has kicked into full gear. Following a season in which the starting rotation collapsed behind Gerrit Cole, New York finds itself in need of multiple starters if they intend to capitalize on their nearly-shut competitive window. They are among the top suitors for NPB superstar Yoshinobu Yamamoto and are connected with other names at the top of the market — including a potential reunion with Jordan Montgomery — but with other interested bidders they cannot be guaranteed of signing either player.

On Sunday, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that should the Yankees fail to land Yamamoto, they may opt to go the route of a “‘super-charged’ bullpen” to fill those innings instead. They have reportedly checked in with the three best available relievers — Josh Hader, Jordan Hicks, and Robert Stephenson. Hader could be looking to break Edwin Diaz’s five-year, $102 million record deal for a reliever while Hicks and Robertson are projected to pull down multi-year deals in the eight figures overall.

If this sounds like a familiar story, that’s because it’s the exact same tack the Yankees took during the winter following the 2018 season. Remembering back to that fateful offseason, the Yankees made a half-hearted attempt to sign Manny Machado, never made an offer to Bryce Harper, and struck out in their efforts to bring top pitching target Patrick Corbin to the Bronx. With limited options remaining on the starter market but a strong urgency to capitalize on the championship window opened by the Baby Bombers, the Yankees zigged when they should have zagged.

Attempting to take a page out of the mid-2010 Royals’ book, Brian Cashman pivoted to the reliever market. The rationale: if you can’t sign the starter you want, bring in the best relievers on the market to eat those innings. This line of thinking led the team to sign Zack Britton to a three-year, $39 million deal, followed by Adam Ottavino on a three-year, $27 million pact in the span of two weeks, giving them a three-headed monster of Ottavino, Britton, and Aroldis Chapman at the back end of the bullpen. We all know how that turned out.

Ottavino was decent enough in his first season but was so bad in 2020 that the Yankees felt compelled to salary dump him on the Red Sox. Britton at least provided two good seasons, but two surgeries to his pitching elbow cost him the majority of 2021 and 2022, ultimately ending in his retirement after failing to find a team in 2023. Chapman got progressively worse in each of his last three seasons with the team and was a perennial source of heartache in the playoffs, consecutive seasons in 2019 and 2020 cut short by walk-offs he served up.

Such is the problem of highly compensated high-leverage relievers, particularly within the rigid system of bullpen deployment the Yankees employed during the trio’s tenure. Between Chapman, Britton, and Ottavino, New York had $39.2 million, or roughly 17 percent of their payroll tied up in just three players who at best could give you 200 innings out of the 1,500 needed to get through a regular season. And wouldn’t you know it? This problem reared its ugly head in short order.

Faced with a shortage of starting pitching — the money that could have been invested in the a top-line member of the rotation that was instead earmarked for their not-so-super bullpen — the Yankees were forced to roll out some questionable playoff strategies. Faced with a win-or-go-home Game 6 in the 2019 ALCS, the Yankees had to go with an opener situation, and Chad Green got smoked for three runs in the first as New York would fall, 6-4. One year later came the much-questioned Deivi García/J.A. Happ combo loss to Tampa Bay in ALDS Game 2 that helped lead to another series defeat.

The Yankees cannot afford to make this mistake again. They cannot tie up a significant percentage of Hal Steinbrenner’s allotted payroll in the bullpen, where from a pure dollars-to-WAR perspective you get the least efficient bang for your buck. The volatility of relievers from year to year makes any large investment an inherently riskier one than for perhaps any other position around the diamond.

What’s more, the Yankees have proven the prototypical case for the fungibility of relievers. Each year, they are able to replace the latest outgoing reliever with another arm off the conveyor belt of young talent. Each year, they transform another team’s castoff into a shiny new high octane relief ace. Their pitching prospect pipeline is unrivaled, the pitching dev department showing an aptitude for churning out wave after wave of rookie relievers, transforming minor league pitching depth into major league relief help.

Occam’s razor tells us that the easiest path to fixing the starting rotation is, shocker, acquiring good starting pitchers. All of their efforts should be poured into securing Yamamoto’s signature followed by another impact starter, especially given the uncertainty surrounding Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes. It is beyond time that they disavow themselves once and for all of the delusion that a “super-charged” bullpen can make up for a deficit in the starting rotation.