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Are any free agent relievers worth the Yankees’ time?

The Yanks could shore up the bullpen as spring gets underway.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics
Ken Giles
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Spring training activities are ramping up and so is our anticipation for the upcoming season. The Yankees’ payroll sits a shade under the “Steve Cohen tax” threshold, and with ownership unlikely to exceed it, I wouldn’t expect any seismic changes to the shape of the roster. That being said, there is always opportunity to improve around the margins.

Last week, my colleague Jeff ran though the unsigned starting pitchers remaining on the free agent market to gauge the value any could add to the back-end of the rotation. As a follow-up to his piece, I figured now was a good time to repeat the exercise, this time for relievers.

Over the last month, we’ve continuously updated our player target series, providing profiles on players should rumors emerge linking them to the Yankees. Many of those players have since signed, leaving New York with an ever-shrinking list of options to reinforce the roster. Many have cited left-handed bullpen depth as a concern for the Yankees, so it’s interesting that the top options comprised a trio of southpaws in Matt Moore, Zack Britton, Will Smith. Moore recently signed with the Angels, a reunion with Britton feels unlikely, and Smith is likely seeking a major league deal.

With that in mind, we’ll have to move down a tier of relievers as we search for players New York could entice to camp as a non-roster invitee (NRI). That’s not to say we should write off players who fall into that category. Just looking at the list of players who have had to settle for invitations to big league camps across the league, there are plenty of people who can still make a difference this season.

The Bombers love velocity coming out of the ‘pen, so to that end they might consider Ken Giles, Trevor Rosenthal, or Hansel Robles. The trio of 32-year-olds come with serious question marks, the former two due to extensive injuries and the latter simply being mediocre.

Giles missed most of 2020 and all of 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery (TJS) and landed on the 60-day IL with a finger injury in 2022. He has lost about three mph off his fastball since his closer days with Houston, but did make five scoreless appearances for the Mariners last year Robles certainly still throws hard but doesn’t do much with that velocity, pitching to a 5.63 ERA in 116 appearances for the Angels, Twins, and Red Sox across the last three seasons.

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres
Trevor Rosenthal
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Rosenthal has an even longer laundry list of ailments, from TJS in 2017, thoracic outlet surgery and a torn hip labrum in 2021, and hamstring and lat issues that kept him out all of 2022. He hasn’t thrown a pitch in the major leagues since 2020, but perhaps his nine dominant scoreless outings for the Padres that season will entice a bidder. (He’s even technically a former Yankee, as he was with Triple-A Scranton for a hot second in late 2019.)

On the younger end of the flamethrowing spectrum lie Corey Knebel and Josh James. Knebel revitalized his career somewhat with the Phillies last season, posting a 3.43 ERA, 4.46 FIP, and 41 strikeouts in 44.2 innings en route to a World Series appearance. He did, however, have to miss the postseason and September stretch drive due to a tear in his shoulder capsule. James broke out for the Astros in 2018 as one of the hardest throwing relievers in baseball, but has seen his career stall, spending all of 2022 at Triple-A before undergoing flexor tendon surgery in October.

I mentioned earlier that adding a lefty reliever may be on the Yankees radar — Wandy Peralta is the only lefty currently in New York’s bullpen — and besides the players mentioned we also find Brad Hand, Jose Alvarez, and Steven Brault still available.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Hand was one of the most consistent bullpen arms last decade, producing the seventh-most value of any qualified reliever between 2016 and 2020. He has since seen his strikeout rate plummet and walk rate soar, though he did bounce back somewhat with the Phillies in 2022, posting a 2.80 ERA, 3.93 FIP, and 38 strikeouts in 45 innings. Alvarez has quietly put together an admirable big league career as a reliever, with a 3.47 lifetime ERA in over 420 innings. 2022 was his first lost season as both the walks and home runs skyrocketed, culminating in season ending TJS in late-September. Brault allowed three runs across nine appearances for the Cubs in 2022 and is a guy who relies on his extension off the mound to compensate for the relative lack of velocity.

Cody Stashak and Archie Bradley are the two youngest relievers available. Stashak’s is a bit like the right-handed version of Hand in that he doesn’t throw particularly hard, but maintains enough unpredictability with his 50-50 fastball-slider mix that he’s managed to pitch to a sub-3.00 FIP across his four years in Minnesota — though he did undergo season-ending labrum surgery in June. Bradley has slowly seen his effectiveness fade into the background, going from a two-win reliever in Arizona to a replacement-level player at this point in his career.

The pickings are slim on the relief market, so unless the Yankees are able to unlock something unexpected in one of these aforementioned players (à la the once-NRI/since-departed Lucas Luetge), they will probably prefer to stay internal in the hope of finding quality big league innings.