The Yankees entered the offseason with uncertainty abound at several positions. The bullpen, however, aroused no such worry and figured to be at the bottom of the Yankees’ list of concerns. The group remained largely intact from the season prior with the coaching staff demonstrating an aptitude for reinforcing those ranks with impact arms from within, justifying the unit’s projection as one of the best relief corps in the sport for another year running.
Fast-forward a few months and the group is still solid, though considerably less so than at the beginning of winter. Injuries to Lou Trivino and Tommy Kahnle in addition to Scott Effross’ continuing recovery from Tommy John surgery as well as Clarke Schmidt’s translocation to the rotation have left the bullpen thinned of depth behind the high-leverage arms of Clay Holmes, Michael King, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Wandy Peralta. Therefore, it came as little surprise when the Yankees announced they had added Albert Abreu to the 26-man roster.
2022 Statistics (with TEX, KCR, and NYY): 33 games, 38.2 IP, 3.26 ERA, 4.77 FIP, 1.47 WHIP, 22.1 K%, 12.8 BB%, 1.16 HR/9, -0.1 fWAR
2023 ZiPS Projections: 34 games, 57 IP, 4.58 ERA, 4.76 FIP, 1.46 WHIP, 23.2 K%, 12.6 BB%, 1.26 HR/9, -0.1 fWAR
Abreu is one of the players who will be asked to step up in the absences of his injured teammates, and luckily for him he can use his second stint with the Yankees in 2022 as a roadmap to guide him toward success in 2023. The hard-throwing righty was finally able to tackle some of the issues that prevented him from sticking in a major league bullpen, and it is reasonable to expect that similar results will follow should he stay the course.
The Yankees originally dealt him to the Rangers in an emergency move to acquire Jose Trevino (what a win that turned out to be for the Bombers) when Ben Rortvedt disappeared from existence. He made seven appearances for Texas before getting DFA’d, was picked up by the Royals, pitched four games for them, was DFA’d again 15 days later before finally landing back with New York after they claimed him off waivers. At the time of his return, he was the owner of an ugly 8.42 FIP and 6.67 xFIP on account of him walking a quarter of batters faced while surrendering more than two home runs per nine.
But then something changed upon his reunion in New York. For the rest of the way out, we glimpsed a version of Abreu as yet unseen as he got his first taste of sustained success at the big league level. In 22 appearances for the Yankees, Abreu pitched to a 3.16 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and 3.12 xFIP. He whittled his walk rate down to 5.6 percent and home run rate to 0.70 per nine in the Bronx, bringing about the precipitous drop in FIP and xFIP.
I wrote last season that Abreu is at his best when he follows the same prescription that transformed Clay Holmes into one of the deadliest relievers in baseball. Namely, simplify the arsenal to sinker-slider and focus on throwing the former in the zone, trusting the velocity and movement to beat the batter rather than toil over pinpoint command. The sinker is in the high-nineties with over a foot of horizontal run while the slider has induced a whiff rate in excess of 40 percent over the last two seasons — as a reliever, that’s all you need. Nail down a stable release point and believe in the stuff.
As his shaky outings this spring have shown, there is still ample room for improvement if Abreu is going to have any chance of keeping his place when the bullpen regulars return from injury. He has a troubling knack of letting inherited runners score — 15th-highest rate of any pitcher with at least 30 relief appearances in 2022 — and saw his strand rate crater by 20 percentage points when he returned to New York from Kansas City. His groundball rate fell over 10 points after making the move, with most of those grounders turning into line drives. A 9.5 percent home run per flyball rate is almost certain to regress upwards towards his career average.
All of this is to say that a lot more has to go right than wrong for Albert Abreu to carve himself out a permanent role in the Yankees bullpen. He has to show that he can maintain the same walk and home run rates of his second stint in New York for longer than a 25 inning sample. That being said, he still figures to play a critical role for the team while they await the returns of his injured bullpen mates, and can absolutely earn more of their trust in that period.