This offseason’s pitching market was not the deepest one we have seen, particularly when it comes to impact relief pitchers. A handful of relievers have signed with clubs, including Craig Kimbrel and Emilio Pagán, but the Yankees have not struck a deal with any of these notable free agent arms thus far — not even old friend Wandy Peralta. The New York bullpen was a solid one in 2023, leading the majors as a unit in ERA, but like any ‘pen, reinforcements will always be needed at one point or another.
This past weekend, the Yankees emerged as a top contender for the services of Hector Neris, one of the top relief options on the market headed into the 2024 campaign. MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand had the rumor:
Hector Neris’ market is becoming active, with the Yankees and Rangers emerging as potential frontrunners to sign the reliever, per sources.— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) January 14, 2024
The match would certainly make some sense for the Yankees, Neris will not be the investment that a Josh Hader-esque reliever would be, but his talent and consistency are well-documented, and the righty is coming off of a career year. Neris had a player option for 2024, worth $8.5 million, but elected to decline and test the open market. Based on some of the numbers being thrown to to other pitchers around the league, it seems like a wise move at the moment.
As mentioned, Neris had a banner year in 2023, his second with the Houston Astros. In 68.1 innings, he managed a stingy 1.71 ERA (seventh-best among qualified relievers), a 3.83 FIP, while striking out an impressive 28.2 percent of opposing batters, and walking 11.4 percent. In terms of simple run prevention, it was the easily the best of his 10-year big league career, but it didn’t come without any downsides.
Neris’ FIP was more than two runs higher than his ERA, and of course, there are reasons for that. While his K rate remains very good at 28.3 percent last year, it came with a walk rate that was in the bottom 12 percent of pitchers. This is a profile one might expect from a fireballer out of the pen, which Neris really isn’t. His fastball averaged just 93 mph, as he relied on the weak contact he induced so well on top of his strikeouts. Last year, his xBA against was in the 95th percentile, and his hard hit rate in the 98th - not many were better at getting favorable contact than him. While this isn’t something he’s done at this level before, and it’s not the most repeatable skill, it is a nice pairing with his typical strikeout stuff.
Prior to coming to Houston for the 2022 season, the fiery right-hander spent parts of nine seasons with the Phillies. Since 2016, he’s pitched at least 47.1 innings out of the ‘pen (except for the shortened 2020 season), and has remained fairly consistent. The 34-year-old has maintained an impressive 30.5-percent strikeout rate over the course of his career, and has managed a better-than-average FIP in every season but one.
Interestingly for someone far along in their career, Neris changed his approach upon his arrival in Houston. For much of his career with the Phillies, he leaned heavily on his splitter, throwing it over 65 percent of the time in one season. But, in 2022 and ‘23 he shifted to his four-seamer much more, while still using the splitter and mixing in some sinkers and sliders. Evidently it worked, as he posted the best FIP of his career in 2022, and his best ERA in ‘23 as he headed into the free agent market.
While 2023 may not be the most sustainable performance ever, with the hard-to-project weak contact that Neris induced and his astronomical 90.5-precent left-on-base rate, his volume and performance over the past decade largely locks him in as a solid contributor out of the bullpen for a potential contender like the Yankees.
While the bullpen has been a strength for many recent Yankee teams, there is never a bad time to add another consistent arm. The 2024 bullpen projects to include some talented but injury-related question marks in Scott Effross and Tommy Kahnle, and recent signee Luke Weaver (toss trade addition Victor González into the mystery box as well if you’d like). If all the dominos fall in the right spot, it could be another solid relief year for the Yanks, and adding someone like Neris can only increase those chances.