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Reflecting on the differences between the Yankees’ and Astros’ bullpen

The Yankees didn’t get Hader, but were they ever going to?

Colorado Rockies v San Diego Padres Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

No one in the American League will spend more money in 2024 than the New York Yankees, Yet when we look at bullpen spending, the Houston Astros come in at another stratosphere, basically.

Yesterday, news broke that Houston would be signing three-time NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader to a five-year, $95 million contract — the most ever guaranteed to a reliever in present-day value. It prompted me to think about a long-standing positive note with the Yankee organization — namely their ability to build good bullpens in recent years with next-to-minimal spending. In an ideal world, money would not be an obstacle in building the best teams, but since owners inevitably set budgets at certain points, it’s a pivotal aspect of roster construction.

First and foremost, it’s OK to have some reservations about the amount of money Houston just committed to a reliever, albeit one of, if not, the most dominant one in the sport. At the same time, there are also clear merits, especially in the short term. We’re not here to provide an analysis of what Houston is doing. The point to touch on is how the Yankees would look if they felt pressed to spend big on relievers, struggling to build a remotely serviceable bullpen like the 2019 Nationals.

As of right now, Tommy Kahnle — a modest free agent addition last offseason — is the highest-paid reliever on the team, making $5.75 million, while arb-eligible top relief arm Clay Holmes comes in at $3.3 million. The Astros’ Kendall Graveman was due $8 million in 2024, which he’ll miss entirely due to shoulder surgery.

San Diego Padres v Houston Astros Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The reason this works for the Yankees is their ability to find undervalued arms and extract the most out of them. This happened with cases such as that of slambio expert Ian Hamilton and the unexciting-but-productive Nick Ramirez, who combined for an ERA below 2.70 in over 120 innings of work last season after first coming to spring training as non-roster invitees.

Now, say that wasn’t a common occurrence with this team. Outside Kahnle, who came over at a reasonable two-year deal, the majority of this bullpen got on board through risk-free moves. Any team that looks to contend needs a decent level of reliability with its bullpen. If the Yankees were left to invest in the deep end of the pool, that money would have to come from somewhere on the roster, right, since it looks like they’re close to the season’s budget already.

Maybe a Carlos Rodón signing isn’t as unlikely when the rotation looked pretty solid at the time. And there was, say, another $30 million on the roster committed to Kenley Jansen and Rafael Montero (random names with recent trips to free agency).

Unless Hader’s contract is completely backloaded or built like Ohtani’s, the Astros will have over $50 million committed to Hader, Graveman, Ryan Pressly, and Rafael Montero. They can be reasonably confident in Hader and Pressly continuing to excel, but Graveman won’t pitch and Montero was a disaster in 2023, the beginning of his three-year, $34.5 million deal. Although the Astros still unquestionably have the Yankees’ number until New York flips the script, that is something that they will have to manage.

Houston’s back-end of Hader, Pressley, and Bryan Abreu should be the nastiest in the sport, and most teams would kill for such a dominant trio. However, if the Yankees had to spend that much money on their bullpen, they’d be extremely vulnerable elsewhere, and as Peter hoped earlier this offseason, they seem to have learned their lesson from the pricey Aroldis Chapman/Zack Britton/Adam Ottavino “super bullpen” boondoggle. Part of it stems from this organization’s inability or recent lack of success in maturing controllable options to take big roles, both in the lineup and starting staff.

Hader was a nice target, but in actuality, this current version of the Yanks can’t really afford to commit top dollar to its bullpen. With key lineup pieces Juan Soto and Gleyber Torres due to hit the free-agent market themselves this fall, the front office under ownership needs to be cognizant of the payroll specifics. It might not be as flashy a bullpen, but it has a good shot to be the better in the long run.