With pitchers and catchers now in Tampa, it's a good time to examine the bullpen competition. A few of the remaining big name relievers have come off the board in recent weeks, making it less likely that the Yankees make any more additions before the beginning of the season. Compared to the other spring competitions, the bullpen has the most opportunities and the largest amount of candidates.
By my count, there are only three relievers coming to spring training that are simply preparing for Opening Day, not competing for a roster spot. These locks are David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton. Robertson should be the closer, while Kelley and Thornton will take over the setup duties that Robertson and Boone Logan maintained in prior seasons.
Assuming a six or seven man bullpen, that leaves three or four spots up for grabs. There are plenty of competitors, from the losers of the fifth starter competition, relievers on the 40-man, and non-roster invitees (NRIs). The bad news is that many of the candidates aren't particularly promising, especially when compared to Yankees bullpens of recent years. Of course, the bar has been set pretty high. Now though, with Mariano Rivera retiring and Robertson and Kelley graduating to larger roles, the vulnerability of the bullpen shows. Of the players in camp, who will be first in line to attempt to quell these worries?
40-man: Preston Claiborne, Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral, Jose Ramirez
Claiborne has a leg up on this group and any of the NRIs because of his time in the big league bullpen last season. Preston got off to a nice start last year, but scuffled down the stretch. Nonetheless, his performance was probably enough to make him a favorite for one of the openings.
Once a hot-shot starting pitcher prospect, Betances flourished in a transition to the bullpen in Triple-A before getting a cameo in the Bronx last year. There's no reason his stuff can't translate into a successful relief role in the majors, but command could hold him back.
If the Yankees decide to carry a second lefty, Cabral likely will be the man. A September call-up last season, Cabral did well in the limited opportunities he was given by retiring seven of nine lefties faced. Statistically, that means nothing, but he does profile as a LOOGY, and Joe Girardi may covet having two at his disposal to maximize match-ups.
Ramirez is a long-shot, but he has been speculated to be a reliever long-term because of health issues. At 24, the Yankees will probably give him another chance to start in Scranton this year, but his two-pitch repertoire (fastball/changeup) would play well in the bullpen.
Fifth Starter Race: Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Michael Pineda, Adam Warren
Of these four, only Pineda is not a realistic bullpen option. If he is not chosen as the fifth starter, he'll be ticketed to Scranton to start in Triple-A. One of Nuno, Phelps, and Warren will be sent to Triple-A, while another will be the long man. The third might have a legitimate shot at a bullpen role as well.
NRIs: Bruce Billings, Danny Burawa, Robert Coello, Matt Daley, Brian Gordon, David Herndon, Chris Leroux, Fred Lewis, Jim Miller, Mark Montgomery, Francisco Rondon, Yoshinori Tateyama, Chase Whitley
To start, let's not even consider Billings, Gordon, or Tateyama. These three are depth guys who probably won't see the majors unless there is a catastrophe. Others who practically have no chance include Burawa and Lewis. Burawa has no experience above Double-A, and the left-handed Lewis has only faced five batters above the same level.
That leaves us with Coello, Daley, Herndon, Leroux, Miller, Montgomery, Rondon, and Whitley. Coello strikes out a lot of batters with this bizarre pitch, and pitched well in 17 innings with the Angels last season, but struggles with control. Daley, Herndon, Leroux, and Miller all have had varying degrees of success at the big league level, but have struggled with health. Daley is a personal favorite given his performance last year in Triple-A and his seven shutout frames with the Yankees, plus prior success with Colorado, albeit in 2009. Montgomery, Rondon, and Whitley have been Yankees farmhands since day one, with Rondon being the lone southpaw of the bunch. Rondon's best shot at making the squad is an injury to one or both of Thornton and Cabral, so odds are slim. Whitley has been effective at Triple-A, but I'd bet Montgomery needs a bit more seasoning at the level considering his iffy walk rate. Whitley probably has a slight edge against Montgomery considering he's proven himself with Scranton for two straight seasons.
While there are some high ceiling guys in this group, such as Betances and Montgomery, my confidence in the group is low. After Robertson, Kelley, and Thornton, it's tough to predict the favorites for this race. For whatever reason, I have a feeling one of the NRIs is going to impress enough to be on the roster (Daley in my estimation), which might result in one of Claiborne and Betances being optioned to the minors. In the likelihood that a seven man bullpen is brought north, two spots remain--one certainly for a long reliever, which I expect to be either Phelps or Warren. Lastly, I expect the Yankees to carry a second lefty in Cabral.
Truthfully, it can be a bit silly to predict who is going to win a spring training competition for a multitude of reasons, including unpredictability of injuries, performance, and the fact that the roster composition fluctuates all season. It's good to get an idea of who might be with the Yankees on Opening Day, but in the scheme of things, the bullpen might have the most turnover of the entire roster during the year.