Overshadowed by the acquisitions of Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro, and Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees picked up Kirby Yates from the Cleveland Indians in January for cash considerations. This transaction did little to move the needle in terms of media or fan interest, yet Yates has the capacity to contribute to the 2016 bullpen, which has numerous spots up for grabs in spring training behind the trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman.
The Yankees gave up a measly $78,000 to obtain Yates from Cleveland, making him an extremely low risk acquisition. They were able to buy low on Yates due to his absolutely atrocious performance with the Tampa Bay Rays last season, in which he allowed 10 home runs over 20.1 innings to produce a 7.97 ERA and 8.64 FIP. Given those numbers, it's reasonable to assume that Yates offers nothing but the ability to eat some innings in Scranton this season. However, he brings some intriguing tools that could make him someone to watch this year.
First, he has demonstrated the ability to strike batters out throughout his professional career. According to Fangraphs, since advancing to Triple-A in 2013, Yates has struck out no fewer than 12 batters per nine innings. That ability has also translated to the Major League level. In 37 appearances with the Rays in 2014, Yates averaged 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and even last year as he struggled, Yates managed to average better than one strikeout per inning. The Yankees clearly have prioritized identifying relievers who can rack up strikeout numbers in large quantities in recent years, and Yates absolutely fits that mold.
Another box that Yates checks for the Yankees is his arm talent, and specifically the velocity and movement on his four-seam fastball. Yates' fastball averaged better than 93 miles per hour in 2015 and generated a relatively high rate of swings and misses. He is also something of anomaly as a reliever who features four pitches, including his fastball (56% of pitches in 2015). He also throws a knuckle curve (17% of pitches in 2015), a slider (18% of pitches in 2015), and a changeup (9% of pitches in 2015). Of his four pitches, Yates' changeup and slider are clearly his two weaker offerings. In 2015, opposing hitters slugged 1.250 and .800 against his changeup and slider respectively, versus only .546 and .385 against his four-seam fastball and curveball.
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild is known for helping pitchers get the most out of their secondary offerings (the emergence of Nathan Eovaldi's splitter last year is a prime example), and it seems likely that he will work with Yates on doing just that. Most relievers don't use more than two pitches, and given Yates' struggles with his changeup and slider, the Yankees may ask him to cut back on his repertoire and focus on developing a primary off-speed pitch to pair with his fastball. His curveball is the most obvious candidate for enhancement due to his success with it at the Major League level, but it is quite possible that Rothschild and the Yankees have something else in mind.
The Yankees' acquisition of Yates may have seemed like an afterthought at the time, but after Betances, they lack much in the way of proven right-handed talent out of the bullpen. Yates has had more success against right-handed hitters in his major league career, so he could be a strong candidate to match up against righties. His ability to get a strikeout when needed is a skill that the Yankees will continue to emphasize amongst their relievers in 2016.
If Yates throws well in spring training, there is a very good chance that he heads to the Bronx when camp breaks. If he doesn't, the Yankees gave up little to explore a talented right-hander who could have been a good fit for their bullpen.