The 127 miles between Yankee Stadium and PNC Field in Moosic, PA are a path you know well if you're a Yankee relief pitcher with options. Just eleven games into the 2016 season, the team has already made three roster moves involving bullpen arms on three straight days. Last Thursday, Luis Cessa was optioned to make room for Tyler Olson. After a rough outing Friday, Olson turned right around toward Scranton Wilkes-Barre and Brandon Pinder got the call. If I were him, I wouldn't sign a lease.
The Yankees' practice of swapping bullpen arms back and forth from Triple-A, known colloquially as the Scranton Shuttle, is designed to ensure they always have a fresh arm - particularly one they don't highly value - available and ready to eat innings in a blowout or in extra frames. In some ways, that makes a lot of sense - it lets them make use of their 40-man roster (not just their 25) and it helps keep an extra bench player in the fold by carrying 12 pitchers at a time, not 13. It's hard to argue with Joe Girardi's methods of keeping relievers rested when he's long been considered one of the better managers in the game at that.
In the last few years, though, things have gotten out of hand. Not counting renowned stoppers Brendan Ryan and Garrett Jones, the Yankees used 25 different pitchers in relief in 2015 after using 26 in 2014. That's a step up from 2013, when 20 guys came out of the pen, and 2012 when only 17 did. Last season, five pitchers were recalled from Scranton-Wilkes Barre at least three separate times each: Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, Bryan Mitchell, Caleb Cotham and Nick Goody, with Pinder leading the pack with six round trips from Northeastern Pennsylvania. The many-faced relievers in their major league appearances weren't good. In 88.1 innings they combined for an ERA of 4.79 and a WHIP of 1.62. Their K-rate was solid at 8.46 per nine, but their walk rate wasn't at 3.97.
The problem is that the Yankees are sacrificing to the gods of rest a roster spot that could be used to develop a reliever who might amount to more than garbage time fodder. The total of 88 innings is only around six percent of the roughly 1,470 innings pitched by an MLB staff per year, but it's enough where if two-thirds were thrown by a single reliever, he'd be considered a commodity. It's tricky enough to transition from Triple-A to the majors without doing it temp style, on a part-time basis without ever really being a part of the club. By getting such sparse opportunities that have more to do with how long ago they last pitched than with merit, the guys involved don't get to figure out MLB hitters with any regularity and they don't get to learn as they should from observing the veterans around them.
Take Cessa for example. After impressing the Yankees enough to win a roster spot this spring, he got into one game and tossed two innings before boarding the shuttle for what's likely to be the first of many trips this year. So what did making the team actually mean? Since players must remain in the minors at least ten days each time they're sent down, he'll probably spend more time in Scranton than in New York and he won't get much of a chance to gain a foothold in the majors.
With a starting staff that looks like it'll have issues with longevity all year the Yankees are going to find themselves at times in positions where they'll need more bullpen depth. Is mid-April really that time? Cessa had thrown two innings before he got sent down. Kirby Yates has pitched 3.1 and Chasen Shreve 4.1. They aren't dying from overwork. The Yankees could have kept the Scranton Shuttle in the garage - and their bullpen merit-based - a little longer.