Since the day it finally hatched earlier this month when Aroldis Chapman's 30-game suspension ended, the Yankees "big three" bullpen has been every bit the monster it was supposed to be. Through Sunday's games, the triumvirate of Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances - whether you prefer to call them "Cerberus", "King Ghidora", "No runs D.M.C.", or whatever else you can think of - had combined for a 1.52 ERA, a WHIP of 0.79, and a 16.71 K/9 rate of 16.71 over 53 1/3 innings. Betances leads all relievers in fWAR at 1.1 and K-rate at 17.74. Miller is second in both at 1.0 and 16.55.
Joe Girardi has taken some surprising heat for pulling starters early and using the big three all in the same game - he's done it six times in May - but in those games the Yankees are 6-0 and have allowed two earned runs in 18.1 innings worth of sevenths, eighths, and ninths. Despite concerns about overuse, the Yankees don't have a bullpen arm in the top 30 in baseball in innings pitched or in the top 15 in appearances.
Girardi isn't using this pen like you'd typically use a bullpen, but he shouldn't. Where most pitching staffs have their strength at the beginnings of games, the Yankees' strength is at the end. Usually you strive to keep your pen out of the mix as long as possible. In this case, you want them in there because they're the best you've got. Using them too conservatively would be self-limiting their impact.
Great as the troika has been, a lot of the talk surrounding them has been over when and how they'll be broken up. Chapman is a free agent at the end of the year, so will the Yankees trade him at the deadline for a big return or hold off and make a qualifying offer in November to net a draft pick? Will they trade Miller instead, given his team-friendly contract and resulting higher value? These are exciting opportunities for the contingent of Yankee fans who have been calling for a full rebuild. They may ultimately be disappointed. There's a non-zero chance that all three relievers will be back in 2017 and beyond.
For now, the Yankees are still competing. At 24-26 they're 6.5 games out of the division lead and only 4.5 games from a wildcard spot. If they stay in those races, even on the fringes, it's unlikely that we'll see the kind of player-for-prospects trade that would ship out Chapman or Miller. Top talent that's in the high minors beating on the door to the majors isn't coming back for any reliever, so there will be no Joey Gallo or Lucas Giolito here. A more realistic future role player that's close or higher-ceiling guy that's farther away wouldn't be enough for the Yankees to justify "giving up" on 2016.
Brian Cashman could theoretically deal one or the other for something that helps right away, like an established starting pitcher, but the teams who would pay big for an elite closer or setup man mid-season are in full win-now mode. They can't afford to fill one hole by creating another.
The Yankees have had the opportunity before to create a more permanent super-pen. After they signed Miller in 2014, David Robertson could still have been brought back, but he was instead allowed to sign a four-year deal with the White Sox. The difference this offseason, when Chapman will be free, is that New York will have around $50 million per year struck from the payroll when Mark Teixeira's and Carlos Beltran's contracts expire, among others.
That's $50 million to spend, but not a whole lot to spend it on. This winter's free agent class will be historically weak, particularly in the starting pitching department. With Stephen Strasburg off the table, there are no front-enders available, and guys like Rich Hill and Mat Latos are looking like the best of the rest.
On the position player side there are a few better names, but the Yankees don't have a lot of room to maneuver there. Seven ninths of their current lineup is under team control for 2017, six for 2018, and most of those make eight figures per year so they aren't likely to be benched or dealt. The two positions that will open up next year happen to be played by the team's best prospects in Greg Bird and Aaron Judge. So if the Yankees don't want to go another year without signing a major league free agent, keeping Chapman might be the only way to go.
Chapman long-term, of course, brings a special kind of risk. He may get the largest relief pitcher contract in history. His October domestic violence incident may be "in the past" now that his suspension has come and gone and no charges were ever filed, but it's important to remember that if it had taken place in New York instead of Florida, home of Wild West style gun laws, it would not be over and he'd still be in serious trouble. It's also worth noting that this wasn't a completely isolated incident in Chapman's life. He's also dealt with other calls to the police over domestic disturbances, a DUI arrest, paternity suits, and a robbery in his hotel room in 2012 where a woman was found tied up.
Not all of the above were Chapman's fault, and it's not the right of a stranger to truly judge his character. Bringing them up isn't meant to rehash an old moral debate, but as the classic risk-reward game that the Yankees will need to play. It's one thing to take a chance on someone with a one-year arbitration deal and a few middling prospects. It's another to take that risk with $60 million plus.
If the Yankees aren't willing to take the plunge with Chapman, that doesn't mean the three-headed monster needs to die. Other relief free agents this winter include Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon who'd also serve as frightening spikes on the trident in their own right. If I had to bet I'd put my money against there still being a big three in 2017, but after seeing it in action, I'm less sure than I was a month ago.