One of the most perplexing and unwieldy beasts in baseball is the relief pitcher. Often coming via the most unexpected of sources—from the types who started as position players (Kenley Jansen, Joe Nathan) or starters (Andrew Miller, Wade Davis), to those who went from zeros to heroes (Dan Otero, Hector Neris?!)—finding relievers to count on is risky business. Even more challenging is building a relief corps from within: drafting and then developing young talent into formidable big league bullpen arms is a practice big league teams are still struggling to refine.
There are plenty of methods teams employ when trying to uncover and build dependable relievers, but one of the more clear-cut approaches has long been employed by the Yankees. Perhaps spurred by a treasure trove of a draft in 2006, when the Yankees snagged two hugely successful college relievers in David Robertson (17th round) and Mark Melancon (9th round), as well as failed-starters-turned-relievers Dellin Betances (8th round), Zach McAllister (3rd round), and George Kontos (5th round), New York has made a considerable effort to seek out college-aged relievers in the draft in recent years.
While it’s hard to compare just how many college relief pitchers the Yankees have drafted compared to other teams, it’s impossible to deny the number of these types of players who pepper both the Yankees’ farm system and big league team. Just from 2010 to 2014, the Yankees saw 13 college relievers climb the ladder to the big leagues, a remarkable feat considering just how volatile relief prospects are and that these 13 players were drafted, on average, in the 13th round.
The Yankees seem to go with the following plan: throw a bunch of college relievers against a wall, see which ones stick, and then repeat the process at each minor league level until they reach the big leagues. The fruits of the Yankees’ labor showed at the start of last season, when they had, well, quite a few homegrown pitchers to choose from for their Opening Day roster. Among those names were Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, Jacob Lindgren, Nick Goody, James Pazos, and Jonathan Holder.
Relief prospects are going to bust a lot, and the Yankees are perfectly aware of this. To combat that, the club has gone with a volume approach to make sure they always have plenty of MLB-worthy arms at their disposal, waiting in the high minors. They draft enough arms that, despite those weeded out as they move through the minor leagues, there are still plenty to choose from by the time they’ve reached the highest level.
As good as this plan may sound, though, the Yankees did see the ugly side to their strategy last season. Other than Jacob Lindgren, New York has shied away from drafting relievers in the higher rounds, which has resulted in players who could stick in the big leagues, but also lack the raw talent to be surer bets to find success. As a result, players like Goody and Johnny Barbato, who showed well in the minors, were simply unsuccessful in the big leagues. Other arms, like Lindgren, Rumbelow, and Pinder, fell to injuries and were eventually waived or released (though Rumbelow and Pinder have come back to the club).
Given the volatility of relievers, especially those without pedigree, the Yankees were playing with fire by drafting older players in the late rounds. Last season, the team got burned, with an unusual, but not wholly unexpected, rate of failure among their relief prospects. That doesn’t quite mean this strategy is a failed one, and the Yankees do have another set of players waiting in the wings right now, but if the next crop of talent fails to materialize at the big league level, the Bombers may have to rethink their approach to developing relief talent. Other avenues of strategy aren’t as clear or cost-averse as this one, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.