On Friday the Yankees came to terms with Andrew Miller on a four-year, $36 million contract that shattered the previous record for a non-closer reliever. The deal drew praise from some and raised eyebrows from others, but "non-closer" is an arbitrary distinction which has more to do with who you share a clubhouse with than with your actual ability to pitch. Miller could have easily closed for the Red Sox and Orioles last year, but those clubs had the very capable Koji Uehara and Zach Britton shutting the door in the ninth and saw more value in using him elsewhere. The Yankees didn't acquire a closer or a setup man in Miller - they brought in one of the better relievers in the game.
With Miller in the fold, the Yankee pen looks at least as strong as it did in 2014 when it logged a solid 3.70 ERA and 1.23 WHIP and held opposing hitters to a .677 OPS. Miller and Dellin Betances will hold down the eighth and ninth in some order with some assemblage of Shawn Kelley, Adam Warren, Justin Wilson and possibly Jacob Lindgren, who struck out 48 in 25 minor league innings, constructing the bridge that gets them the ball. That all sounds good, but why stop there? David Robertson is the fourth best relief pitcher in baseball over the past four years according to fWAR and he's still a free agent. Signing Miller kept the bullpen a strength, but bringing back Robertson would make it a Hulk-like super-strength.
The Yankees' TV voice, Michael Kay, is known for many things - among them is his invention of the monster Quangormo to describe the team's 2004 late-inning relief troika of Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera. Quangormo morphed into Tangormo when Tanyon Sturtze entered the fray, and it's reappeared in several incarnations since as the names and faces in the Yankee pen have changed. The classic trios were effective, but they had the uninspiring Quan and Tan elements holding them back. A triumvirate of Miller, Betances and Robertson would know no such limitation. In short: Milbetrob smash!
The main obstacle in the way of the birth of Milbetrob is money, or at least how much of it the Yankees intend to spend. Multiple reports have Robertson seeking a Jonathan Papelbon payday - four years and at least $50 million. Brian Cashman has said he wants his "sweet home" grown arm back at the right price, but $50 mil seems not to be it. There is a precedent, though, for the Yankees allotting more than the $21.5 million per year that Robertson and Miller will cost to a pair of late-game relievers. In 2011 and 2012, Rivera and Rafael Soriano shared $26 million in AAV. They never excelled as a tandem the way the Yankees hoped, but when Mo went down it wasn't a bad thing that Soriano was around.
Investing in both Miller and Robertson and joining them with the MLB minimum salary that Betances will earn next year might actually be a steal compared with the inflated cost of other pitchers still on the market. In 2014, the three relievers combined to toss 216.2 elite innings that would have made them the best pitcher in the American League if they were one person. Compared with the $25-$27 million that Jon Lester and Max Scherzer will earn per season over the next six or seven years, not four, $22 mil for that kind of production doesn't look so bad.
Obviously pitching in relief isn't the same as starting. Lester and Scherzer have an automatic impact on every single game they appear in while Milbetrob requires help from its teammates to have the opportunity to contribute. Much has been made of the lights-out Kansas City bullpen that helped bring the Royals to within a win of a World Championship, but they also had starters who kept them in game and an offense that rose to the occasion in the playoffs, averaging 0.6 runs more per game than it did in the regular season. On the other hand, Milbetrob would have its say in a majority of the Yankees' games, particularly close ones, while a starter - even a great one - influences only 33 or 34. 29.7 percent of the monster's innings last year were of the high-leverage variety, compared with 10.6 percent for Scherzer and 7.1 for Lester.
A lot of the hesitation from teams when it comes to spending big on relievers comes from the idea that they're too volatile to rely on for multiple years. Historically, plenty of bullpen arms have seen meteoric rises followed quickly by tumbles into obscurity, and the results of the massive contracts given to them are mixed at best, but some of that risk is mitigated by the relative shortness of those deals. Scherzer's next contract is likely to run through his age 37 or 38 season but the Yankees won't pay Miller - or Robinson if they keep him - a dime past age 33. Joe Torre was infamous for burning out Gordon, Quantrill, Sturtze, Scott Proctor, and just about every other middle reliever or setup man he ever laid eyes on, but Joe Girardi's smart bullpen management is one of his trademarks, making it all the more probable that Milbetrob will remain healthy and effective.
Creating Milbetrob wouldn't necessarily absolve the Yankees of their need for starting pitching - currently no one in the projected rotation threw more than 136 innings or made more than 20 starts in 2014 - but it would upgrade the staff in a big way without the use of an eight figure deal.