Relief pitching might be the biggest strength of the 2015. I say might, as it is impossible to predict baseball, but at this point the odds do look relatively good. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are an imposing pair to close out games, with David Carpenter a solid seventh inning option. Nikhil's piece from yesterday about Justin Wilson demonstrates that there is reason to hope for more than just a LOOGY-level performance, in fact with an adjustment to pitch selection Wilson might turn into another late-inning option. Having four quality short relievers would be an exceptional asset, even when giving one of them a day off the Yankees can feel about their ability to control a lead after the sixth inning. This is before considering that Betances and Miller are not purely one inning relievers of course, and while the Yankees may not want to stretch their workloads too much, in key situations Girardi can call on Betances and Miller to get four, five or even six outs as needed.
Where there is late-inning quality, there is also the ability to absorb quantity, another incredibly valuable component for a bullpen to have. Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers are currently locked in a duel for the fifth spot in the rotation, but whichever pitcher comes up short has helpfully been stretched out for a long-man role. Not for a mop-up relief role, but a legitimate option for multiple innings in a winnable game. Craig Edwards at Fangraphs discusses the declining role of a true long-man, but in this case the Yankees might have one next year. Ramiro Mendoza and Alfredo Aceves - during his first Yankee tour - served the long-man role effectively on championship teams, and having another pitcher who can come in relief of a starter early in a game and keep the score within reach could be a very valuable asset again. This would be the fifth pitcher in the bullpen, and the Yankees will add yet another quality reliever to the mix. Picking between options like Chasen Shreve or Jacob Lindgren, the Yankees could easily field a six-man bullpen with no weak link, yet have quality waiting in the wings at AAA.
For the most part though, teams feature seven-man bullpens these days. Of course, for the most part teams will not have the Yankees abillity to get through high-leverage innings without having to work in one-out specialist relievers. The 12-man pitching staff arose when teams countered rising offense with reliance on specialists in the bullpen. The pendulum has swung back from bat to ball though, and the Yankees might have a competitive advantage in being able to field a strong bullpen without a seventh reliever. It might be time to give Joe Girardi an extra position player to work with. Especially with the recent rule change that allows teams to carry a 26th man on the roster for a doubleheader. There will be other times during the year when the Yankees need another pitcher, when injuries or pitcher fatigue necessitates an extra arm in the pen, so the team will certainly carry 12 pitchers for stretches. On the balance of it though, it might make sense to start the season with 14 position players.
The way the Yankee organisation breaks down currently, it does appear that options for the 12th pitcher might have more depth in talent than a competition for a 14th position player. However, this does not necessarily rule out the possibility that there a 14th position player could worth carrying, who could provide more marginal benefit than a 12th pitcher would. As it happens, there might just be such a player, Jose Pirela. So long as he starts the season healthy of course, after an unfortunate concussion from today's game against the Mets.
Pirella may not have the ceiling of some of the other Yankee hitting prospects we've seen this spring, including fellow second baseman Robert Refsnyder. Pirela's calling card here though, as Vince pointed out yesterday, is that he is a major-league ready option who can play multiple positions while potentially adding enough offensively to fit-in in the lower half of the lineup. On a veteran ballclub, a true utility man, especially one who can play in the middle infield while being able to hit left-handed pitching, would be a valuable asset. Pirela can serve in multiple roles, as a hitter off-the-bench, a potential platoon partner for Didi Gregorius, a backup for Stephen Drew, cover in the outfield on days when Garrett Jones is the first-baseman or designated hitter. He will give Girardi options, which is as much as we can ask from a potential 25th man. This team might not project to score as easily as Yankee offenses of years prior, but team could be in a lot of low-scoring games with their pitching and defense. Giving Joe Girardi the ability to make in-game changes on the position player side of things could be more valuable than having a seventh reliever in the bullpen could be, even if that reliever comes with the luster and shiny strikeout rate of a Lindgren.
Of course, one could argue that Pirela should simply take Brendan Ryan's spot. Or perhaps, many could argue this. When Caitlin recently asked the Pinstripe Alley community if the franchise should cut ties with Ryan, 92% of us voted "Yes"; a bigger blowout than the time Texas beat Baltimore 30-3. Certainly cutting the veteran backup infielder to open a spot for Pirela is an option, but it would hardly be a surprise if Ryan kept his spot on the roster, at least to start the year. For one, he's the veteran on the guaranteed contract, and he has the advantage of being able to cover both middle infield positions. Stephen Drew could cover shortstop if needed, but with him focusing on getting reps at second base this spring the Yankees might not want Drew to also be the second shortstop on the depth chart at this point. Cashman might also want to avoid potentially complicating the organisation's ability to move Drew later in the year to open up the regular second base job for Refsnyder. Cut Ryan now as well, and the Yanks could be trawling the waiver wire for shortstops, or plugging in a Nick Noonan.
The Yankees might be finding themselves in the positive position of actually having multiple potentially useful candidates for the 25th spot on the roster. Choosing a 25th man for opening day isn't usually the type of move that springs to mind as season-defining. If it ends up being Pirela, though, he might just get a late pinch-hit or two against a lefty that ends up deciding a game. An extra win or two might just make the difference in a tight postseason race, after all, and April wins count just as much as wins in September.
Maybe not so much with the playing Pirela in center field though.