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The Yankees are literally running out of bullpen options

In the midst of a grueling schedule, a veteran bullpen may not get the relief it needs

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are in the early throes of an almost-hilariously packed schedule segment. With four games in three days earlier this week, New York kicked off a stretch of 41 games in 41 days, including three doubleheaders. This presents an obvious logistical problem: getting enough pitchers for all those innings, especially when it will be difficult to provide adequate rest for relievers.

The Yankees are a team that leans heavily on relief pitching, and always have. The proverbial Scranton Shuttle has bled over to the remaining MLB clubs, and the tactic makes a lot of sense. Fill your bullpen with young, talented arms that all have options, and you can juggle them between the major league team and a short stint in Triple-A. The problem for the 2018 Yankees is, as much as the bullpen is still talented, they’re short on options.

Let’s take a moment and review what minor league options are. When a player is first added to the 40 man roster, he has three option years, where he can be moved between the MLB club and an minor league assignment unilaterally by the team an unlimited number of times.

These years are used up when a player spends at least 20 days on minor league assignment, or when a player receives something called “veteran’s consent.” Veteran’s consent kicks in after five years of service time; and a player can no longer be assigned to the minors without his permission.

It’s this veteran’s consent that’s become so problematic for the Yankees, and has presented a case of irony for the organization. Relievers are notoriously unreliable; pitchers like Steve Delabar can be nobodies for most of their careers, then have a couple of All Star-level seasons, and then disappear from pro baseball. Assembling a group of proven relievers is something rare indeed, and yet the Yankees have mostly been able to do it.

The irony comes in that relievers with the track record to be dependable have been in baseball for long enough that they cannot be optioned without their consent. We saw Tommy Kahnle get optioned to Scranton this week upon the return of Adam Warren from the disabled list, leaving just TWO relievers on the current 25 man roster that still have unilateral option years remaining, Chad Green and Jonathan Holder.

Green won’t be sent down anywhere, he’s become too important to the Yankees’ success over the past year and a half. On top of that, with the team’s inability so far this year to get length out of their starters, Green’s ability to work multiple innings will almost certainly come into play in this stretch of games.

Holder, meanwhile, has found himself increasingly inside Aaron Boone’s circle of trust. We’ll have a deeper dive into Holder’s great 2018 tomorrow, but his 2.75 ERA/2.10 FIP plays great in high leverage spots, and it’s hard to imagine him being optioned out of the bullpen for a lesser Triple-A arm.

The solutions for the Yankees aren’t super enticing. Even if the team were to option Holder, he’d have to stay in the minors for ten days (barring an injury) before he can return. This comes into play when you think about optioning down a starter like Domingo German. Doing so would lead him to miss about two starts, which is probably not worth the value of a reliever being called up.

The other option—no pun intended—for the Yankees is to utilize the 10-day DL with a phantom injury. Maybe Chasen Shreve’s sore arm stays sore for a week rather than just a couple of days. He leaves the 25-man roster and a call-up takes his spot to freshen up the bullpen. We’ve seen the Dodgers do this effectively with the starting rotation over the past few seasons, and it’s probably the best avenue for the Yankees to get their relievers the requisite rest.

There’s problems with phantom DL’ing, though, and it starts with who ends up on the DL. Adam Warren and Shreve are the two weakest members of the bullpen, limiting your choices. No matter how desperate the Yankees get for rest, they’re not going to ask David Robertson or Aroldis Chapman to nurse an “injury.” Of course, the team needs to discuss a phantom DL ahead of time, as sending a player to the disabled list without their knowledge and with an embellished injury is a great way to have a grievance filed against you.

This is the toughest part of the Yankees’ season, and how they’re able to maintain fresh, rested arms over this 41-game stretch could be the key difference in how New York finishes at the end of the year. The experience in the bullpen is a real asset, but the lack of options is problematic for the time being.