The news flashed at the bottom of my browser, courtesy of Bryan Hoch’s Twitter feed: “Bruney to see Dr. James Andrews Wednesday. When has that ever been good news?” Unless you’re John Smoltz, who apparently visits Dr. Andrews just because, it is most certainly bad news.
Bruney was again placed on the 15-day DL yesterday, just a week — and one appearance — after the Yankees activated him. The as-of-now unknown nature of the injury coupled with the Andrews visit does not bode well for the Yanks’ eighth-inning man. In fact, the team would do best to assume Bruney won’t pitch again this year and take it as a bonus if he does.
This is a shame, considering Bruney appeared poised for a steady spot in the eighth inning. With fellow setup man Damaso Marte also out, the Yanks have had to piece together relief outings for most of May. Thankfully the rotation has stepped up and has pitched deeper into games this month, thereby placing lesser burden on the pen. The starters can’t go seven or eight every time out, though, and when they exit, it might well be a close game. The Yanks are going to need a few arms who can put up a good share of scoreless innings and get the ball to Mo in the ninth.
Chances are they’ll evaluate or reevaluate in-house options before turning to other clubs for a potential deal. David Robertson is already on his way to Texas to take Bruney’s place, and he’ll get every shot to prove he can stay in the bigs. Mark Melancon is likely right behind him and will certainly get a look before the Yanks explore the market. Jon Albaladejo could get another shot, and then there are the guys already on the roster: Coke, Tomko, Veras, Aceves. The Yankees will take inventory of all these pitchers.
What they seek, though, is a reliable bridge to Mo. Among the aforementioned options, it’s unlikely they’ll see someone who can get it done consistently. Whether it’s due to wildness like Veras or inexperience like Melancon, the Yanks can’t bank on one or two of their current guys stepping into the primary setup role. Marte should be able to once he comes back, but even then the Yanks could use some help.
The only place to turn, then, is to the trade market (that is, unless you want to see what Mike Timlin can do, though I’m sure the Yanks front office does not). The Yanks probably won’t start seriously looking at the market for a few weeks, first because they want to evaluate the talent on hand, and second because few teams are willing to admit they’re out of it. This leads us to the biggest problem in finding a good reliever on the trade market.
The teams most willing to trade good players during the season are typically those who are out of contention. Those teams, unfortunately, tend to have a lot of crap in the bullpen. The Nationals, who have no chance of competing this year, basically fired their entire pen earlier this month. Even though they’d probably like to trade a vet or two for prospects, they don’t have a reliever the Yanks would covet. Even if they did, it’s improbable they’d part with such an arm. Ditto the Rockies. Unless they’re completely punting the season, they can’t afford to trade one of their only good bullpen arms.
Since it’s unlikely a contending team would dish a reliable bullpen arm, the Yanks have limited options. Here’s a short list of guys they could possibly target come late June or July. The price to acquire each, of course, remains up in the air. Suffice it to say that none will come cheap.
Chad Qualls. The D’Backs are 10.5 games behind the Dodgers right now and are playing like absolute crap. Felipe Lopez, Mark Reynolds, and Justin Upton are the only guys hitting anything right now. Their pitching isn’t much better, as the team blew a 7-0 lead yesterday to lose 9-7. Yet they have a few serviceable bullpen arms. Two of them they’d surely like to hang onto: 27-year-old Tony Pena and 25-year-old Juan Gutierrez. They’d probably trade Jon Rauch and his 6.27 ERA, but do the Yanks want him? He pitched well with Washington for the past few years, but has been terrible since the trade to Arizona. Maybe a change of scenery rejuvenates him.
Still, of that whole crop the Yankees would probably prefer Chad Qualls. He did blow the save yesterday, but before that he had a 3.32 ERA in 19 innings, striking out 22 to just four walks. He’s also a groundball guy, extremely so this year, though he’ll probably even out to his career average of 1.48. Not bad by any means, especially from a guy who strikes out nearly a batter an inning. Qualls won’t come cheap, not by any stretch. The Diamondbacks have plenty of needs, though, so perhaps the teams can match up yet.
Jose Valverde. The Astros are currently in last place, but as we learned last year owner Drayton McLane doesn’t like to give up on the season. Guys like Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, and Roy Oswalt are positively untouchable, but if Houston continues its poor play they could certainly make some other players available. Valverde is a prime candidate because he’ll be a free agent after the season and will more than likely price himself beyond the Astros’ range. He’s made just eight appearances this year and is currently on the DL with a calf injury, which does set off a red flag. If he can come back and pitch like he did last year, or even in 2007, the Yanks might show some interest. First he has to come back and show he’s healthy, so the Yanks won’t even kick the tires until a much later date. The Astros will certainly listen, as they’d probably like to foist the remainder of his $8 million salary onto another team.
Russ Springer. He’s 40 and is sporting a 5.19 ERA. So why Springer? He’s been very good over the past three years. Yet at 40, he might be over the hill. His groundball percentage is down from the past few years, and his FIP is pretty much in line with his ERA. Perhaps he’d do better in the winning environment in New York. But something tells me the Yanks will go with what they’ve got rather than trade for Springer.
Huston Street. He went to Colorado in the Matt Holliday deal, and now he’s closing for a last place team. Not that he’s doing a bad job of it. He’s still just 25 years old, which is hard to believe considering he’s a college guy. The Rockies might have some longer term plans for Street, making it tougher to acquire him. Do the Yanks want to give up serious prospects for a guy like Street? Would he be worth a Zack McAllister? Probably not. It depends, I suppose, on how dire the bullpen situation becomes.
Looking at the lower-end teams, this is about it. What the Yanks seek is an upgrade over the guys they have, and a look through these limited bullpens provides few answers. Sure, they could look to a guy like John Grabow, but is he really a better option late in games than the guys the Yanks currently have on their roster? No. What they need is a clear upgrade, or else someone already on the team to step up. That won’t be an easy task, especially at this point in the season.
A final note: I beg of you, please, if this site means anything to you, please do not turn the comments section into a Joba to the bullpen argument. You might think that’s the best solution, and that’s fine, even though everyone knows that a starter is more valuable than a reliever. I implore you, though, to save it for another bullpen thread. We’ve had it a billion times before, and I just don’t want to wake up to the same old-same old in the comments. It’s old, it’s tired, Joba is doing quite well on his way to being a top-line starter, so please, let it be for now.