Think back to April, if that doesn’t cause too much psychological pain. Entering the season, many had questions about the team’s bench and bullpen, and April didn’t do much to eradicate those fears. In fact, with the bullpen pitching to a 6.46 ERA in that first month, they only exacerbated concerns. The bench, once looking deep, was depleted after injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Xavier Nady. While the bench and bullpen isn’t nearly as important as the starting lineup and the starting rotation, good teams usually have a few useful players in both areas. The Yanks, it seemed, did not.
In baseball, a team changes over the course of a season. A team is not the same in April as it is in August. It’s easy to forget that in April if the team is losing. The bullpen was just bad then, and it was tough to see a road to recovery. Ditto the bench. With the Nady injury further sapping the team’s depth, there weren’t many options. It looked like the team might be good, but would lose a few games because of these glaring weaknesses.
We’ve often said that a bullpen’s strength is its malleability. Again, ditto the bench. It’s difficult to find quality bench players and relief pitchers, because if they were good they’d be starting. Even veteran relievers are no guarantee. How many times does a team sign a veteran reliever in the off-season and then immediately see his production dip? Just look at the Royals, who signed Juan Cruz. He’s now looking like Jose Veras, only Cruz is under contract for this year and next for multi-million dollars. Veras was expendable at the league minimum.
Over the course of May the Yankees showed their flexibility and depth by shedding the ineffective parts of the bullpen. They optioned Edwar Ramirez and Jon Albaladejo and DFA’d Jose Veras. Brian Bruney’s injury hurt the bullpen depth a bit, but the Yanks were able to move Al Aceves and Phil Hughes up, much to everyone’s delight. Even David Robertson and Mark Melancon got chances, but as they faltered the Yankees again showed their flexibility by demoting them when needed.
All of a sudden, the bullpen was a strength and it could grow even stronger between now and the playoffs. Brian Bruney has looked better in his last few appearances. If he can get close to his April production, that’s a massive boost. Damaso Marte hasn’t allowed a run in his last five AAA appearances and could join the team soon, possibly for the West Coast swing. Add Chad Gaudin’s dominance of righties, and you have a pretty damn strong bullpen. One of the strongest in the league, in fact.
In early February, before we knew of A-Rod’s hip injury, the bench looked as deep as any. Among the backups were one of Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady, one of Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera, Jose Molina, and Cody Ransom. That’s a pretty formidable bench. However, the A-Rod and Nady injuries moved Swisher and Ransom to the starting lineup, meaning even lesser players would take their places on the bench. And then there was the period where both catchers were hurt, forcing the Yanks to carry Francisco Cervelli and Kevin Cash. All of a sudde, the depth had dried up.
Fast-forward a few months, and the Yankees once again have a solid bench. They’re replaced Ransom with Jerry Hairston Jr., who plays more positions, is better on defense, and is a better hitter. Getting decent production out of both Melky and Gardner has soften the blow of losing Nady. Jose Molina is back and providing his excellent defense at catcher. True, Ramiro Pena languishes now, but once Brett Gardner gets back the Yanks will have 25 usable players on the roster. How many teams can say that?
The reason that both the bullpen and bench are currently strengths is not that the Yankees acquired quality veterans over the off-season. It’s because they left themselves a lot of flexibility in their roster construction. All of the reserve players either had options or were easily releasable. When they proved they weren’t cutting it, the Yanks made the necessary moves. They were backed into corners in a few instances, but once players came back from injury they were able to compensate. It looks like things are back to where they’d hoped at the start of the season: strong bench, strong bullpen. Crazy thing is, they could get even better in the next few weeks.