David Aardsma: The Bullpen Wildcard

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Reviewing the Yanks' 2012 international signings
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

The Yankees will have familiar faces holding down important bullpen roles this season. Mariano Rivera is slated to close for the 17th consecutive season while David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain handle the primary setup duties. Boone Logan, entering his fourth season with the Yankees, will be the primary left-hander. Second lefty Clay Rapada and likely swingman David Phelps were with the club last year. The last spot is going to a relatively new face, or at least as new as a face can be when the player is entering his second year with the team.

David Aardsma, the 31-year-old former Mariners closer, joined the Yankees last spring on a bargain one-year contract worth just $500k. The deal included a $500k club option for a second season, which the team exercised back in November. Incentives could put another $1.5M in his pocket, but that’s still a super low-risk contract. Aardsma was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery when he signed the deal and was not expected to return until midseason. A setback pushed his return back further, and ultimately he was only able to appear in one game in late-September.

“I felt good, but I wasn’t fully back into pitching mode,” said Aardsma to Dan Martin about his one-inning outing against the Blue Jays. “It feels good to be getting ready for a real Spring Training for once.”

It’s easy to forget that Aardsma is coming back from not just one injury, but two. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip in January 2011, and it was during his rehab from that procedure that he blew out his elbow and needed the reconstruction. Prior to his one-inning cameo in September, he had not appeared in a big league game since September 2010. That’s an awful lot of rust to shake off this spring.

Before the injuries hit, Aardsma was a very good but not great reliever with Seattle. His save total — 69-for-78 from 2009-2010 — was impressive, but otherwise he pitched to a 2.44 ERA (3.44 FIP) with 9.6 K/9 (25.9 K%) and 4.39 BB/9 (11.9%) in 121 innings during his two healthy seasons with the Mariners. Prior to that he’d pitched to a 5.29 ERA (4.90 FIP) in 144.2 innings with the Giants, Cubs, White Sox, and Red Sox from 2004-2008.

Strikeouts have always been Aardsma’s thing, evidenced by his career 9.08 K/9 and 23.0 K%. Hitters have swung and missed at his pitches approximately 11.4% of the time during the PitchFX era according to Brooks Baseball, which is comfortably above-average. Walks and fly balls are also this thing, unfortunately. Aardsma’s career walk rate (5.06 BB/9 and 12.8 BB%) is scary, though it was a bit better with Seattle. His career 35.2% ground ball rate is very low, but it has helped him maintain a low BABIP  — .244 with Seattle and .287 career — since fly balls are easily converted into outs. They also make him a bit homer prone (career 0.95 HR/9 and 8.8% HR/FB), which is not ideal in Yankee Stadium.

Aardsma is a three-pitch reliever, sitting in the 92-96 mph range with his fastball and backing it up with low-to-mid-80s splitters and sliders. He threw all three pitches during his one-appearance cameo in September according to PitchFX, and all three showed up at their pre-injury velocity (or thereabouts). The slider is for righties and the split for lefties, so he hasn’t shown a big platoon split — .243 wOBA with a 25.4 K% against righties and .283 and 26.4% against lefties while with the Mariners, respectively. His career split is tiny.

Coming off two lost years, we really have no idea what to expect from Aardsma in 2013. The right-hander told Martin that he’s already thrown four bullpen sessions leading up to Spring Training and hasn’t had any problems with the hip or elbow, which is great. Being healthy is the important first step. Having swing-and-miss stuff is a solid foundation, though the walks — I foresee a lot of “effectively wild” statements in the coming weeks and months — and fly balls are a concern. For a guy slated to start the season in a low-to-mid-leverage middle relief role, they aren’t they end of the world. A concern, but not a dealbreaker.

In essence, Aardsma will be taking over the Cory Wade role. The were both fly ball and homer prone right-handers without long track records of success, but the similarities stop there. I’m skeptical that Aardsma can replicate Wade’s success — at least Wade’s success before he completely imploded in late-May last summer — and that will be worth watching early in the season. If he’s missing bats and keeping the walk rate somewhat reasonable, he should be fine. If not, the Yankees will probably wind up testing that Triple-A bullpen depth before long.

Update: Yankees join Ticketmaster to form Yankees Ticket Exchange
Reviewing the Yanks' 2012 international signings
  • Who hates bunts more? Axisa or Earl Weaver? (formerly Aunelowitzky)

    Skeptical is a good word here…and the Risk/Reward profile is off the charts.

  • Johnny crackers

    Why bother with this when could of had Brandon Lyon for 3 mil or uehara

    • Manny’s BanWagon (formerly Andy Pettitte’s Fibula)

      Uehhara was a steal for Boston on that deal.

  • Harris (1710 Days till Arod’s Contract Expires)

    Mike Carp just got DFA’d. I’d totally give him Dan Johnson’s spot on the 40 man roster. He’s got higher upside, and could rake in YS3.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Mike Carp has no upside and Dan Johnson isn’t on the 40-man. What does this have to do with David Aardsma and the bullpen?

  • JohnC

    Girardi said David Adams will not be in camp as he is battling a back injury. DAMM!

    • trr

      So many injuries amomg the minor leaguers! Don’t think Adams was going to make the team out of camp anyway…

  • Pat D

    David Aardsma: The first man alphabetically in baseball history!

    • Jim Is Bored

      The Yankees have to be first in everything, don’t they?

      • Pat D

        Well, I mean, he pitched for five other teams previously.

        • Jim Is Bored

          As long as he goes into the Hall wearing a Yankee hat.

          • Pat D

            I will say this: It is a record that was legitimately taken away from Hank Aaron.

            • Thurdonpaul


  • Bubba

    Be interesting to see if he can make it out of spring training with “Stairs” lurking.

  • jjyank

    I would be nervous about Aardsma if he was supposed to be fighting for a closer or set up man role, but I feel pretty good about him as a middle innings guy. Obviously bullpen roles don’t stay the same every single game (injuries, spreading out workload, etc.) but on paper right now, they got Mo in the 9th, Robertson in the 8th, and Joba in the 7th (though to be fair, Joba has his own set of question marks). Add in a sprinkling of LOOGY action with Rapada and Boonetang. That should leave plenty of room to let Aardsma get his work in and shake off the rust in relatively low leverage situations. I don’t think many bullpens out there have a guy with Aardsma’s upside that far down in the bullpen roles. If he manages to shake off that rust and return to his Mariners form, the bullpen could be pretty damn lock-down. I’m excited to see what he looks like.

    • Vern Sneaker

      Me too. An excellent pick-up with lots of upside.

  • TFish

    Mikey angry.

  • LK

    I’m actually not that confident Aardsma will be much of a contributor. I think he’s overrated because of his save total and strikeout numbers. Still, as a guy who should be the 4th right-handed short reliever, you’re not going to do any better.

    Also, not really on topic, but awesome:

    • jjyank

      It all depends on his walk rate. In 2009 and 2010 (his two years as the Mariners’ closer), his BB/9s were 4.29 and 4.53, respectively. That’s definitely on the high end, but still well within the realm of potential effectiveness. For a frame of reference, David Robertson’s insanely successful 2011 season featured a 4.73 BB/9. He was also successful in 2010 with a 4.84 BB/9. Robertson did get that under control in 2012, but I digress.

      So if Aardsma can hold his walk rates in the mid-4 range (you know, not the 6.47 BB/9 he posted in 2008) I think he could be a real solid contributor. Like I mentioned above somewhere, I’d be nervous if we were counting on him to be the closer or the 8th inning guy, but we’re not. He could be one of the better middle inning guys out there though, and a pretty solid insurance policy.

      • LK

        Oh like I said, you’re not doing any better for 4th RHP out of the bullpen. He might be the best in MLB at that role. I’m just not expecting him to be all that great, especially since guys often struggle with control the first year off TJ, and that’s his big problem.

        • jjyank

          True. I’m hopeful that the taste of game action (albeit extremely limited at 7.2 innings) towards the end of 2012 and a normal offseason (meaning no rehab) will help him start off stronger than a guy coming back from TJS in the middle of a season. Plus he’ll have spring training as an opportunity to pitch in meaningless games as well.

  • mike

    Im somewhat torn on this move, because i dont believe he has the stuff to supplant Jaba or Robertson, so essentially we are paying 2.5mm ( assuming he stays healthy and Girardi uses him regularly so he hits his bonuses) for a limited-roll, one-year, one inning guy with FB tendencies.
    this seems like a roster spot which could go to a AAA guy to not only save a few bucks, but to expose them to low-leverage work at a ML level.

    • CountryClub

      I bet you a chunk of his incentives are tied to saves. That won’t happen, obviously.

  • Vern Sneaker

    His catcher? Cervelli? Who now says “he walked away [from the clinic] with nothing in my hands” after previously saying he purchased products from the clinic. I guess you can leave the place empty-handed then buy stuff somehow from them later off-site. I’m really only a somewhat, not intense, consumer of the PEDs/supplements/protein shakes/Snickers saga, but geez these guys should at least either be consistent or stop talking.

  • I Collect Brett Gardner Cards

    Aardsy should enjoy his time here this year until Montgomery makes his way up north.

  • http://fendersonandhampton.com Cuso

    ….and when the clock strikes midnight he will turn into a giant Steve Karsay, er, pumpkin.