Three days ago, in his latest clunker of a start, CC Sabathia failed to get out of the fourth inning. Joe Girardi gave the ball to his long man du jour, which meant the start of Alfredo Aceves‘ second tour of duty in pinstripes. The team signed him at the end of Spring Training to provide Triple-A depth after Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren, and David Phelps all made the MLB bullpen.
Aceves, now 31, was outstanding in relief of Sabathia, holding the Rays to three singles in 5.1 scoreless innings, striking out five and getting five ground ball outs compared to two in the air. He threw 72 pitches in those 5.1 innings, five fewer than Sabathia threw in 3.2 innings. The circumstances were unfortunate, but Aceves gave the team a real shot in the arm by soaking up so many innings and sparing the key relievers.
That type of performance was something the Yankees were not getting out of their long relievers for the first five weeks of the season. Girardi’s top relievers — David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, Dellin Betances, Warren — have been truly outstanding so far this year (Kelley’s recent hiccup notwithstanding), but the other two bullpen spots have been both problematic and a revolving door. Preston Claiborne has been fine lately, but still. Look at this:
|Top Five Relievers||64.1||260||1||27.7%||8.8%||1.96||2.15|
I get that just about every team has crappy pitchers filling out the final two bullpen spots at any given time, but man that is a huge difference. Girardi’s top five relievers have been dominant. The other guys, the Claibornes and Chris Lerouxes and Bruce Billingses and Shane Greenes have been just terrible. Those numbers include Aceves’ strong work too, so imagine how much worse they were before Sunday. (No need to imagine: 8.63 ERA.)
A good long reliever is usually a luxury — Warren was quite good by long man standards last season — except right now it’s much more of a necessity for the Yankees. Because Nuno and Phelps are not fully stretched out and both Sabathia and (until last night) Hiroki Kuroda have been shaky, the club has gotten fewer than five full innings from their starter five times of the last 12 games. That’s bad. The rotation is giving the team no length at all.
With the rotation being such a weakness and no help on the way for the foreseeable future, the Yankees have two options. Either lean heavily on their oh so excellent late-inning relievers and risk burning them out, or find a competent long man. In Aceves, they might actually have that competent long man. No, he can’t pitch every day, but he’s certainly capable of soaking up three or four innings twice a week if need by. Leroux couldn’t do that. Neither could Greene or Billings.
Of course, there’s also a chance Aceves will pitch his way into the rotation. All he has to do is be better than Nuno andor Phelps and, well, that’s not really a high bar. Girardi told Chad Jennings that “anytime someone pitches well over distance, it’s going to trigger a thought” when asked about making Aceves a starter. You don’t need to try real hard to see him pitching his way into the rotation. In that case Nuno or Phelps would move into the long man role, which is still an upgrade over the other guys.
We need to be careful not to make too much of Aceves’ outing the other day. It’s unlikely the 2009 Aceves just showed up to the park that morning and is here to stay. Remember, he was throwing low-leverage innings against a lineup that was put together to hit a lefty in Sabathia, not a righty. Aceves was pretty terrible the last two years (4.95 FIP in MLB and 5.44 FIP in Triple-A) and that doesn’t go away because he was awesome for the World Series team a few years ago. He’s got to prove himself a bit. If he can be an effective multi-inning guy, the rest of the bullpen would fall right into place.