The Yankees reportedly hope to add two relievers between now and Opening Day. Two relievers to replace David Robertson and Zach Britton, and hey, it is entirely possible they will re-sign Robertson and/or Britton. Even with Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chad Green, and Jonathan Holder in tow, there’s still room for more quality relievers in the bullpen. Always and forever.
Among the in-house bullpen candidates is Tommy Kahnle, who the Yankees acquired prior to the 2017 trade deadline for two reasons. One, to help their 2017 postseason push. That big trade with the White Sox was a watershed moment. The Yankees went into the day of the trade having lost 21 of their last 30 games (for real). The front office said forget about that. We’re getting you guys the help you need and we’re going for it.
And two, to help them in 2018, 2019, and 2020 as well. Kahnle was in the middle of a dynamite season and he came with three full seasons of control beyond 2017. That was huge. Kahnle was a short and long-term addition. Joe Girardi never really found a set regular season role for Kahnle following the trade but he was a monster in the postseason …
Even if the Yankees add two relievers before the start of the regular season, there are still open bullpen spots to be had, and it stands to reason Kahnle will have a chance to win one of them in Spring Training. He is out of minor league options, so he can’t go back to Triple-A, but I don’t think that’ll guarantee him a roster spot. The Yankees will take the best arms regardless of roster status. Three things about Kahnle keep crossing my mind.
1. He’ll be healthy next season. At least in theory. Kahnle spent seven weeks on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation last year he never looked quite right after that. Or before that, really. His velocity was down coming out of Spring Training …
… and I think at least part of his control issues stemmed from Kahnle muscling up and throwing max effort to generate velocity. His average fastball checked in at 98.11 mph in 2017. In 2018, he topped out at 97.96 mph. Kahnle’s shoulder was compromised and it showed in his velocity, and maybe in his control as well.
“I was hurt. My shoulder all year was not right,” said Kahnle to Brendan Kuty in November. “I tried to pitch through it, which made it worse. By the time I got rest, I wasn’t really that right. Before that, struggling didn’t help mentally as well. I was just all over the place last year … Right now, it feels great. I’m just trying to get my strength up again and hopefully the velocity will spike back up when I come into spring.”
With any luck, an offseason of rest will get Kahnle’s shoulder right — “Not being on the playoff roster kind of gave me a head start on that. So I got the extra two weeks,” he said — and allow him to again generate that upper-90s velocity we saw in 2017. Kahnle is only 29 years old. He’s not at that point where you’d normally expect age-related decline. A proper offseason will hopefully get him back to where he needs to be.
2. His spin rates are okay. For what it’s worth, Kahnle was still able to spin his fastball and changeup last season. The velocity wasn’t there, but the spin was, and that’s not nothing. Even in 2017, he had an average fastball spin rate and that was true again last season. His changeup spin rate was actually one of the lowest in baseball at 1,391 rpm last year and that’s a good thing. You want low spin on a changeup. It creates that tumble down and out of the zone.
Why is this important? Because we’re looking for signs of 2017 Tommy Kahnle. Had his fastball lost spin while his changeup gained spin, thus blending the two pitches more closely together, it would’ve been a significant red flag. Velocity and spin rate declines are very scary. Losing one or the other is still scary, but not as scary as losing both, and theoretically an indication things could be fixed going forward. A little more arm strength could have Kahnle right back to where he was a year ago.
3. The Yankees must think he’s salvageable. Otherwise they would’ve non-tendered him last month. A non-tender would’ve been a clean break. Kahnle’s projected $1.5M salary is nothing, so perhaps that saved his roster spot, but the Yankees did non-tender pre-arbitration Alfredo Aceves back in the day. They were so unconvinced Aceves’ back would hold up that they cut him loose. The Yankees could’ve done the same with Kahnle and didn’t.
Remember, the Yankees have a bit of a 40-man roster crunch this offseason, and every dollar matters in this luxury tax era. Cutting Kahnle would’ve cleared a roster spot and saved some cash. Instead, the Yankees at least indicated a willingness to carry him into Spring Training — they could still designate Kahnle for assignment at some point this offseason, of course — which is telling. They think there’s something here to reclaim.
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Each offseason teams (and fans, at that) scour the league for reclamation projects and bounceback candidates. Every team wants to acquire someone when their stock is down and help them get back to their peak. The Yankees already have a reclamation project on their roster in Kahnle. No need to make a trade or place a waiver claim or sign a free agent contract. He’s a classic reclamation project, and he’s already a Yankee.
My guess is the Yankees intend to give Kahnle a long look in Spring Training — Spring Training is full of lies, but we should know fairly quickly whether Kahnle’s velocity is back once Grapefruit League play begins — to see whether he can get back to his 2017 form, because 2017 Kahnle was really good. The Yankees are nothing if not patient. They stuck with Chasen Shreve longer than they perhaps should’ve, and my hunch is Kahnle will get a long leash as well. The talent to dominate is there and it’s worth seeing if that guy returns in 2019.
“I want to be able to come in and prove that I’m still that guy that they saw two seasons ago,” Kahnle said to Kuty. “That’s what I’m going to be working toward, getting back to what I was the year before.”