Archive for Death by Bullpen
Don’t look now, but the Yankees bullpen has been really good of late. Before Brett Marshall bit the bullet last night, they amassed the fifth highest cumulative WAR (1.8) in Major League Baseball — trailing only the Rockies, Tigers, White Sox, and Twins. Over 133.2 innings, the Yankees relief core has produced a 9.42 K/9 rate, surrendered only 2.53 BB/9 and 0.95 HR/9, complimented by a 3.33 ERA (3.24 FIP / 3.18 xFIP). Let’s take a look at some of the big contributors.
It all begins and ends with Mo
After missing most of the 2012 campaign, Mariano has returned with a vengeance. He’s already accumulated 16 saves (with no blown opportunities). His velocity has primarily sat in the 88-92 mph range, while his patented cutter continues dominate. To say right handed batters have had slightly more success against The Sandman would be true (.307 wOBA). However, to say that any batter has been generally successful overall against Mo this season would be false (.205 wOBA overall). When the ninth arrives, so does Mo, without compromise and in vintage form.
Girardi’s (setup) crew
The road to Mo is also pretty well paved. David Robertson has embraced his duties as the official set up man while Joba Chamberlain has handled the seventh fairly effectively (prior to injury). I really can’t get enough of Robertson either. Even though he occasionally puts me on edge with his Houdini act, his strikeout rate is certainly prolific (11.02/9). What’s more, 55.6% of his first pitches are thrown for strikes, and interesting enough, batters have swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone (33.3%) then they have in the past against him (career 25.2 O-Swing%) so far. As for Joba, his 6.75 K/9 and 5.79 BB/9 peripherals aren’t quite where you’d like them to be overall. However, prior to straining his right oblique, Joba had been looking increasingly comfortable on the mound. More importantly, his velocity seems to be right where it should be considering he isn’t all that far removed from Tommy John surgery.
Behold! The obligatory LOOGY
After pitching in 80 (!) games last season, I was pretty confident Boone Logan was going to be toast this season. I was thinking back to the days of Joe Torre when guys like Paul Quantrill, Tanyon Sturtze, Tom Gordon and Scott Proctor had their arms basically turned into mush. Early on this season, it sure appeared to be heading in that direction too. Give old Boone credit though. He has pitched in 10.1 innings, and managed a 2.61 ERA (3.79 FIP, 2.39 xFIP) with a 10.45 K/9 rate. That’ll do. Curiously, for a guy who’s primary function is to get left handers out, he’s actually shown more of a reverse split (.352 vs. 349 wOBA). I suspect this more of a byproduct though of a small sample size, and will probably normalize over the course of the season.
The other guys
The Yankees have also found productivity from some of the less recognizable names. Mike gave Adam Warren his due yesterday. Preston Claiborne has also done a great job on the mound in limited opportunity. Anecdotally, the kid looks composed out there, and because of it I tend to have an irrational calm every time he’s pitches. He hasn’t shown very much in the strike out department (5.14 K/9), but he’s done a good job of not giving up free bases (no walks). Claiborne has also demonstrated a willingness to use a slider and a changeup in addition to his fastball, which I personally appreciate.
Overall, Cashman has done a pretty good job of piecing together quality bullpens over the past several seasons, which is important as it seems to be an increasingly specialized (and valued) part of the game. I think it’s worth acknowledging that a fair portion of the team’s success this season can also be attributed to the bullpen given the current roster construction.
Coming into this season, Adam Warren was at a weird place in his career. He repeated the Triple-A level in 2012 and pitched marginally better than he had in 2011, but not well enough to really force his way into the team’s plans. His disastrous one-start big league stint last summer didn’t help matters either. Warren was stuck in spare arm purgatory, a nice pitcher to have in the organization but hardly a cornerstone.
Instead of going back to Scranton for a third stint at Triple-A, the 25-year-old Warren made the team out of Spring Training with an assist from Phil Hughes‘ balky back. It was basically a repeat of last year, when David Phelps unexpectedly made the club out of camp thanks to Michael Pineda‘s shoulder. An injury to a projected starter forced the projected long man into the rotation, creating an opening in the bullpen. Phelps took advantage last year and Warren is looking to do the same now.
“I think Dave kind of started something last year when he came up and did well,” said Warren to Mark Feinsand on Monday. “For us guys down in the minor leagues, we’re kind of like, ‘Well, we might have a chance to help this team.’ So you kind of get that little bit of glimmer of hope. Now, this year, guys are getting some opportunities and we’re trying to take advantage of them. We have that confidence coming up that we know we can get outs, so I think that really helped us.”
In seven relief appearances this year, Warren has posted a 1.45 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 18.2 innings. Four of those seven outings lasted at least two innings, including his first (one run in 5.1 innings) and most recent (four scoreless innings) appearances. His strikeout rate isn’t anything special (7.23 K/9 and 20.3%) despite an above-average 10.4% overall whiff rate, but he has limited walks (2.89 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%) and gotten a ton of ground balls (52.8%). They aren’t the kind of peripherals that make you think he’s worthy of higher leverage work, but they’re plenty good enough to succeed in this role.
Warren hasn’t changed his approach much in relief, mostly because he’s turned lineups over a few times and needed to use all his pitches. His fastball has averaged 92.3 mph and topped out at 94.1 mph — a tick or two better than what he usually does as a starter — and he’s thrown his mid-80s slider and low-80s changeup nearly 20% of the time each. He’s thrown his upper-70s curveball once out of every ten pitches as well. Most guys scrap their third or fourth best pitch when they move into the bullpen, even long relief, but Warren has stuck with the kitchen sink approach.
“You just have to stay mentally focused,” said Warren to Chad Jennings earlier this month when asked about his role. “Things can change so quick. For me personally, I try to have a good attitude about whatever role I’m in. Opportunities arise. You do have to stay kind of mentally focused even though you may not be pitching in games that are close to start out with, just try to stay sharp for when you do get that opportunity.”
I wasn’t quite sure where Warren fit with the Yankees after last season, at least beyond being an extra arm in Triple-A for emergencies. It seemed like he was, at best, the team’s seventh starter and tradeable prospect. Kinda sorta useful. To his credit, Warren has taken advantage of his opportunity and become a valuable multi-inning reliever, someone capable of soaking up some bulk innings in blowouts without sending Joe Girardi to the bullpen phone every time a runner reaches base. He might only be the 22nd or 23rd man on the roster, but he’s pitched himself up the depth chart after being the 38th or 39th man on the 40-man roster just a few weeks ago.
When the season opened, the Yankees made a point of carrying relievers capable of throwing multiple innings in an outing. That meant Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley got the nod over one-inning guys like David Aardsma and Josh Spence. Phil Hughes started the year on the DL and carrying bullpeners who could provide length for the first few weeks made sense. No team wants to wear out their pitching staff in April.
Now that we’re three weeks into the season, the need for multiple multi-inning relievers — and multiple long relievers, especially — isn’t as great. Ivan Nova remains a drain on the bullpen every five days, but otherwise the trio of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte have shown the ability to pitch deep into the game each time out while Phil Hughes can do it on occasion. Sure, having a bunch of relievers who can throw multiple innings at a time is a nice luxury, but it’s no longer a necessity. Quality over quantity should be the focal point when it comes bullpen innings now.
Since his 5.1-inning appearance in relief of Kuroda in the second game of the season — 19 days ago now — right-hander Adam Warren has thrown a total of three innings and 42 pitches. Two of those innings came during a blowout win against the Indians, the other yesterday. He hasn’t warmed up on any other occasion during the last ten days, as our Bullpen Workload page shows. It’s a dead roster spot, especially since Joe Girardi seems to prefer David Phelps in long relief situations. The only way Warren gets into a game right now is a super mop-up situation, a blowout or extra innings.
Phelps hasn’t pitched well early on (6.23 ERA and 3.87 FIP), and it’s not just these last two appearances. The four shutout innings against Baltimore last week is the only one of his five outings in which he hasn’t allowed a run. He is a better pitcher than what he’s shown so far, but he needs to figure some things out. It happens. He should work on those things in low-leverage situations though, not the situations he’s seen recently. It should happen in the innings currently designated for Warren, basically. It’s the bullpen circle of life, especially for a young reliever: if you stink for two or three weeks you lose some responsibility.
Ideally, I think the Yankees should adjust their bullpen situation by sending Warren down to Triple-A and replacing him with a power reliever who can miss bats in the middle innings between the starter and the Joba Chamberlain/David Robertson setup crew. Cody Eppley doesn’t fit the bill — he’s been awful since the start of Spring Training anyway — but Mark Montgomery sure makes a lot of sense for that role. The right-hander has 15 strikeouts and one walk in eight Triple-A innings so far after whiffing 99 in 64.1 innings last summer.
Because Phelps threw 62 pitches on Sunday and will be out of commission for at least one more game (likely two), holding onto Warren for another few days makes sense. Once Phelps is ready to go though, I think he should be put into a more traditional long reliever role while Warren is swapped out in favor of someone who can miss bats. Montgomery is the obvious candidate but not the only option. Maybe Preston Claiborne or Sam Demel is better suited to help the team right now, who knows. Either way, the idea is to optimize the bullpen by replacing the seldom-used second long man with a more useful middle reliever who can miss some bats.
Outside of a short stretch last summer when the team was dealing with injuries, the Yankees have always boasted a strong and deep bullpen during the Joe Girardi era. Part of that is Girardi’s willingness to spread the workload around and keep guys fresh, and part of it is the front office’s shift away from expensive free agent relievers (Rafael Soriano notwithstanding) in favor of an abundance of low cost arms who miss bats. It’s easier to dump a cheap bad reliever than it is an expensive one.
So far this season, with an assist to some short outings from the rotation, the middle of the Yankees bullpen looks like a real Achilles heel that could be exposed in close games. Yesterday’s three-reliever, eight-base runner, three-run, 3.2-inning effort was the latest clunker from a relief corps that has allowed 21 runs and 52 base runners in 25.2 innings during the first six games. I think it goes without saying that the numbers are even worse when you remove Mariano Rivera and David Robertson from the equation.
The Yankees have already made one bullpen adjustment this year, shifting David Phelps into a full-time relief role in place of Cody Eppley, who has been getting knocked around since camp opened. Adam Warren‘s presence as the long-man — he allowed one run in 5.1 innings in relief six days ago, his only appearance of the year so far — potentially frees up Phelps for middle relief, where he could even be a multi-inning guy. That sounds wonderful in theory, but Girardi has been running things for six years now and outside of 2009 Al Aceves, he’s shown little inclination towards using a reliever in that way.
The good news is the Yankees have proven to be very adept at rebuilding bullpens on the fly. They’ve done it pretty much every year during the Girardi era — the bullpen at the start of the season has never looked like the one they’ve taken into the postseason. Pieces like Shawn Kelley, Warren, and Phelps can go to the minors without having to clear waivers while Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain have earned a little more rope. Joba can be maddening as hell, but there’s no doubt he can be one of the three best relievers on the team when he’s not pitching like a knucklehead.
Among the bullpen options in Triple-A are righties Mark Montgomery, Preston Claiborne, Jim Miller, and Sam Demel as well as southpaws Juan Cedeno and Josh Spence. None of those guys are on the 40-man roster, so something would have to give to get them in the big league bullpen. I don’t think Vidal Nuno or Brett Marshall should be ruled out as bullpen options either (especially the former), and you could argue the same is true for Dellin Betances. Point is, there are some internal options to cycle through before a trade(s) becomes necessary.
It would be nice if the Yankees had David Aardsma or (the currently injured) Clay Rapada still available, but the 40-man roster crunch was rather severe and it was either going to be a pair of 30-something relievers or a pair of 20-something kids (Melky Mesa? Corban Joseph? Zoilo Almonte?) who might be able to help the team in the long-ish term. I’m not sure they made the wrong decision there despite the obvious bullpen need. Considering both Aardsma and Rapada cleared waivers despite mid-six-figure salaries, it’s clear other teams didn’t value them highly either.
The season is still young and it’s not time to press the bullpen panic button just yet, but it’s clear the middle relief guys need to do a better job going forward. In fact, the best possible thing that could happen to the bullpen right now is the rotation finding its groove and providing more length going forward. I think Kelley specifically would benefit a ton from being a true one-inning guy rather than being counted on for multiple innings every time out because the starter struggled to get through five. The pitching staff as a whole has underperformed in the last week, but middle relief tends to be much easier to adjust on the fly than the rotation or late-inning relievers. It’s just a question of how long until some adjustments are made.
The Yankees acquired Vernon Wells from the Angels yesterday — begrudgingly, I’m sure — a move that helped clear up some of the roster questions heading into the regular season. The right-handed Wells and left-handed Brennan Boesch will presumably share left field/fourth outfielder responsibilities with either Juan Rivera or the recently signed Lyle Overbay temporarily replacing Mark Teixeira at first base. A trade for a new first baseman shouldn’t be ruled out, but I don’t expect it. With Eduardo Nunez taking over for the injured Derek Jeter at short, Jayson Nix figures to make the team as the utility infielder.
Even though Wells, Boesch, Nunez, Nix, and either Rivera or Overbay are all expected to make the team now, the Yankees still have one bench spot and potentially two bullpen spots to figure out. Here’s the projected roster as of today, in case you don’t believe me:
|C Chris Stewart/Frankie Cervelli||C Stewvelli||CC Sabathia||Mariano Rivera|
|1B Rivera or Overbay||IF Nix||Hiroki Kuroda||David Robertson|
|2B Robinson Cano||OF Wells/Boesch||Andy Pettitte||Joba Chamberlain|
|SS Nunez||?||Ivan Nova||Boone Logan|
|3B Kevin Youkilis||David Phelps||David Aardsma|
|CF Brett Gardner||?|
|RF Ichiro Suzuki|
|DH Travis Hafner|
One of those bullpen ?s could disappear if Phil Hughes is able to avoid the DL to start the season, but that looks increasingly unlikely. He isn’t expected to miss much time anyway. Clay Rapada, on the other hand, will indeed start the season on the DL, ditto Jeter, Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Curtis Granderson.
Shawn Kelley, Cody Eppley, and the recently claimed Dan Otero are candidates for one of those vacant bullpen spots, and I assume Kelley is the front-runner because the other two have been Awful with a capital-A in camp. Left-hander Vidal Nuno is a consideration for the other open bullpen spot — “Still talking about it,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings the other day. “Obviously Nuno has opened everybody’s eyes and taken a run at it, still trying to force his way on. We’ll go with one lefty, or we’ll go with two.” — and he’s been used in traditional LOOGY spots (lefty batter, middle of an inning, etc.) the last few times out.
Assuming one of those three 40-man relievers gets one of open bullpen spots, the Yankees will still need to open at least three (!) 40-man spots before the Opening Day: one for Rivera or Overbay, one for Nix, and one for whoever gets that fourth bench spot (Ben Francisco? Ronnie Mustelier?). Nuno could potentially make it four 40-man spots, but I suppose they could take Eppley or Otero or Kelley or even Adam Warren as a short-term bullpen arm until Hughes comes back. Opening up three and potentially four spots will be very, very difficult.
The Yankees released a perfectly good (but not great) prospect in David Adams yesterday to make room for Wells. Cesar Cabral, Michael Pineda, and A-Rod are already on the 60-day DL, and as Jennings notes the team can’t back-date 60-day DL stints. That means Granderson can’t be placed on the 60-day because he’s expected to return in early-May. Teixeira isn’t due back until late-May/early-June, but the Yankees will want to have the option of bringing him back as soon as possible and are unlikely to 60-day DL him at this point. Since Manny Banuelos was already optioned to Triple-A, they won’t call him back up and 60-day DL him. They’re choosing between burning one of Manny’s three option years or one of his three pre-arbitration years, and obviously the former is preferable.
The 40-man roster is cluttered with a lot of Adams-esque good but not great prospects, and those guys never stand out as obvious DFA candidates. The most obvious DFA targets are Eppley and/or Otero, but sacrificing MLB-ready (and optionable!) pitching depth might not be the best idea. One could go, but two would be pushing it. That could put someone like Corban Joseph, Melky Mesa, Zoilo Almonte, or even Dellin Betances on the chopping block. I’m sure the Yankees will scour the trade market before simply cutting any of those guys loose, but as we saw yesterday, sometimes push comes to shove. Hell, maybe they could package two of ‘em together for one big leaguer (utility infielder? lefty reliever?) and kill two birds with one stone.
Outside of cutting Eppley or Otero (likely Otero), I honestly have no idea how the Yankees will handle this need for 40-man spots. Maybe they’ll take the easy way out and send Nuno to Triple-A, filling out the bullpen with 40-man arms. Melky Mesa could fill that final bench spot and he’s already on the 40-man. Maybe Joseph or Almonte sneak onto the roster for a few days — even though they’ve already been optioned down — just to ease the 40-man headache. Either way, the Yankees are still going to need to open up two spots (Nix and Rivera/Overbay) and that won’t be easy. The roster is an absolute mess right now.
Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.
Mariano Rivera is worthy of his own post, but he is just one of many when it comes to the bullpen. The Yankees used 17 different relievers last season, including ten for at least ten appearances. That is pretty much par for the course these days — they used 26 (!) different relievers in 2011 and 18 in 2010 — since no team ever makes it through the season without injuries or underperformance. In fact, the Yankees have already lost one reliever (Clay Rapada) to the DL and the season hasn’t even started yet. He is the first injured bullpener, but he won’t be the last.
The Setup Man
Over the last two seasons, soon-to-be 28-year-old David Robertson has emerged as one of the very best relievers in all of baseball. He’s pitched to a 1.84 ERA (2.15 FIP) with a 12.79 K/9 (34.8 K%) since 2011, all of which are top five marks among big league relievers. Robertson managed to curtail his career-long walk issue last season — career-best 2.82 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%, including just five walks in his last 33 innings — but I’m going to need to see him do it again before I buy that as real improvement. His track record of iffy command is too long to be washed away in one (half) season.
With Rivera back and Rafael Soriano gone, Robertson is the unquestioned Eighth Inning Guy™ and backup closer whenever Mo needs a day to rest. That means we’re unlikely to see him brought into mid-to-late-inning jams to clean up the mess, which is where he and his strikeout-heavy ways are best deployed. Regardless, Robertson is an extremely valuable reliever who will see a ton of high-leverage work. Outside of Rivera, he’s the most important pitcher in the bullpen.
The Lefty Specialist
The Yankees have had enough injury problems this spring, but one player who seems to have survived the bug is Boone Logan. The 28-year-old dealt with a barking elbow for a few weeks and didn’t get into a game until last week, but he appears to be on track for Opening Day. Logan threw a career-high 55.1 innings in a league-leading 80 appearances last summer, which may or may not have contributed to the elbow issue. Given his extremely slider usage — 51.4% (!) last year, the third straight year his usage increased — it would be foolish to think the workload didn’t contribute to the elbow problem somewhat.
Anyway, Logan has quietly emerged as a high strikeout left-hander these last two years, posting a 10.58 K/9 and 26.9 K% since the start of 2011. Despite the strikeouts, he hasn’t been especially effective against same-side hitters, limiting them to a .240/.309/.413 (.314 wOBA) line over the last two years. That’s nothing special for a primary lefty specialist — Rapada has been far more effective against left-handers — but he redeems himself (somewhat) by being more than a true specialist. Righties have hit just .243/.355/.386 (.315 wOBA) against him these last two years, so Girardi can run Logan out there for a full inning if need be. He’s definitely useful, though perhaps miscast as a late-inning guy.
The Middle Men
It has been two years since either Joba Chamberlain or David Aardsma has had a full, healthy season. Both had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and both had another major injury as well — Joba his ankle and Aardsma his hip – and both were pretty darn effective before the injuries. The Yankees will count on both as their pre-eighth inning righties this year, mixing and matching with Logan and Rapada (when healthy).
All of the team’s relievers are cut from a similar cloth and these two are no different. Both Joba and Aardsma are high strikeout guys with swing-and-miss offspeed pitches, the question is just how effective they will be following the injuries. Chamberlain, 27, was pretty bad in the second half last year before finishing strong while the 31-year-old Aardsma made one late-September appearance and nothing more. They could be awesome, they could be awful, they could be something in-between. I’m guessing we’ll see a bit of all three at times this summer.
Rapada, 32, will start the season on the DL due to shoulder bursitis and there is no timetable for his return. He’s been crazy effective against lefties in his relatively short big league career (.231 wOBA against), though righties have hit him hard (.453 wOBA). As a soft-tossing, low-arm slot guy with a funky delivery, he’s a true specialist. But damn is he good at what he does.
The Long Man
When Spring Training started, it was assumed the loser of the Ivan Nova/David Phelps fifth starter competition would move to the bullpen and serve as the long man. Phil Hughes‘ back injury is likely to land him on the DL coming Opening Day, meaning both Nova and Phelps will be in the rotation to start the year. Long man replacements include 25-year-old right-hander Adam Warren and 25-year-old left-hander Vidal Nuno, the latter of whom has gotten talked up as a potential Rapada placement. He’s been, by far, the more impressive pitcher in Grapefruit League play. Either way, the long reliever job will go to Nova or Phelps whenever Hughes returns, which could be as soon as the second turn through the rotation.
Knocking on the Door
Beyond Warren and Nuno — starters by trade who are relief candidates by default — the Yankees have a number of legit bullpen backup plans slated for Triple-A. The two most obvious candidates are right-handers Shawn Kelley, 28, and Cody Eppley, 27, both of whom are on the 40-man roster, have big league experience, and have minor league options. Kelley is a traditional fastball/slider/strikeout guy while Eppley is low-slot sinker/slider/ground ball righty specialist. There’s a good chance one of these two — likely Kelley because Eppley was been terrible in camp — will crack the Opening Day roster as a Hughes/Rapada replacement. Right-hander David Herndon, 27, will be in the big league mix once he finishes rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at midseason.
Among the bullpen prospects scheduled to open the season with Triple-A Scranton are 22-year-old slider machine Mark Montgomery, the team’s top relief prospect. He ranked tenth on my preseason top 30 prospects list and should make his big league debut at some point this season. Montgomery gets compared to Robertson but that isn’t particularly fair even though he’s also an undersized strikeout fiend with a trademark breaking ball. No need to set yourself up for disappointment like that. Remember, it took Robertson two years before he finally stuck in the show and three before he became truly dominant.
Right-hander Chase Whitley, 23, and left-hander Francisco Rondon, 24, will both be in the Triple-A bullpen and one phone call away as well. Whitley is a three-pitch guy who projects more as a middle reliever than a late-inning arm, but he’s a very high probability guy. Rondon opened some eyes in camp by flashing a knockout slider after being added to the 40-man roster in November. He needs to work on his command and get some Triple-A experience before being a big league option, however. Whitley is pretty much ready to go.
The Top Prospects
Montgomery is New York’s top relief prospect at the moment, but right-handers Nick Goody and Corey Black deserve a mention as well. The 21-year-old Goody posted a 1.12 ERA (~0.89 FIP) with 52 strikeouts and just nine walks in 32 innings after signing as the team’s sixth round pick last year. The 21-year-old Black pitched to a 3.08 ERA (~2.70 FIP) in 52.2 innings after being the team’s fourth rounder last summer, but the Yankees have him working as a starter at the moment. He is expected to move into a relief role in due time if he doesn’t firm up his offspeed pitches. Both Goody (#21) and Black (#24) cracked my preseason top 30 and both are expected to open the year with High-A Tampa.
* * *
The Yankees have had consistently strong bullpens during the Girardi era, due in part to his willingness to spread the workload around rather than overwork one or two guys. The front office has (mostly) gotten away from big money relievers and focused on adding depth and power arms. Girardi got away from his strength last year because of injury (Rivera, Joba, Robertson for a month) and ineffectiveness (Cory Wade), instead relying heavily on his primary late-inning guys. That will hopefully change this year and the team will get back to having a deep and diverse bullpen, something they’ll need given the diminished offense.
Although Derek Jeter is day-to-day with left ankle inflammation, the Yankees did actually get some positive injury news yesterday. Left-hander Boone Logan made his Grapefruit League debut against the Phillies, striking out two and allowing a bloop single in a scoreless inning of work. He had been battling elbow inflammation earlier in camp, inflammation that may or may not be related to his career-high workload and league-leading 80 appearances in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Yankees are still without second lefty reliever Clay Rapada. He’s been out for a few weeks with shoulder bursitis, and while he was able to play long-toss yesterday, it’s looking less and less likely he will be ready in time for Opening Day. Opening the year with just one lefty reliever — assuming Logan’s elbow continues to hold up — isn’t the end of the world, but Rapada’s injury does open the door for fellow southpaws Josh Spence and Vidal Nuno these next ten days.
Spence and Nuno are both cut from a very similar cloth. They’re both 25 years old and not on the 40-man roster, plus they’re offspeed-heavy finesse guys. Spence — who pitched to a 3.15 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 40 innings for the Padres from 2011-2012 — is a changeup pitcher while Nuno relies on his slider. They’ve both had strong Spring Trainings but Nuno has been better, striking out a dozen against two walks in 8.1 innings of one-run ball. He’ll also capable of pitching multiple innings while Spence is more of a true specialist. Then again, he has no big league experience.
Carrying a second left-hander in the bullpen won’t be imperative early in the season. The Red Sox are in town for the first series of the year and both David Ortiz (heels) and Stephen Drew (concussion) are likely to start the year on the DL. Assuming Mike Carp fills in for Ortiz, he and Ellsbury will be the only lefty-hitting regulars in Boston’s lineup. The Yankees head to Detroit for three games after that, and Alex Avila is their only lefty bat worthy of a matchup southpaw. Prince Fielder mashes everyone and Andy Dirks has shown no split in his short big league career. The Indians are up next after that and carrying two lefties would be nice starting with that series.
Of course, carrying a second lefty specialist isn’t all that important anyway. Carrying the best pitchers possible is more important than having someone who throws with a specific arm just because, plus the Yankees do have three right-handed relievers who get lefties out in Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, and Joba Chamberlain. Though two of those three are married to specific innings though, it’s not like Joe Girardi will use Robertson to get a tough lefty out in the sixth inning or something. The point stands though, the club has a few guys capable of retiring lefties even if Rapada has to start the year on the shelf.
Now, if Logan’s elbow starts barking again, things will change. I can’t imagine the Yankees would open the season without no lefty relievers at all, meaning Spence or Nuno could be the guy. Both would have to be added to the 40-man and have minor league options remaining, so sending them to Triple-A when Logan and/or Rapada get healthy won’t be difficult. It becomes a question of which guy is the better bet to actually help the team, and I’m not sure we can answer that. Spence has some big league success but is an unconventional lefty specialist because he’s a changeup pitcher. Nuno has no Triple-A experience, nevermind MLB experience, but is more conventional thanks to his slider.
In all likelihood, the Yankees will use either Shawn Kelley or Cody Eppley in Rapada’s place come Opening Day if Logan remains healthy. Both righties are ticketed for Triple-A but have big league experience and would be used in lower-leverage spots anyway. Finding someone capable to fill-in isn’t the problem, it’s just a question of how much the Yankees value a reliever’s handedness. I say take the best pitchers regardless of which hands they throw with, but the Bombers clearly value left-handedness and would like to have two southpaws if possible. There’s at least a small chance Spence or Nuno could sneak onto the roster if they continue to impress in camp.
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.
Much has been made of the 2014 payroll plan, specifically how the Yankees will plug numerous rotation and lineup holes in the next 14 months or so while trimming payroll. The combination of one-year contracts signed this winter and impending free agencies mean the team could be looking to fill as many as three rotation spots and six everyday lineup spots. It’s a daunting task, and yet we all seem to be overlooking the bullpen.
Right now, the Yankees are projected to open 2013 with four relievers who will qualify for free agency after the season: Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and David Aardsma. That leaves David Robertson (due to hit free agency after 2014), Clay Rapada, and the long-man (Ivan Nova? David Phelps?) as the hold-overs heading into 2014. Cody Eppley deserves a mention here as well. Standard disclaimer: bullpens have a very high turnover rate and the club’s relief corps will look very different 12 weeks from now, nevermind 12 months.
The Yankees do have some nice relief depth scheduled to open the season in Triple-A, guys we figure to see next year at some point. Right-hander David Herndon, who spent the last few seasons with the Phillies, signed a minor league contract and is due to return from Tommy John surgery at midseason. Right-hander Chase Whitley (3.25 ERA and 3.70 FIP) threw 80.1 innings in Triple-A this past season and figures to be among the first called up whenever an arm is needed. Adam Warren will start the year in the Triple-A rotation but is likely to wind up in the bullpen long-term. The same is probably true for Dellin Betances as well. Left-hander and 2011 Rule 5 Draft pick Cesar Cabral will get a long look in Spring Training next year and could carve out a role with the team.
A little further down is right-hander Mark Montgomery, the team’s very best relief prospect. He’s a strikeout machine (career 14.6 K/9 and 40.0 K%) who will open the year in Double-A and earn a promotion before long. Left-hander Francisco Rondon was added to the 40-man roster after the season, so the team obviously thinks he can help them sooner rather than later. Non-40-man right-hander Graham Stoneburner could work his way into the mix as well. Right-handers Branden Pinder and Tommy Kahnle will start the year in Double-A with a chance to pitch there way into big league consideration down the line. Danny Burawa is coming off a lost season (rib injury) and the team liked him enough to invite him to big league camp this past year.
Prospects, especially bullpen prospects, have a high rate of attrition. Not all of these guys are going to work out, and in fact I’d be thrilled if three of them turned into legitimate big league options for New York. Some will be traded, some will get hurt, some will stink for no apparent reason. It happens. The Yankees do have plenty of inventory though, which is pretty much the only thing the team can control. They’ve also been aggressive with scrap heap pickups in recent years, plucking guys off waivers or signing them to minor league contracts, and that doesn’t figure to change. Outside of Rivera and Rafael Soriano, the club has had fielding a cheap and effective bullpen during the Joe Girardi era.
Despite that, I wouldn’t expect the Yankees to replace Mo, Joba, Logan, and Aardsma with only prospects or scrap heap pickups next year. If things play out like that and there are four bullpen holes to be filled, you can bet they’ll venture out into the free agent market for an arm or two. Here’s the list of free agents for next winter, and right now guys like Grant Balfour, Matt Belisle, and Eric O’Flaherty jump out as potential targets. Again, a whole lot can and will change before next offseason rolls around. I’m just looking ahead and thinking out loud here.
The rotation and lineup holes are going to draw a lot of attention (and posts) heading into 2014 given the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold, but we shouldn’t forget about the bullpen. The Yankees could have a lot of holes to fill beyond the right-center field wall as well, though the difference is that their internal relief solutions are far better (and more plentiful) than their in-house rotation and position player options right now. Given the inherent volatility of relievers, having depth and plenty of options to sort through is the best and most cost effective way to build a bullpen unit. The same can’t be said for starters and position players.
Despite losing Mariano Rivera to a season-ending injury in early-May, the Yankees still got a solid 3.43 ERA (3.62 FIP) out of their bullpen this season. David Robertson and Rafael Soriano did most of the heavy lifting while lefties Boone Logan and Clay Rapada were solid overall. Right-handers Cory Wade, Joba Chamberlain, Derek Lowe, Cody Eppley all had their moments. Ten different players made at least ten relief appearances for New York in 2012, and one of them was not Rivera (nine games).
Mo is due to return next season — he is still unsigned, however — and he’ll replace the departed Soriano. The rest of the bullpen falls into place behind him with Robertson in the eighth inning, Joba in the middle innings, and the two lefties doing the matchup thing. That’s five of the seven bullpen spots already accounted for, and the Yankees will have David Aardsma available on Opening Day as well. The former Mariners closer is coming off Tommy John (and hip) surgery and adds some dirt cheap ($500k) bullpen depth. So that’s already six of seven spots theoretically accounted for.
That final spot would presumably go to a long man, be it David Phelps or Adam Warren or some free agent. Joakim Soria has made it no secret that he would like to pitch in New York next season, and frankly I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t love to see the 28-year-old former Royals closer with the Yankees on an incentive-laden one-year contract. The only real issue with adding him is that it would leave the Yankees without a true long man, unless they (gasp!) stretched Joba out so he could go multiple innings. That would be pretty awesome actually, but let’s assume that’s not an option.
The Yankees could, in theory, trade a reliever so they could sign Soria and still carry a long man. Carrying two left-handed relievers is a luxury but not a necessity, and there is definitely some merit to the idea of trading Logan as he comes off a career-high workload (80 appearances and 55.1 innings) and is one year away from free agency. Rapada has been better against lefties both this year and over the last few years anyway, though Logan can at least fake it against righties in an emergency. There’s always the option of trading Joba, who is also a year away from free agency. I’d rather keep him and deal a lefty, but that’s just me.
Aardsma, Logan, and Rapada can not be sent to the minor leagues next season without first clearing waivers, and that definitely won’t happen. Some team would grab ‘em. Robertson’s definitely not going to Triple-A and I suppose there’s a chance Joba could go down, but it would surprise me if the team made the move. Eppley figures to be the up-and-down guy, and it would behoove the Yankees to add another arm or two on minor league contracts if they don’t feel Chase Whitley or Mark Montgomery are ready. Even if they are, adding the extra depth is never a bad thing. Remember, the team’s projected primary right-handers for 2013 (Rivera, Robertson, Joba, Aardsma) all spent time on the DL this season.
I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, I just kinda started thinking out loud about the bullpen and which spots were already accounted for. Ideally, I would like to see the Yankees trade one of their lefties — Josh Spence, Juan Cedeno, and possibly even Cesar Cabral serve as left-handed depth in Triple-A — add Soria, and carry a true long man who would allow Joba to remain a one-inning setup-ish man. Neither Logan nor Rapada will fetch much of anything in a trade, but maybe they serve as a second or third piece in a package. With Rivera, Aardsma, and potentially Soria coming off injury and expected to be handled carefully, carrying two LOOGYs might be a little inflexible.