It’s time to give Chapman a temporary break from closing

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have a bit of a closer problem right now. Aroldis Chapman was able to close out last night’s game, though not before allowing a two-run home run to Amed Rosario. It was the third straight game in which Chapman has allowed a run. Already this year Chapman has allowed more runs than he did in any season from 2014-16, and that’s despite missing a month with an injury and there still being six weeks to go in the season.

The Yankees have had a closer problem pretty much all season, but things are really starting to come to a head now, with the postseason races heating up and every win being so crucial. They’re 4.5 games back in the AL East and can’t afford to fall any further behind, and they’re 3.5 games up on a wildcard spot with about seven teams breathing down their neck. Letting late leads slip away is a good way to blow a postseason spot, and Chapman has done this a few too many times this year.

The facts: Chapman has been more hittable this season and he isn’t missing as many bats as he once did. He still misses a lot of bats compared to the average pitcher, but his swing-and-miss rate is way down compared to the rest of his career. The Yankees didn’t give Chapman a record contract to be a bit better than average. They brought him in to be super elite and to lock down every late lead. Some numbers:

  • Strikeout Rate: 32.2% (career 41.6%)
  • Swing & Miss Rate: 12.4% (career 17.2%)
  • Opponent’s Batting Line: .229/.325/.336 (career .162/.267/.237)

Everything is down — well, up in the case of the opponent’s batting line, but you know what I mean — and it goes beyond those three stats as well. Chapman’s chase rate is down, so hitters aren’t expand the zone as often. His hard contact rate is up too, so when batters do get the bat on the ball, they’re hitting it fairly well. Here’s what really scares me:

aroldis-chapman-contact-rate

The ability to miss bats in the strike zone, the very essence of what has made Chapman so dominant in his career, has been fading. And this is all related, of course. Chapman’s strikeouts are down and his hard contact is up because hitters are making more contact on pitches over the plate. Why is that happening? I don’t know. We’ve tried to figure it out. Whatever it is, something’s not right. This clearly isn’t the same guy we saw last year.

I don’t want this to turn into another “what’s wrong with Chapman” discussion, so let’s get away from that and get down to the matter at hand: should Chapman remain the closer? I mean, no, because he is clearly not the best (or second best, or third best, or fourth best, or even fifth best at this point) reliever in the bullpen. I’m not sure anyone would argue otherwise. The following two statements are true:

  1. The Yankees have several better options to protect a small lead in the late innings right now. David Robertson is the easy replacement closer candidate, though Monday night, it was Robertson in the eighth and Dellin Betances in the ninth. Both guys are qualified to close.
  2. The Yankees need to get Chapman back on track. As deep as the bullpen is right now — seriously, they could let Robertson and Betances share closing duties, and still have Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle (and Adam Warren!) for all other situations — the Yankees are at their best when Chapman is Chapman.

Chapman said all the right things following the game last night. “My job is to be ready to pitch everyday. As far as where I pitch, that’s not up to me. If at some point they need to remove me from the closer’s position, I’m always going to be ready to pitch,” he said to Brendan Kuty. Does Chapman want to close? Of course. Everyone does. And that’s good. You want your players to be motivated.

For the Yankees, however, giving up on Chapman as their closer four months into a reliever record five-year contract would be pretty embarrassing. Also embarrassing: missing the postseason for the fourth time in five years. That’s what’s at stake here. It’s one thing to ride it out with Derek Jeter hitting second in his final season just because he’s Derek Jeter. It’s another to stick with a struggling Chapman in close games because he’s so early into his mammoth contract.

The Yankees may have been thrown a bit of a lifeline last night when Chapman pulled up lame covering first on the final play of the game. He hurt his right hamstring, and while Chapman said it’s no big deal, the Yankees are going to send him for tests today. A minor hamstring injury would open the door for a quick reboot on the 10-day DL. Let someone else close for the time being and let Chapman work through some things during his side work without tying up a roster spot. That sort of thing.

Keep in mind the Yankees have resisted these phantom DL stints — this one might not a phantom DL stint given the hamstring, but you know what I mean, those “he’s not really hurt but we want him to step back and regroup” DL stints — for whatever reason. Masahiro Tanaka was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in April and May and we all kept waiting for the phantom DL stint that never came. The Yankees stuck with him and hey, Tanaka turned it around.

Things are slightly different here because a struggling closer means blown leads and wins turning into losses. Closer is a high-profile role, and when that guy fails, it’s plastered on the front page the next morning. Blown saves are demoralizing. So maybe the Yankees, knowing they have a deep bullpen and better options available, would be more open to giving Chapman a little ten-day vacation in an effort to sort things out on the side. Assuming the hamstring injury is as minor as Chapman says it is, of course. Hopefully it is.

Ultimately, the Yankees are at their best when Chapman is dominating and closing games out in the ninth inning, freeing up Robertson and Betances and everyone else to handle the middle innings. Right now though, Chapman is a liability, and the Yankees don’t have the luxury of rolling the dice in close games. They need those wins to stay in the postseason race and Chapman is not the best man for the closer’s job at the moment. It couldn’t be any more clear.

“I haven’t (thought about making a change at closer) yet,” said Joe Girardi to Kuty following last night’s game. Obviously, I rethink everything everyday, but it’s quite quick after the game and I haven’t really thought about it … I still really believe in him. There are other guys in that bullpen who have had tough times this year and we didn’t abandon him. If you start doing that every time a player starts having a rough time, it can be risky.”

The priorities here are, in order, winning games and getting Chapman back on track. The latter will help you do the former, but the latter hasn’t happened yet. If the hamstring doesn’t land Chapman on the DL, a temporary demotion to lower leverage relief work is in order. This is not two or three rough outings. It’s been pretty much all season. The Yankees have to get Chapman right. Not cross their fingers and hope he protects late leads when better options are available. Until he gets back on track, someone else should handle the ninth inning.

Sunday Links: Walker, Best Tools, Bullpen, Food Safety

Random photo is random. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Random photo is random. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Yankees and Red Sox will wrap up their three-game weekend series with the ESPN Sunday Night Game later today. The game should end sometime Monday morning. Anyway, here are some bits of news and notes to check out.

Yankees, Mets had Walker deal

More Yankees-Mets trade deadline drama. According to Mike Puma, the Yankees and Mets agreed to a Neil Walker trade prior to the trade deadline, but the Yankees backed out due to medical concerns. Puma says the Mets believe the Yankees used the medical concerns as an excuse to back out after finishing the Sonny Gray trade. Hmmm. Walker returned from a partially torn hamstring a few days before the trade deadline and had back surgery late last year.

Walker, 31, was traded to the Brewers last night and is hitting .264/.339/.442 (107 wRC+) with ten home runs in 299 plate appearances this season. Although he’s primarily a second baseman, the Mets also used Walker at first and third bases. He’s an impending free agent and the Yankees would have presumably used Walker at second base until Starlin Castro returned, then shifted him into a utility role. Eh, whatever. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little sick of this Yankees-Mets drama.

Baseball America’s best tools survey

One of my favorite features of the year is Baseball America’s annual best tools survey. They poll managers and coaches and scouts about the best tools and players in their leagues, from MLB all the way down to Low-A. Here’s where the various Yankees ranked:

Bell, the longtime big leaguer, is in his first season managing High-A Tampa after spending 2013 as the Pirates hitting coach and 2014-15 as the Reds bench coach. I’m curious to see what the Yankees do with him going forward. If Bell is a highly regarded managerial prospect as the survey suggests, either the Yankees are going to have to move him up the ladder, or they’ll lose him to an organization that will move him up.

Also, must be a down year for relievers in the Sally League, huh? Lane, who has since been promoted to High-A Tampa, is a 23-year-old former tenth round pick, and a sinker/slider lefty with middling velocity and a low arm slot. A classic left-on-left matchup profile. He’s got really good numbers this year, throwing 57 innings with a 1.26 ERA (2.26 FIP) and strong strikeout (27.1%) and walk (6.7%) rates. Not sure he’s much of a prospect though.

Yankees top ZiPS bullpen projections

Not surprisingly, the Yankees sit atop the ZiPS bullpen projections for the rest of the season, so says Dan Szymborski. Projections don’t really mean anything, of course. They’re not predictions. They’re more like an estimate of talent level. Anyway, here’s what ZiPS has to say about New York’s new-look bullpen:

Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman was already one of the best, if not THE best, one-two relief punch in baseball. Now you add in David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, the latter possibly the most underappreciated player acquired this deadline. Even Adam Warren has been lights-out, with a 1.97 ERA/2.69 FIP. Not to mention the team’s remaining big acquisition: Adding the complete absence of Tyler Clippard.

The bullpen before the Robertson/Kahnle trade: 3.39 ERA (3.33 FIP). The bullpen since the Robertson/Kahnle trade: 2.09 ERA (2.64 FIP). That 3.39 ERA (3.33 FIP) before the trade is a little deceiving too, because Jonathan Holder and especially Clippard had become wholly unreliable. They started the season well before crashing hard. The Yankees needed to fix their bullpen at the trade deadline, and they did exactly that. Too bad the starters are all getting hurt and the offense has since gone in the tank.

Yankees lagging in food safety rankings

Earlier this week Tanner Walters, using public inspection records, compiled ballpark food safety rankings. How clean are the facilities, is everything stored properly, so on and so forth. Yankee Stadium ranks 21st among the 28 parks in the rankings (data wasn’t available for Progressive Field or Comerica Park), and ranking 21st among 28 teams seems not good? From Walters:

Yankee Stadium led the league with critical violations (62% of its stands), and an infestation of flies highlighted the inspections from late July in the Bronx. Inspectors handed out citations at over a dozen food entities around the ballpark for observation of flies and improper vermin-proofing. The city doesn’t give detailed observations in its reports, but nearly a quarter of the stadium’s violations came from improper maintenance for non-food surfaces. Last year, even without a fly problem, Yankee Stadium would have finished in the same spot in our rankings. The ballpark had fewer overall violations but more that were critical, mostly from the restaurants and suites.

Kinda gross! Even with recent improvements, the concessions at Yankee Stadium lag big time in quality and selection behind the rest of the league — the concessions at Citi Field are so much better it’s not even funny, and it’s not just Shake Shack — and apparently they’re lacking in cleanliness and proper food safety too. Yuck.

A calm, rational discussion about the Yankees’ dumpster fire of a bullpen

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In a season full of ugly bullpen meltdowns, the Yankees hit a new low last night. Three relievers combined to walk six of 13 batters faced, and another was hit by a pitch. Dellin Betances, working for the third straight day, couldn’t protected a one-run lead against the bottom of the lineup. Why was he working for the third straight day? Because he had to bail out Jonathan Holder with a five-run lead (!) Monday night.

Holder was sent down prior to yesterday’s game, though by then the damage had been done. Betances had to pitch Monday night and Holder himself has helped blow a few games these last few weeks. He’s not the only problem though. Hardly. He’s part of the problem. Not the problem. Here is the bullpen in June:

4.56 ERA
4.55 FIP
25.2 K%
12.3 BB%
1.29 HR/9

Can’t win like that. Can’t be done. Not with starters throwing fewer and fewer innings each passing season. Bullpens are far too important to get that performance for a month and come out unscathed. The Yankees were four games up in the AL East as recently as 16 days ago and now they’re one game back, and they’re lucky they’re still that close. June has been a terrible month for the Yankees overall and especially the relief crew.

So what do the Yankees do now? It’s easy to say they should designated this guy for assignment, send down that other guy, and call up those two prospects I really like. I wish it were that easy. Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman surely wish it was as well. Want to get this bullpen on track? Here are some possibly fixes.

1. Eight is too many. The Yankees have been carrying eight relievers for weeks now and I think it’s that’s too many. Even with a seven-man bullpen, that last guy gets used maybe once a week. Domingo German was brought into the eighth inning of a two-run game last night after pitching once in the previous nine days. How could you expect a kid who has never been a reliever before to be sharp after that layoff?

Removing an arm from the bullpen seems counterintuitive when no one can protect a damn lead, but less is often more. Shorten the staff to your seven best arms and make sure they each get enough work to stay sharp and ready to go. There’s a fine line between regular work and overwork, but Girardi is generally pretty good at toeing that line. Pick your seven best arms and let them carry the load. Eighth relievers only get used in blowouts, and in situations they’re unqualified to pitch, like German last night.

2. Get Betances to go back to the fastball. En route to blowing that game last night, Betances threw 21 pitches, and 13 of them were curveballs. Only six of the 13 were strikes too. Dellin has a great curveball! He’s also been leaning on it way too much lately. From Brooks Baseball:

dellin-betances-pitch-selection

This is something that goes back to last year. It’s not necessarily new. Throwing all those curveballs is fine when Betances can drop it in for strikes, but lately throwing it for strikes has been a problem, and he’s not adjusting. He’s been trying to force it in there anyway. Not good!

“I have to be able to rely on my fastball more. Probably got too breaking ball happy,” said Betances to Erik Boland following last night’s game, so he’s aware that all these curveballs can be a problem. Dellin has a great fastball. He was working for a third straight night last night and the pitch still averaged 97.5 mph and topped out at 98.2 mph.

Betances doesn’t have to shelve the curveball entirely. That would be silly. But I think he needs to start using his fastball more often — he’s at his best when he has close to a 50-50 mix a la 2014 and 2015 — because a) his heater is so good he’ll get swings and misses with it, and b) it’ll help keep hitters off the breaking ball.

3. Give Webb a shot. The Yankees have been trying to dig up a reliable left-handed middle reliever since last season and, for a while, Tommy Layne did the job. Chasen Shreve has been the guy last few weeks and he’s had his moments. He hasn’t been able to get back to where he was in the first half of 2014 and chances are he never will, though he has been better this season. Good, not great.

Webb is by no means a budding shutdown reliever — or maybe he is! — though the tools are there for him to contribute, and as something more than a left-on-left matchup guy too. He’s low-90s with the fastball and he throws both a slider and changeup regularly. It’s a starter’s repertoire in the bullpen. Webb throws strikes — he has a 34.1% strikeout rate and a 2.2% walk rate in Triple-A this year — and what more could you ask? Girardi would have killed for a reliever who could throw strikes last night.

Layne fizzled out and Shreve isn’t good enough to keep a middle relief spot uncontested. Webb did everything he had to do at Triple-A over the last four years, and the Pirates saw enough to give him a look in Spring Training as a Rule 5 Draft pick. Given the bullpen issues, the time to give the 26-year-old a chance is now. If it works, wonderful. If not, then you move on to the next guy. The Yankees have been there, done that with Layne and Shreve.

4. Consider Adams. I’m ready for the Yankees to stick Chance Adams, their top Triple-A pitching prospect, in the big league bullpen. I made this argument last week. Adams was a reliever in college and in his first partial season of pro ball, so he’s familiar with the role. He misses bats and he’s said to be a tough as nails competitor, and that’s never a bad thing. Adams has had success at Triple-A and there are plenty of reasons to believe he’s ready to help in some capacity.

Adams. (Presswire)
Adams. (Presswire)

I get that people are squeamish about putting a top starting pitcher prospect in the bullpen, but it’s really not that big a deal. Teams have been breaking in their young arms as relievers for decades. I know the Yankees seemed to botch things with Joba Chamberlain, but Luis Severino was in the bullpen last year, and look at him now. Severino doesn’t become the pitcher he is today without that stint in the bullpen last season. I absolutely believe that.

Putting Adams in the bullpen allows him to get his feet wet at the MLB level and learn how to get big leaguers out. That’s valuable experience! That will help a) the Yankees win games right now, and b) Adams succeed as a starter going forward. The Yankees could break him in as a reliever this year and consider him a rotation candidate next season. That is a perfectly reasonable development plan.

5. Be patient. Okay, this won’t be easy, but the Yankees have to remain patient and not completely tear things down because of a bad month. Overreacting is never good. The bullpen isn’t actually this bad. At least I don’t think it is. The relievers are in a collective funk right now. It happens. They can make some changes (Webb, Adams, etc.) though overall, they still need Betances and Aroldis Chapman to be their rocks, and Tyler Clippard to be not awful.

Adam Warren is expected back from the disabled list next week and he’ll going to help as long as his shoulder stays healthy. That’s tricky, but Warren has never not been solid for the Yankees. Also, Chad Green seems to be coming into his own as a reliever, so within a few weeks he could really find his footing and take off as a dominant bullpen arm. Making tweaks at this point makes sense. There’s also something to be said for trusting the guys in the bullpen to sort things out soon. We know these guys can be reliable because they were just a few weeks ago.

* * *

The Yankees are 11-14 overall in June — they’ve outscored their opponents by 39 runs this month, underscoring the general stupidity of baseball — and the bullpen is a big reason why. It’s not the only reason. Definitely not. But it is the reason that is most smacking us in the face. The offense has vanished for long stretches of time and the starters haven’t been great either. Don’t get me started on the baserunning either. Goodness. Those outs on the bases added up.

The bullpen situation, however, is not getting better. It’s getting worse. Just when you think they can’t sink to a new low, they go out and do what they did last night. The Yankees aren’t going anywhere with the bullpen performing like this. Changing some personnel, changing some roles, and changing some pitch selection could go a long way to getting things straightened out. And, if it doesn’t, the Yankees will have no choice but to really shake things up and go outside the organization for help.

Chance Adams, Domingo Acevedo, and the Yankees’ need for middle relief help

Adams. (Times Leader)
Adams. (Times Leader)

It happened again last night. For the fifth time during the seven-game losing streak, the bullpen let a winnable game slip away in the late innings. Tyler Clippard did the honors again, this time by allowing three runs in the span of four batters. Sometimes the bullpen is going to let a game slip away. It happens. That’s baseball. It has been happening entirely too often this last week though. It’s bad.

The Yankees did welcome Aroldis Chapman back from the disabled list Sunday, and adding him to the bullpen will no doubt help. Dellin Betances is now freed up for seventh and eighth inning work. Beyond those two though, the Yankees are without the injured Adam Warren, have a malfunctioning Clippardbot, and will need guys like Jonathan Holder and Chasen Shreve to get big outs. Not ideal!

The season is more than one-third of the way complete now, and it’s looking like the bullpen needs more help than a healthy Chapman. The trade deadline is coming up and trades are fun! We’re going to talk about them a bunch in the coming weeks. No doubt about it. But give the Yankees and Brian Cashman a truth serum, and I’m guessing they’d say they’d rather not trade prospects for non-elite bullpen help.

With the Yankees in the middle of their youth movement, going out and making a trade to shore up the bullpen may be Plan B. Plan A could be looking for help within first. We’ve seen guys like Gio Gallegos and Ben Heller already, and they could get more chances. I’m not talking about them though. The Yankees could turn to some of their high-end minor league starters for bullpen help, specifically Chance Adams and Domingo Acevedo. Let’s talk this out.

1. Using minor league starters as big league relievers is tried-and-true. Teams have been doing this for decades now. It’s not a new idea. Chris Sale spent his first year and a half as a big leaguer in the bullpen before transitioning into the rotation and becoming an ace caliber starter. So did Carlos Martinez. Jeff Samardzija, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Dylan Bundy, Adam Wainwright. They all broke into the show as relievers.

The Yankees have done this too. They did it with Joba Chamberlain, most notably. Phil Hughes spent just about the entire 2009 season in the bullpen. Luis Severino did the bullpen thing last season before getting another chance to start this year. I know we’re all still scarred from the Joba Rules and the weird way the Yankee used Joba late in 2009 and all that, but that was almost ten years ago now. The Yankees have learned from that. I know that because they’ve done absolutely nothing like it since.

The bottom line is this: if the Yankees believe in a player as a starting pitcher, they’re going to give him a chance to start at some point, likely sooner rather than later. They are not against an apprenticeship in the bullpen, however, because that can be beneficial too. Learning how to get outs in the big leagues is valuable experience regardless of role. Does Severino become the pitcher he is today without pitching out of the bullpen last season? I don’t think so.

2. Both Adams and Acevedo can miss bats, and that’s huge. I’m of the belief that the ability to miss bats is essential for bullpen arms. The Warren types, who succeed despite an okay-ish number of strikeouts thanks to weak contact and deep arsenals, are pretty rare. Being able to miss bats and get swings and misses in the late-innings is crucial. That ability to escape jams — or prevent rallies from getting started — by limiting balls in play is huge. Huge.

Both Adams and Acevedo can miss bats. They’ve racked up strikeouts in the minors — Adams has a 25.5% strikeout rate this year, Acevedo 26.2% — and the scouting reports suggest it’s not a fluke. Adams has a mid-90s fastball and a pair of quality breaking balls in his curveball and slider. Acevedo is 6-foot-7 with big extension on his mid-to-upper-90s fastball, plus he has a quality changeup. Let them air it out in relief for an inning or two at the time and these guys could run strikeout rates north of 30%.

3. It won’t be long before they bump up against their workload limits. I don’t know what the number for either guy is, but the number exists. The Yankees have some workload limit in mind for Adams and Acevedo, two of their top pitching prospects, because they want to protect their arms long-term. Here are their recent innings totals:

Adams Acevedo
2014 56.1 15.1
2015 94.1 49.2
2016 127.1 93
2017 so far 75.2 81.2
2017 limit 160? 140?

The old and outdated Verducci rule says you shouldn’t increase a young pitcher’s workload more than 30 innings from one year to the next, but that is, well, old and outdated. Teams are smarter than that now. Every pitcher is different and a blanket “no more than a 30-inning increase” doesn’t make sense.

The Yankees are fairly aggressive with their workload increases. Severino threw nearly 50 more innings in 2015 than he did in 2014, for example. (He threw 48.2 more innings, to be exact.) The Yankees will set limits and stick to them, however. They shut Adams down completely right before Double-A Trenton started the postseason last year. Took away the club’s best pitcher for the sake of his long-term health.

Whatever it is, Adams and Acevedo have an innings limit this year. Maybe it’s the 160 innings and 140 innings I threw in the table. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Whatever it is, rather than shut these down like they did with Adams last year, the Yankees could use those final few innings — their last, say, 20-25 innings, maybe? — out of the big league bullpen.

Remember, we’re not talking about Single-A pitchers here. Both Adams and Acevedo are in Triple-A now. Letting a young, talented pitcher reach his workload limit only to shut him down for the year in Triple-A rather than give him a chance to help the MLB team, even as a September call-up, almost seems wasteful.

Big Sunday. (Icon Sportswire)
Big Sunday. (Icon Sportswire)

4. Service time, minor league options, and the 40-man roster aren’t obstacles. Any time you call up a player, there are roster consequences to be considered. In the case of Adams and Acevedo, neither is on the 40-man roster. The Yankees have an open 40-man spot right now, plus Greg Bird is a 60-day DL candidate, though that might not be the case when they’re ready to call up these two pitchers.

Acevedo will be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, so calling him up would simply be getting a head start and adding to the 40-man a few weeks early. Adams won’t be Rule 5 Draft eligible until after next season, however. And once both guys are on the 40-man roster, they’re not coming off. The Yankees would be tying up a spot for good and that limits their roster flexibility. That’s not nothing!

That said, Acevedo is going to end up the 40-man roster soon anyway, and Adams is likely going to be big league ready before being Rule 5 Draft eligible. This isn’t like adding, say, Jorge Mateo to the 40-man last year. Mateo is a Single-A kid who isn’t MLB ready but was Rule 5 Draft eligible. Acevedo and Adams would be added to the 40-man when the Yankees deem them MLB ready. They’d be on the roster because they’re ready to help.

As for minor league options and service time, who cares? It’s not worth worrying about service time with non-elite prospects, especially pitchers because they get hurt so often. And if the Yankees run into options trouble with Acevedo and Adams down the line, then things are going wrong. Not being able to send them to the minors in 2020 would mean something has gone wrong. These roster issues really aren’t worth worrying about.

* * *

All of that was a long way of saying that if the Yankees consider Adams and Acevedo big league ready, there’s no good reason not to use them as relievers. The guys in the bullpen are not getting the job done and sticking with the status quo might not be viable much longer. The Yankees are going to have to get some new bodies in there if things don’t change soon.

Adams and Acevedo can go back to starting next year and the roster situation isn’t enough of an obstacle. Maybe the Yankees end up needing both Adams and Acevedo in the rotation and this is all moot. If not though, the bullpen is waiting, and both should be considered middle relief options. If they’re deemed ready to help, let them help, even if they’re only throwing one inning at time.

The bullpen might need more help than Aroldis Chapman

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

Later tonight, assuming the weather cooperates, Aroldis Chapman is scheduled to make a minor league rehab appearance with Double-A Trenton. He was supposed to pitch in a rehab game with High-A Tampa earlier this week, but that was rained out, meaning Chapman had to throw another simulated game to get his work in. The weather isn’t being very helpful right now.

The master plan, according to Joe Girardi and the Yankees, is to activate Chapman off the disabled list Sunday as long as his rehab game goes well. It seems kinda weird to have Chapman fly from Tampa to Oakland only to be available for one game, and then fly all the way back to New York, but whatever. When healthy, Aroldis is pretty great, and the more games he’s available, the better.

Chapman’s return will push Dellin Betances, who was been marginalized as the closer the last few weeks, back into a setup role. Thank goodness. Too many games have slipped away in the seventh and eighth innings with Betances watching from the bullpen this past week. Getting Chapman back is no doubt going to be a huge help. Will he alone be enough help though? It’s starting to look like the answer is no.

Tyler Clippard‘s recent struggles are becoming too severe to ignore. I don’t think anyone wants to see him in a high-leverage spot at this point, and given the quick hook last night, it seems like Girardi is beginning to lose confidence in him too. Adam Warren has a trap issue and is banged up. Jonathan Holder is having a nice little rookie season, though I don’t think anyone like the idea of him being the third option behind Betances and Chapman.

With Warren banged up, Chasen Shreve might be the most trustworthy reliever on the roster behind Betances at this very moment. Yikes. I like Chad Green and think he could really help in a short relief role. I said so before the season. Maybe he can be the next Warren. For now though, Green is still in the “prove himself” phase. Maybe Domingo German and his upper-90s sinker can be something? That’d be neat. That’s a lot of maybes though.

The Yankees have cycled through Gio Gallegos and Ben Heller and Ronald Herrera the last few days and, amazingly, every single one managed to be on the mound when the game-losing run scored. Tuesday it was Heller, Wednesday it was Herrera, and Thursday it was Gallegos. Not a good way to impress, dudes. Maybe we’ll see Tyler Webb or J.P. Feyereisen at some point, or heck, maybe even Chance Adams, though it’s tough to count on them to have an impact.

Given the sudden middle relief issues, specifically Clippard’s shakiness and Warren’s seemingly minor injury (if it was serious he’d be on the disabled list, right? right???), the Yankees might have to think about picking up another bullpen arm at some point. Chapman coming back will help, no doubt about that, but he alone might not be enough. Another arm to supplement Warren, Shreve, and a hopefully-fixed-at-some-point Clippard couldn’t hurt.

Now, that doesn’t mean the Yankees should go out and deal top prospects for high-end bullpen arms. The Yankees don’t need to go out and pull a reverse Andrew Miller trade here. Something similar to last year’s Clippard trade, an out-of-favor veteran for a low-end prospect. That sort of thing. The Yankees just need a little more depth, though of course it should be noted relievers are notoriously fickle, so even if you bring one or two in, there’s no guarantee they’ll perform well in the small sample of a half-a-season.

Step one right now is getting Chapman back, which will hopefully happen as soon as Sunday. Chapman in the ninth frees up Betances for those seventh and eighth inning spots, where more than one game has been lost this week. There is still more room for improvement beyond that though. Someone to lighten the load on Clippard and Warren and Shreve, because lately they’ve taken on a lot of responsibility, and it hasn’t worked out.

Layne’s struggles make this Chasen Shreve’s best chance to stick with the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

All offseason long, the Yankees were said to be seeking a left-handed reliever, which seemed a little odd considering Tommy Layne did a nice job for them down the stretch last year. By no means was Layne irreplaceable. It just seemed like there were bigger fish to fry, you know? The Yankees wound up passing on guys like Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins, and instead rolled the dice with Jon Niese and Joe Mantiply.

Thus far neither Niese nor Mantiply have pitched for the big league team, and Layne has been so shaky that he’s been relegated to mop-up duty. Only once in his last seven appearances has the score been separated by fewer than five runs. That’s how far down the depth chart he’s fallen. Layne was good late last year, but he is a 32-year-old journeyman, and those guys are as unpredictable as it gets. The Yankees were smart to look for more lefty relief help.

Layne’s early struggles have opened the door for Chasen Shreve to get left-on-left matchup work, and so far he’s been lights out. Lefties are 0-for-14 with four strikeouts and one unintentional walk against him. A small sample, of course, though lefty specialists only work in small samples. That’s the nature of the beast. Layne wasn’t working out — lefties are 6-for-16 (.375) against him — so Joe Girardi moved on Shreve. Makes sense, right? Right.

Two years ago Shreve looked like a potential long-term bullpen piece thanks to his nasty splitter, which allowed him to neutralize both lefties and righties. He served as a trustworthy middle innings option for the first four months of 2015 before crashing hard late in the season. I hoped it was just fatigue. Then Shreve allowed 19 runs, including eight homers, in 33 innings last year. He wound up spending most of the summer in Triple-A.

Is there any reason to believe 2017 Shreve will pitch more like early-2015 Shreve than 2016 Shreve? Eh, not really. It’s too early to say. He’s thrown only 9.2 innings with the Yankees this year, three of which game during the 18-inning game with the Cubs, so we haven’t seen him much. Shreve did dominate those few weeks he spent in Triple-A — 12 strikeouts and no walks in 6.1 innings — though that doesn’t mean much. It’s Triple-A.

More important than the small sample early season results are what lies ahead: another opportunity. Layne has pitched his way out of high-leverage spots, Niese is still in Tampa building arm strength, and Mantiply isn’t doing enough in Triple-A to earn an MLB chance. Like it or not, Shreve is Girardi’s best left-handed bullpen option now that Aroldis Chapman is on the disabled list. (Chapman wouldn’t be used in matchup situations anyway.)

These next few weeks might be Shreve’s last chance to stick with the Yankees and carve out a role in the bullpen going forward. He’s already burned his final minor league option this year, meaning when time comes to clear a roster spot next year, Shreve may find himself on the chopping block. He has to make himself valuable, not expendable. There’s no real competition right now. The left-on-left matchup job is his for the taking.

Keep in mind the bullpen shuttle as we know it is kaput. We’re not seeing relievers called up and sent down on a near daily basis anymore. The bullpen moves that have been made have been made due to necessity (injury, extra innings, etc.). Shreve should get a chance to stick around the next few weeks and show whether he’s up for being the primary left-on-left reliever. And maybe he’s not. He’s had chances before, after all. Given the available options though, Shreve is worth another audition.

I don’t think a lefty specialist is all that important to start with — how many lefty hitters in the AL East really scare you? Chris Davis, Andrew Benintendi, and, uh, Corey Dickerson? — but the Yankees clearly value the role, and they spent the winter looking for an upgrade. They didn’t find one, and now Layne pitched his way out of the picture. Shreve is not the only in-house option, but he might be the best, and he now has a chance to grab the job outright.

The Yankees aren’t relying on the bullpen shuttle in 2017

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, prior to the series opener against the Blue Jays, the Yankees did something they had not done all season. The swapped out a reliever for a fresh arm. Bryan Mitchell was sent down following his pitch an inning/play first base for an inning/pitch an inning adventure and Luis Cessa was called up to give the Yankees another long man. Cessa wound up throwing 3.1 innings last night.

Prior to that move, the Yankees had made exactly one transaction involving a relief pitcher this season. They optioned Chasen Shreve to Triple-A Scranton to make room on the roster for Jordan Montgomery last month. The Yankees started the season with eight relievers and inevitably someone was going to get send down for the fifth starter, so we all knew that move was coming.

Otherwise, the Yankees stuck with their Opening Day bullpen through the season’s first month — good health has played a part in that and hopefully it continues — which has not been the norm the last few seasons. The last few years the Yankees have shuttled relievers up and down to ensure Joe Girardi always has a fresh bullpen arm or two available. Lots of teams are doing that nowadays and the Yankees took it to the extreme.

Last April, for example, the Yankees made three shuttle moves, including sending down Cessa and calling up Tyler Olson on April 15th, then sending down Olson and calling up Branden Pinder on April 16th. The year before the Yankees made five shuttle transactions in April, transactions that included names like Kyle Davies and Joel De La Cruz and Matt Tracy. They called you up, used you as much as possible, then sent you down for someone else the next year.

The Yankees did not make their first shuttle move until yesterday — Cessa was send down for Shreve earlier today, so now it’s two shuttle moves today — though it was not because of a lack of opportunity. Mitchell threw nine pitches on April 22nd and 35 pitches on April 23rd, yet remained on the roster. He threw 26 pitches last Friday and got clobbered, and he still stuck around. Jonathan Holder threw 19 pitches on April 22nd, the second game of back-to-backs, and yet he remained with the Yankees.

In the past, sending unavailable pitchers like Mitchell and Holder down for a fresh arm following outings like that would have been a given. They’d get sent down knowing full well it was essentially a temporary demotion. Once their ten days were up — players have to remain in the minors at least ten days after being sent down unless they’re replacing someone who goes on the disabled list — they’d ride the shuttle back to the Bronx. It happened constantly from 2015-16.

The Yankees have yet to fully activate the bullpen shuttle this season and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think it’s a shift in philosophy. That doesn’t mean they won’t send guys down if necessary — again, they did it yesterday and did it again today — but right now, they seem to be trying to avoid it, and I think there’s something to that. Two possible reasons why:

Holder. (Presswire)
Holder. (Presswire)

1. The shuttle doesn’t really work. The shuttle worked the last two years in that it provided Girardi with a rested reliever every single night and hey, that’s a good thing. It did not work in that those relievers rarely provided quality innings. Last year’s shuttle crew included Shreve, Kirby Yates, Nick Goody, Johnny Barbato, Richard Bleier, and Conor Mullee, among others. Those dudes combined for a 4.74 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 142.1 innings. Eh.

Reliever quality is certainly one factor in that poor performance, though I also think there’s something to be said for not having to look over your shoulder, knowing the next trip to Scranton is only a few days away. I can’t imagine going back and forth between Triple-A and MLB can be an easy thing, and not just for the player. For his family too. It’s difficult not knowing where you’re going to be from week to week, or even day to day. Being treated like a big leaguer can go a long way.

2. It’s time to give some players an extended audition. Shuttling guys in and out and seeing them for two innings at a time every few weeks is no way to evaluate a player. The only way the Yankees will be able to find out whether any of these guys are long-term bullpen pieces is by keeping them around and seeing how they perform once they’re able to get settled in. And maybe they pitch themselves out of the picture. That’s part of the process.

Holder had a phenomenal minor league season a year ago — he threw 65.1 innings with a 1.65 ERA (1.30 FIP) and a ridiculous 42.4% strikeout rate against a 2.9% walk rate — and the Yankees seem to like him, so he’s getting an extended opportunity right now. Mitchell was sort of in the same boat before being sent down yesterday. He turned 26 last month and still can’t seem to develop a changeup. With him, this is more make or break time. Time to see what he can do, you know? Holder is younger and has time on his side.

Point is, I think the Yankees have decided while shutting relievers in and out allowed Girardi to have fresh relievers at all times, it is no way to evaluate players. They’re rebuilding transitioning, and they have to figure out who is part of the future, and that includes relievers. Maybe Holder will be the next David Robertson and emerge as a setup force in a year or two. The only way you can find out is by giving him an opportunity, and they’re doing it now.

* * *

This all isn’t to say the Yankees will never send down relievers again. Someone might pitch their way down to the minors, plus you know at some point the Yankees are going to have one of those series where the bullpen gets wrecked, and they have no choice but to call some people up to help get them through the next few days. They’re kinda going through that right now. It happens to every team.

In the big picture though, the idea of shuttling relievers in and out on a nearly daily basis seems to have gone by the wayside. The Yankees tried it out for two years, didn’t like the results, and decided to change things up. That allows a young guy like Holder to really show what he can do. Eventually others like Ben Heller and Gio Gallegos may get a chance to join him as well. The bullpen shuttle as we know it seems to be a thing of the past.