Bullpen roles becoming clear just three weeks into 2015

Unofficially officially the closer. (Presswire)
Unofficially officially the closer. (Presswire)

It’s really fun when something goes exactly according to plan in baseball. Almost nothing goes as planned in this game, so on those rare occasions when things work out as intended, it’s cause for celebration. And so far this year, the Yankees’ bullpen is worth celebrating. The relief crew has been every bit as good as advertised coming into the new season.

With David Robertson leaving as a free agent and the Yankees not having a Proven Closer™ on the roster heading into Spring Training, we really had no idea how the bullpen would shake out. We had a pretty good idea who the team’s seven relievers would be — well, we had a good idea who four would be (five before Adam Warren was needed in the rotation) and who was in the running for the other three — we just didn’t know who would slot into what role. Three weeks into 2015, those roles are becoming clear.

Closer: Andrew Miller

For a number of reasons, the co-closers experiment never did get off the ground. It sounded great in theory, but Dellin Betances‘ sudden (and thankfully temporary) reversion to pre-2014 Dellin in Spring Training threw a wrench into things. For the first week, week and a half of the regular season, Betances had no idea where the ball was going and wasn’t exactly trustworthy in big spots.

That opened the door to the full-time ninth inning work for Miller. He got his first save in the second game of the season thanks to what appeared to be a matchup situation — Joe Girardi went to Betances to face the right-handed meat of the Blue Jays lineup (Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson) in the eighth inning and Miller got the final three outs against lesser hitters in the ninth. That’s all it took. His foot was in the door.

Closer is maybe the most unique job in baseball. Once a player has some success closing out games in the ninth inning, managers tend to stick with that guy going forward. Miller nailed down that first save, did it again five days later, and again four days after that, and boom. He is now very clearly the closer, recording eight of New York’s nine saves on the young season. Miller is the closer even if Girardi won’t admit it just yet.

“I still believe they both can do the job,” said the manager to Chad Jennings following Monday’s game. “It gives me a lot of options. It’s working the way we’re doing it. … (The plan is) just to stick with what we’re doing. I’m sure at some point one of them may be down and the other guy may have to do something else. Maybe they pitch a couple days in a row and I want to give one of them a day off. I still believe they’re really interchangeable.”

1996 Mariano/2014 Dellin: Dellin Betances

Boy this guy is some kind of luxury, isn’t he? Things got a little dicey for Betances at the end of Spring Training and the start of the regular season, but he’s turned it around and is back to being a multi-inning force at the end of games. It’s one thing to have a really great setup man like, say, Wade Davis or what the Yankees had with Robertson all those years. It’s another to have a guy who can do it for four or five outs fairly regularly.

Now, I don’t think we’ll Betances throw 90 innings again this season, that’s just not something a reliever can do year after year after year these days, but I definitely think we’ll see him get four or five outs on occasion. Heck, we’ve seen it already. Girardi used Betances to get five outs against the Rays eleven days ago then again to get four outs against the Tigers last week. It’s not necessarily something he should do every single time out, but Dellin gives Girardi the flexibility to pitch multiple innings if necessary.

With Miller locked into the closer’s job for the time being, Betances will remain in basically the same role he had last year, as Girardi’s go-to setup weapon. He’s settled into that role the last two weeks or so. The co-closers idea was fun. This works too. Dellin’s role is high-leverage outs-getter. That’s the most important thing.

Stop with the Coldplay jokes. (Presswire)
Stop with the Coldplay jokes. (Presswire)

Reliever Girardi Likes More Than We Realized: Chris Martin

So, Chris Martin. He had just an okay Spring Training, but Girardi and Brian Cashman and everyone else kept talking about how much they liked him, and now here he is at the end of April leading the Yankees with 12 relief appearances. I guess they weren’t joking around.

Martin started the year as the designated “only when losing” reliever — his first six appearances came with the Yankees trailing — but he’s gradually worked his way up the pecking order. Girardi used him for five outs in a two-run game Sunday night and then in a save situation when Miller was unavailable Tuesday. Considering the results (11 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 13 K), it’s hard to blame Girardi for giving Martin some more responsibility.

Previous members of the “Reliever Girardi Likes More Than We Realized” club include David Huff, Cody Eppley, Cory Wade, Luis Ayala, Sergio Mitre, and Brian Bruney. Martin was a scrap heap pickup — the Yankees got him in a cash trade with the Rockies after he’d been designated for assignment — who has already justified the minimal investment. He’s already worked his way into some important innings.

Reliever Girardi Doesn’t Seem To Trust: David Carpenter

Doesn’t it seem like Girardi still doesn’t fully trust Carpenter? He went to Martin for the save on Tuesday night instead of the more experienced Carpenter, then gave a weird answer when asked why he went Martin over Carpenter after the game. He basically said he was saving Carpenter for extra innings. Trust him in extra innings but not a save situation? Okay then.

Anyway, Girardi used Carpenter to get the final out of the seventh inning with a two-run lead Sunday night, then for a full inning in a tie game yesterday, but three of his four appearances prior to that came with the Yankees up by at least six runs. Two of them were with the Yankees up by nine runs. (Aside: Hooray for talking about the Yankees being up nine runs on occasion!)

Of those four appearances, the one Carpenter made with the score closer than six runs was the meltdown in Baltimore. Girardi brought him into the the sixth inning of a game the Yankees were leading by one, then Carpenter allowed three runs on two hits and a walk in one-third of an inning. Perhaps that blowup knocked the righty out of the Circle of Trust™ for the time being. That sure appears to be the case.

Lefty Specialist: Justin Wilson

One of the reasons Wilson was so interesting when he came over from the Pirates was his lack of a platoon split — from 2013-14 he held right-handed and left-handed batters to identical .268 wOBAs. And yet, Girardi has used Wilson as a left-on-left matchup reliever exclusively for nearly two weeks now. Here’s a real quick rundown of his recent appearances:

  • April 17th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Kevin Kiermaier. (strikeout looking)
  • April 19th: Brought in to face one batter, the lefty hitting David DeJesus, who was replaced by pinch-hitter Logan Forsythe. (fly out)
  • April 22nd: Faced five batters (two lefties, three righties) with the Yankees up six runs and then nine runs. Girardi was just counting down outs.
  • April 23rd: Brought in to face one batter, the lefty hitting Alex Avila, who was replaced by pinch-hitter James McCann. (ground out)
  • April 26th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Curtis Granderson. (pop-up)
  • April 27th: Faced three batters, two lefties (James Loney and Kiermaier) sandwiched around one righty (Brandon Guyer).
  • April 29th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Kiermaier. (line out)
(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So Girardi hasn’t been completely opposed to using Wilson against right-handers lately, but more often than not he’s been brought in for pure matchup work and not to throw a full inning. It could be that he has fallen out of the Circle of Trust™ — Wilson was charged with two runs in that Baltimore meltdown — and is now working his way back into favor.

Of course, Wilson’s strike-throwing issues are likely playing a role here as well. He’s always had a below-average walk rate — Wilson walked three of the first five and four of the first 13 batters he faced this year, and he’s walked five of 18 righties faced with only two strikeouts — and his early-season control issues may have scared Girardi off a bit. I can’t blame him. For now, Wilson is the middle innings lefty specialist and not someone we figure to see in real high-leverage spots anytime soon.

Long Man: Esmil Rogers

Coming into the regular season, this was the only bullpen role we could easily predict. We all knew Rogers was going to be the long man — he got stretched out as a starter in camp but Warren beat him out for the fifth starter’s job convincingly — and by and large he’s done a nice job. He’s got a 2.35 ERA (3.53 FIP) with 16 strikeouts and three walks in 15.1 innings. What more do you want from a long man? Rogers is a necessary evil — everyone seems to hate him but a veteran long man Girardi can run into the ground to spare the more important arms is a nice thing to have. Not all innings are pretty. Esmil’s hear to pick up the ugly ones.

The Last Spot: Chasen Shreve & Co.

As always, the last spot in the bullpen has been a revolving door early on in 2015. Shreve has held it down for the most part but he’s already been optioned once in favor of a fresh arm(s). Kyle Davies, Matt Tracy, Joel De La Cruz, and Branden Pinder have all seen big league time this year. Trust me, it won’t be the last time Shreve is sent down for a fresh arm this year.

Bullpens have to be flexible — what’s the point of having all those guys sitting and waiting in Triple-A if there’s no way to get them on the roster when they’re needed? — and this last spot gives the Yankees that flexibility. Shreve is good! But sometimes the furniture needs to be rearranged, and as the low man on the bullpen totem pole, he goes down to Triple-A when needed. If Shreve pitches well and Martin hits the skids at some point, it could be Martin who winds up in the minors whenever a fresh body is needed next. That’s just the way it goes.

* * *

For all the talk about the co-closers system coming into the season, Girardi has made it pretty clear over the years that he likes having relievers in set roles. He doesn’t need to say it, it shows in the way he uses his bullpen. Girardi has always had a set closer and preferred to have a set eighth inning guy as well. He’s even had a set seventh inning guy at times. The various relievers have settled into those various roles these last few weeks, and I’m sure that makes Girardi happy. It’s easier to manage when you already know who is going to pitch in what situation. At the beginning of the season, that wasn’t always clear. Now it is.

Yankees will soon reach a crossroads with Jacob Lindgren in Triple-A

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With the exception of last Wednesday’s massive meltdown in Baltimore, the Yankees’ bullpen has been a major strength so far this season. They own a collective 2.13 ERA (3.32 FIP) in 55 innings with a very good strikeout rate (26.5%) and a below-average walk rate (10.9%) that should come down once Dellin Betances and Justin Wilson get over their early-season strike-throwing issues. Hopefully get over them, anyway.

New York’s bullpen has thrown a ton of innings this season, fourth most in MLB thanks in part to that 19-inning game, so they’ve worked a lot and answered the bell. On the list of problems with the team, the relief crew is very far down right now. That said, there is always room for improvement, and when you rely on the bullpen as much as these Yankees, fielding the strongest possible bullpen seems like a no-brainer.

At some point very soon, the Yankees are going to reach a crossroads with Jacob Lindgren, their top bullpen prospect who is currently wasting bullets in Triple-A. And that’s basically what he’s doing. Wasting bullets. Lindgren has struck out 42.1% of batters faced with an 84% ground ball rate in 32.2 innings since signing last year. He’s faced 36 batters in Triple-A this year — eleven have struck out and 19 others hit the ball on the ground. Exactly 80% of the batters he’s faced as a pro have either struck out or hit a grounder. Total domination.

Given how quickly he’s risen up the ladder and how much success he’s had in pro ball, I’m not sure what’s left for Lindgren to learn in the minors. He’s never going to be a control artist because there’s some funk in his delivery, so sitting around and waiting for his walk rate (career 12.1%) to come down seems like a waste since it might never happen. Lindgren’s not a starter who has to work on turning over a lineup three times or a position player who needs to iron out his approach at the plate or improve defensively. He’s a one inning, air it our reliever who isn’t being challenged.

Part of Lindgren’s appeal out of the draft was his ability to move quickly, which he has. He’s knocking on the door of the show nine months out of college. The Yankees have downplayed his MLB readiness since last year but that’s not really uncommon. Lots of teams try to pump the breaks on their recent draft picks. Here’s what scouting director Damon Oppenheimer told Anthony McCarron after drafting Lindgren with the team’s top pick last summer:

“I kind of leave those decisions for other people. My job’s just to bring the talent into the system. But we just think as a group that he does have the capability of moving through the system hopefully quickly. Whether he’s good enough to go pitch in the big leagues right away, somebody else will make that decision. But he’s obviously advanced. He’s obviously gotten out really good hitters. There’s some history with guys doing this, but there’s also some history with guys getting to the big leagues as relievers too quick and it doesn’t last. We’d like to get impact and longevity from him, not just something that’s real quick.”

Development isn’t always nice and linear. Even David Robertson, another strikeout and ground ball heavy reliever, went up and down a few times before sticking for good. Chances are Lindgren will do the same, and those trips up and down are a learning experience. Right now Lindgren doesn’t seem to be learning all that much in Triple-A, but he will learn in the big leagues because he will be challenged, at which point he may have to go back to Triple-A to make adjustments. The sooner he comes up, the sooner the sticks for good, even if he rides the bus a few times before it happens.

The Yankees have moved Lindgren through the minors much quickly than any of their other recent reliever draft picks. J.B. Cox, another high-end college reliever selected in the second round (2005), spent his entire first full pro season with Double-A Trenton. Lindgren started his first full season in Triple-A. He did the Double-A thing late last year. The team hasn’t been shy promoting him. It would be ridiculous if Lindgren was still in High-A or even Double-A. He’s not though. He’s right on the doorstep.

I think the Yankees are planning to call Lindgren up very soon because they’ve moved him aggressively. Maybe it’ll even happen this weekend. Fitting him on the roster won’t be difficult — I like Chris Martin, but you don’t let a soon-to-be 29-year-old who was designated for assignment in the offseason stand in the way of a bonafide end game bullpen prospect, Martin can go to Triple-A for a few weeks — and even if the Yankees were playing the service time game, Lindgren’s free agency has already been pushed back a year. (Relievers are so volatile that planning six and seven years into the future with them seems totally pointless, but I digress.)

Given his overwhelming minor league dominance to date, every pitch Lindgren throws in Triple-A is a wasted bullet. It’s a pitch he should be throwing in MLB. I’ve been saying that since the spring. The Yankees are rapidly approaching a crossroads with Lindgren if they haven’t gotten there already — he needs to come up to be challenged so he can take the next step in his development. The bullpen has been very strong and I understand not wanting to fix something that isn’t broken, but this isn’t an attempt to fix anything. It’s a necessary step to continue Lindgren’s development that also has the potential make that all important bullpen even stronger.

Yankeemetrics: April 13-15 (Orioles)

Stephen Drew, grand slam. Not a joke. (Photo credit: NY Daily News)
Stephen Drew, grand slam. Not a joke. (Photo credit: NY Daily News)

Going streaking
The Yankees started their 10-game road trip with a 6-5 win over Orioles at Camden Yards, fueled by a three-homer outburst that gave them an AL-best 12 longballs through the first seven games. It’s just the seventh time in franchise history they’ve hit at least a dozen homers this early into the season, and the first time since 2011.

Stephen Drew was the unlikely hero for the Yankees, delivering the big blow with a pinch-hit grand slam in the seventh inning to turn a 4-2 deficit into a 6-4 lead. How rare was Drew’s homer? The only other Yankee in the past 75 years with a two-out, go-ahead pinch-hit grand slam was Johnny Blanchard on July 21, 1961 vs. the Red Sox. Prior to Drew, the last Yankee with a pinch-hit slam in the month of April was Bobby Murcer on April 9, 1981 against the Rangers.

Michael Pineda got the win despite a shaky outing in which he was pulled in the seventh inning after giving up five runs on nine hits. It was the first time as a Yankee he had allowed more than two runs in a start on the road. Pineda’s streak of seven consecutive road starts giving up two-or-fewer runs was the longest to begin a Yankee career over the last 100 seasons.

Sabathia’s least favorite road trip
So much for winning streaks. The Yankees lost the middle game of their three-game set vs. the Orioles, 4-3, as CC Sabathia was knocked around for four runs on seven hits in seven innings. This is the first time in his 15-year career that he’s started a season with two losses in his first two outings.

Sabathia, who once dominated the O’s in Baltimore (10-1, 2.73 ERA in first 12 starts at Camden Yards), fell to 0-5 in his last seven road starts against the Orioles. The only Yankee pitcher with a longer road losing streak against the Orioles in Baltimore is Stan Bahnsen, who lost six straight decisions from 1968-71.

Mark Teixeira tried to rally the Yankees with an RBI double in the sixth inning. Prior to that hit, Teixeira was hitless in 14 at-bats against Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez. That was his second-worst 0-fer vs. any pitcher in his career, behind only an 0-for-16 mark against Freddy Garcia. #WeirdBaseball.

Alex Rodriguez had a chance to tie the game when he pinch hit for Drew with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and the Yankees down 4-3, but grounded out for the final out. That dropped A-Rod‘s career line as a pinch hitter to 1-for-19, including the postseason. The lone hit was a 10th-inning single in a win over the Rays on August 25, 2013.

It’s just one game, right…
The Yankees relief corps entered the rubber game against the Orioles as one of the best bullpens in the AL, ranking second in ERA and third in batting average allowed. But they imploded on Wednesday night and blew a 3-2 lead in spectacular fashion, giving up nearly as many earned runs (5) in the sixth inning alone as they had in the first eight games combined (7). That paved the way for an eventual 7-5 loss, dropping the Yankees to 3-6 on the season, their worst nine-game start since 1991.

A-Rod provided one of the offensive highlights for the Yankees, hitting a deep bomb to left field for his 656th career home run (four away from Willie and potential $6 million bonus!) and 32nd at Camden Yards. That’s 10 more homers at the ballpark in Baltimore than any other visiting player.

The Yankees tagged Orioles pitcher Bud Norris for three runs in five innings but he ended up with a no-decision when the Orioles rallied to take the lead in the sixth inning. Norris remained perfect (4-0) in five career games against the Yankees, becoming just one of five Orioles pitchers (since the team moved to Baltimore in 1954) to go unbeaten in his first five major-league starts against New York. The others are Hoyt Wilhelm, Tom Phoebus, Rudy May, and Bob Milacki.

Dellin Betances’ struggles shouldn’t end the co-closer experiment

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

Although the 2015 season is barely more than a week old, it’s already clear Dellin Betances‘ rough Spring Training has carried over into the regular season. After pitching to a 5.40 ERA with six walks and nine strikeouts in 8.1 Grapefruit League innings, Dellin has walked six and allowed three hits against only three strikeouts in 3.1 innings across three appearances since the start of the season. Only 36 of his 81 pitches have been strikes (44%).

It appears Betances’ struggles are mechanical more than anything. His fastball is still humming in around the mid-90s and his breaking ball has its usual break, but he just has no idea where the ball is going. And considering Betances had no idea where the ball was going for most of his career prior to 2014, that’s sorta scary. Mechanical issues and a lack of command are hardly new for Dellin.

“Before (in the minor leagues) I was way off. Like, not even close. Now I feel a lot better. I’m right there. I’m missing right there, but you just have to have confidence in yourself. Keep going out there and battling,” said Betances to Chad Jennings after Monday’s game. “I’m right there. I know I’m right there. I just have to attack the hitters, be aggressive in the strike zone and keep making pitches.”

It’s good to hear Dellin feels he’s close to getting back to where he was — a positive attitude is underrated! — but Joe Girardi still had to make some mid-game adjustments Monday. Betances retired just two of six batters faced and Girardi had to go to Andrew Miller for the five-out save. After the game, the skipper told Jennings he was “trying to map it out (the late innings) but it never goes strictly according to plan. I had to rework it a little bit.”

We could take that as Girardi saying he’s lost at least some trust in Betances, and at this point I couldn’t blame him even though Dellin has only made three appearances. His spring issues have carried over into the regular season and these games count now. The Yankees can afford to give Betances more time to work through his issues, just not necessarily in high-leverage spots. Keeping him away from situations like Monday night — he inherited a two-on, one-out situation — wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.

Thankfully, the Yankees still have one elite reliever to lean on in Miller. He could step right in and serve as the closer now and no one would blame Girardi one bit. Me? I don’t think Betances’ struggles should put an end to the co-closer experiment. I like the idea of matchup based high-leverage work even if Dellin isn’t the man for the job right now. Bullpen plans have a way of not going, well, according to plan.

Rather than roll with Miller and Betances as co-closers, I’d like to see Girardi go with Miller and David Carpenter for the time being. Carpenter is a competent late-inning reliever with experience and is a righty to complement Miller. He steps into the late-innings, Betances slides back into a lower leverage role until he rights the ship, and the co-closers plan remains in place. The personnel changes, the plan stays the same.

Girardi has been very rigid with his bullpen usage during his time in pinstripes — in addition to a set closer, he’s had a set eighth inning guy and even a set seventh inning guy at times. He’s shown some willingness to be flexible this year with the co-closers setup — he was talking about this even before Spring Training, remember — and I hope Dellin’s rough start to the season doesn’t end things. Everyone seems to be on board, both the coaches and the players, so the Yankees should follow through on the plan while adjusting roles to accommodate Betances’ early-season issues.

Girardi confirms Yanks will head into 2015 with co-closers

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the 2015 season begins on Monday, the Yankees won’t have a closer. They’ll have two closers. Or they’ll have two half-closers. Something like that. Yesterday, Joe Girardi confirmed the Yankees will start the season with lefty Andrew Miller and righty Dellin Betances as co-closers, something he’s been hinting at since even before Spring Training. The eighth and ninth innings will be based on matchups.

“I really think that if you do it that way, and as long as you’re prepared, it has a chance to be advantageous to you,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “My thought has been more like with a power lefty who strikes out a lot of guys and a power righty, the lineups just might match up where one day he’s the eighth inning guy and then one day he’s the ninth inning guy a little bit better. I think you start managing who you’re going to use (in the ninth) in about the sixth inning, because you try to prepare them.”

This isn’t a situation where the Yankees don’t have a viable closer on the roster. They have two very qualified closer candidates in Miller and Betances — two qualified candidates when Betances is right, that is, and he hasn’t been right this spring — and selecting either one as the traditional closer would have been easy and completely justifiable. Instead, Miller will face the tough lefties regardless of whether they’re due to bat in the eighth or ninth while Betances gets the tough righties.

For what it’s worth, both Miller and Betances have being saying all the right things about the possibility of being used as co-closers since the idea was first broached before Spring Training. Both guys say they don’t care about closing, they just want to win, sometimes the eighth inning can be just as important as the ninth, all that good stuff. Girardi ran the idea by them again earlier this week and both guys are still all for it.

“I’ve talked to both. They’re concerned about winning more than (roles), in the sense of I’m this guy, I’m this guy. That’s the sense I’ve got from them,” added Girardi. “Now, could it iron itself out and you start to do it one way? Yes. But we talked a little bit about it yesterday. I’ll continue to talk about it with my coaches and (pitching coach Larry Rothschild) and his feelings about it as they get a feel, and (bullpen coach) Gary Tuck who’s in the bullpen, what do you think the importance of it is that we actually set a role? But as of right now, we haven’t felt that we have to.”

In theory, co-closers is a great idea. Girardi is meticulous with his bullpen usage, both matchups and workloads, so I have no reason to think he couldn’t pull this off. It’s been done before, most notably by the 2009 Braves with Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, but it certainly is unconventional and ripe for second guessing. Optimizing reliever usage by putting them in situations where they are most likely to help the team is much better than marrying them to specific innings.

Now, that said, Dellin’s spring performance is a problem we can’t ignore. It doesn’t look like he’s hurt, it looks like his problems are purely mechanical, but Betances has a long history of mechanical issues and he’s yet to sort them out. The Yankees open the season against the Blue Jays and Red Sox, two teams will a ton of very good right-handed hitters, so tossing Dellin out there in the ninth inning with a one-run lead against a bunch of righties isn’t so comforting at this very moment.

Until Betances gets sorted out, David Carpenter might be a safer bet for high-leverage work against right-handed hitters. Girardi told Bryan Hoch he doesn’t consider Chasen Shreve or Justin Wilson to be lefty specialists, though those guys figure to handle the middle innings, not the eighth and ninth. Maybe the co-closer system should be Miller and Carpenter for a little while until Betances is back to where he needs to be. My guess is Dellin will be used alongside Miller as the co-closer until he pitches his way out of the job though.

Latest roster cuts clarify Opening Day bullpen and bench pictures

(Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

The Yankees announced their latest round of roster cuts earlier today, optioning Chase Whitley to Triple-A Scranton and reassigning non-roster invitees Rob Refsnyder, Nick Noonan, and Eddy Rodriguez to minor league camp. By my count there are still 32 players in big league camp, four of whom are injured (Brendan Ryan, Chris Capuano, Ivan Nova, Vicente Campos).

Today’s roster cuts clarify if not finalize the Opening Day bullpen and bench pictures. Whitley was one of four candidates left for the final two bullpen spots along with Andrew Bailey, Chasen Shreve, and Chris Martin. Bailey told Mark Feinsand today he will stay behind when the team heads north tomorrow and continue working his way back from shoulder surgery with High-A Tampa when the minor league season begins. That leaves Shreve and Martin for the last two bullpen spots.

Ryan’s calf injury opened up the backup infielder’s spot, and while Joe Girardi hinted at Refsnyder being a candidate for the job, his reassignment to minor league camp today confirms he won’t make the team. Same with Noonan. Fellow reserve infielder candidate Cole Figueroa was sent to minor league camp last week, leaving the recently acquired Gregorio Petit as the front-runner for the backup infielder’s job. That makes sense, he can play defense all around the infield (unlike Refsnyder) and is right-handed hitter (unlike Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew, Noonan, and Figueroa).

I’m very surprised Whitley was sent down. He’s pitched very well in camp. I guess the Yankees feel Whitley is more valuable as the sixth starter in Triple-A than as the second long man in MLB. The backup infielder situation is whatever. As I said this morning, sitting on bench does Refsnyder no good, and picking between Petit, Noonan, and Figueroa is a toss-up. There’s no right or wrong answer. There’s just an answer, and it appears the answer is Petit.

Adam Warren has officially been named the fifth starter, and with Shreve, Martin, and Petit now looking like safe bets for the Opening Day roster, the only position battle left in camp is for the backup catcher’s job. All signs from the last 12 months point to John Ryan Murphy being the guy, but Austin Romine is out of minor league options and Brian Cashman admitted that will play a role in the decision. We’ll see.

With four candidates left in camp, Shreve and Whitley are good bets for last two bullpen spots

Chase and Chasen. (Presswire)
Chase and Chasen. (Presswire)

The Yankees open the 2015 regular season in just six days now. And, at this very moment, it’s still not clear who will fill the last two bullpen spots. We know Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances will work the late innings — assuming Betances straightens himself out — and Justin Wilson and David Carpenter will get the middle innings. Esmil Rogers will be in the bullpen in some capacity too, like it or not.

Those last two spots are still unaccounted for. In fact, the Yankees haven’t even dropped any hints about which way they may be leaning. Another long man? Two more short relievers with Rogers being the long man? A third lefty? Nothing. The only hints we’ve gotten have come via roster cuts — players optioned or reassigned to minor league camp are out of the running for the Opening Day roster. I mean, yeah, one of those players could always make the roster, but that’s a rarity. Guys are sent out because they’re no longer considered MLB options.

By my count, the Yankees have 36 players remaining in big league camp, 17 of whom are pitchers. Three of those 17 are injured — Vicente Campos (Tommy John surgery), Chris Capuano (quad), Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — so it’s really 14 healthy pitchers. Ten of those 14 are locks for the Opening Day roster (the five relievers I mentioned earlier and the five starters), meaning the last two bullpen spots are down to a four-man race. And when you look at them individually, it’s easy to see who the two favorites are.

RHP Andrew Bailey

Bailey, 30, has throw four one-inning appearances this spring as he works his way back from a torn shoulder capsule, and he’s had at least two days off between each of those appearances. He hasn’t even worked with one day of rest between appearances, nevermind back-to-back days, which most relievers both in Yankees camp and around the league have already done at this point of spring. After spending nearly 20 months rehabbing from major shoulder surgery, four innings plus whatever Bailey throws this week doesn’t figure to be enough to land him on the Opening Day roster. Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi have continually downplayed Bailey’s chances of making the team and it makes total sense. He’s simply not ready yet.

RHP Chris Martin

Martin’s spring has been better than his 5.63 ERA would lead you to believe. He’s made nine appearances and five of the six runs he’s allowed have come in two of them, plus he has 13 strikeouts and one walk in eight innings. More importantly, the 28-year-old Martin’s stuff has looked good — hittable, but good — which might be enough to convince the Yankees they could hide him as the seventh reliever for a few weeks until Capuano returns or a Triple-A reliever forces the issue.

LHP Chasen Shreve

Not counting the guys who were competing for a rotation spot, the 24-year-old Shreve leads all relievers in camp with 10.1 innings pitched. The Yankees have given him plenty of exposure against righties — 29 of 43 batters faced have been righties — and he’s held his own, with seven strikeouts and one walk in 7.2 innings against hitters of the opposite hand. The overall Grapefruit League numbers are not good (5.23 ERA), but I don’t think the club will ding Shreve too hard given how much they’ve pushed him against righties. The Yankees are not a team that tends to dwell on spring performance. The way they’ve used him makes it seem like they want him to make the roster, or at least considered him a serious Opening Day roster candidate at one point. They might like Shreve’s split-changeup hybrid enough to carry him on the roster to open the regular season.

RHP Chase Whitley

Whitley was a fifth starter candidate but not really. He did get stretched out but only made one start, and he never did throw more than three innings in an appearance. Whitley has helped himself with a strong spring (0.79 ERA), which is better than getting hit around, especially since the Yankees know him from his time with the team last year. It’s hard to say no to a guy who was with you last year and has pitched well in camp, know what I mean? For example, in one hand the Yankees have Martin, who is new to the organization and requires you to squint your eyes to see the positive in his spring performance. In the other is Whitley, who’s three years younger than Martin, has been in the organization for years, and has pitched well in recent weeks. Seems like an obvious call to me.

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The process of elimination leads me to believe Whitley and Shreve are likely to get those last two bullpen spots. Bailey simply isn’t physically ready for the big leagues yet. He hasn’t shown he can handle the workload. Whitley has pitched well and is an incumbent, and Shreve has been used in a way that suggests he is ahead of Martin on the depth chart. The signs point to Shreve and Whitley.

Of course, the bullpen is a very fluid part of the roster, and the Yankees have built enough depth that making the team on Opening Day isn’t a guarantee Shreve and Whitley won’t be in Triple-A come, say, April 20th, two weeks after Opening Day. Winning a roster spot is one thing. Keeping it is another. The Yankees have the ability to swap out relievers as needed and I expect that happen. Being on the Opening Day roster just means Shreve and Whitley (or whoever) will get the first shot at sticking all year.