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.

About last night: Aroldis Chapman’s tough ninth inning

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Last night’s win over the Red Sox, as satisfying as it was, did not come easily in the ninth inning. Aroldis Chapman needed 33 pitches to get the final three outs and gosh, did he labor. Two walks, one booming double, one long foul ball, one run, and only two swings and misses. It was hardly vintage Chapman, but it was enough to close out the win.

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Chapman’s velocity graph for the game. This is the velocity of each pitch as the outing progressed:

aroldis-chapman-velocity

For the first 25 pitches or so, Chapman’s fastball was consistently 98-100 mph. It wasn’t until the very end of the outing, as his pitch count approached 30 — his previous season high was 22 pitches — that his fastball dipped all the way down to 96. Trackman clocked his average fastball — he threw 25 of them — at 98.9 mph for the night.

“I feel fine. Thank God, I feel fine,” said Chapman through Marlon Abreu, the Yankees’ interpreter, to Brendan Kuty following the game. “I would not blame not throwing for a couple of days, or blame the weather at all. It’s just sometimes you’re not as sharp. That’s it.”

Given who he is (a closer in year one of a five-year, $86M contract) and what he’s known for (historic fastball velocity), seeing Chapman finish the outing at 96-98 mph rather than his usual 100-102 mph was at best unnerving and at worst panic-inducing. The fact it was the Red Sox and Fenway Park and the tying run was on base didn’t help matters.

That all said, Chapman’s outing to me looked more like a guy who simply didn’t have it and was struggling with the weather than someone who was hurt. I’ve seen plenty of pitchers pitch hurt over the years, and they didn’t look like that. I know Aroldis said not to blame the weather, but that strikes me more as a closer not making excuses than anything. It was cold and it was wet, and we’ve seen Chapman struggle in those conditions before. He did last year in Game Seven of the World Series. Remember the rain game against the Rangers last year?

Here is another velocity graph, again via Brooks Baseball. This is Chapman’s average velocity by month throughout his MLB career. Like most pitchers, Chapman doesn’t really hit his stride and start airing it out until the weather heats up:

aroldis-chapman-velocity-by-month

Keep in mind Chapman did not pitch for the Yankees last April due to his suspension. That first dot last season, the low one, that’s his final Spring Training outing against the Marlins at Marlins Park. Chapman spent April pitching in Extended Spring Training games before rejoining the Yankees in May, when he was essentially in midseason form.

Anyway, as you can see in the graph, April is traditionally Chapman’s worst month in terms of velocity. And again, that applies to nearly every pitcher. It applies to Dellin Betances. His average 98.9 mph fastball last night was down for midseason Chapman. It was right in line with his past Aprils, if not better, however.

This is what I saw last night. One, a pitcher who came out of the bullpen without good command. It happens. Two, a pitcher who had a hard time with the less than ideal weather conditions. And three, a pitcher who was running out of gas by the end of his outing. Chapman’s usual April velocity was there for the first 25 pitches or so. It wasn’t until later in the outing, after 30-ish high-stress pitches, that he dipped down to 96-98 mph.

Because he’s an important part of the team and because he’s very early in his massive contract, of course we’re all going to keep an key on Chapman in his next few outings, including the Yankees. Every pitcher loses velocity as their career progresses and Chapman will be no different. At some point sitting 100-102 mph will become sitting 98-100 mph, then sitting 95-97 mph. It’ll happen at some point. Father Time remains undefeated.

I think last night’s outing was just one of those games, however. One of those games where Chapman didn’t have it and needed to grind. Those outings happen to everyone, even pitchers as good as him. It was his first game like that this year. If this becomes a pattern, it’ll be a red flag. For now, I consider it to be just one of those days.

Warren’s versatility adds necessary element to Yankees’ pen

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After Monday’s win, the Yankees’ top two relievers — Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman — are each on pace to throw 66.5 innings this season.

That total is still pretty high (47 pitchers threw more innings last year without making a start). However, it would hardly be a career-high for either and would mark a fourth straight season with a decrease in innings for Betances.

A big reason why neither pitcher should end up breaking a career-high in total innings is the presence of Adam Warren. The versatile right-hander has the best numbers of any Yankee reliever so far this year despite giving up his first three hits and a run on Monday. In nine innings, he’s allowed just the single run, walked only one batter and struck out nine. And he’s absorbed those nine innings in just five appearances.

This is hardly a revelation for Warren. He’s been giving the Yankees multiple-inning relief appearances since 2013, minus a four-month stint with the Cubs last summer and a little time in the Yankees rotation. Beyond the multi-inning appearances, he also has experience in taking high-leverage innings. At certain points in the last three seasons, he’s fulfilled late-inning roles for the Yankees, even taking the 8th inning of close games at times.

But this season, he’s entered in a complete hodgepodge of situations.

Apr. 2: 4th inning, two outs, two men on, Yankees down five
Apr. 5: 5th inning, two outs, one man on, down three
Apr. 8: 6th inning, no outs, up one
Apr. 15: 8th inning, one out, up two
Apr. 17: 7th inning, no outs, up four

If anyone can find a trend or consistent part in any of that, let me know. To me, the point is that Warren can take on literally anything for Joe Girardi. Yankees need someone to soak up 2-3 innings and keep the game within striking distance? Warren time. The starter only goes five and someone needs to get the ball to the top three relievers? Warren time.

Despite being clearly fourth in the bullpen pecking order behind Chapman, Betances and Tyler Clippard, Warren’s role is highly synergistic with those guys and the rest of the bullpen. He can take on enough innings to keep their innings down for late in the season. After Warren threw 2 1/3 solid innings on Monday, Girardi discussed everything Warren brings to the table.

“He’s a bridge. He’s a fill-in, in a sense, in the 7th, 8th or 9th inning, whatever I need,” Girardi said. “He just gives me a lot of versatility to our bullpen. And I think that piece is really important to have a really good bullpen, a guy that can do that and handle a number of different roles.”

A lot of relievers have trouble not knowing their role. It’s incredibly tough for a pitcher to be ready to go every inning from the 5th through the 9th, especially when they may warm up multiple times in that span. It can be exhausting and it’s the main reason why we don’t see pitchers in the regular season do what Andrew Miller did last postseason. That’s not to say it’s easy to do what Chapman or Betances do — not all innings are created equal and they pitch almost exclusively in high leverage spots — but they do have the added luxury of knowing the basic parameters of their appearances.

Warren doesn’t have that, but has done fine. Looking back to 2014, his last full season in the Yankees’ bullpen, he entered in the 6th inning 12 times, the 7th 25 times, the 8th 23 times and the 9th or later nine times. While that often meant soaking up innings with the Yankees behind, it more closely resembles the way Miller was used by the Indians last postseason than how Betances or Chapman are used right now.

Warren’s background as a starter and having recently thrown 100 innings (131 1/3 in 2015) shows that he can do this without completely breaking down. He did decline a bit towards the end of 2014, but he still had a 3.26 ERA after the break, which is nothing to sneeze at. The 29-year-old pitcher did come into the spring as a starter, yet even he realizes where he provides the most value right now.

“Being in the bullpen, you get a chance to pitch every day,” Warren told Bryan Hoch. “The way our starters are throwing right now, for sure, I feel my value is in the bullpen. I do enjoy being that flexible guy that you can throw around everywhere. For me, that’s where a lot of my value comes from.”

So Girardi’s right. It is really important to have that guy in your pen. You look around the league and a lot of teams don’t have a similar arm who can both go multiple quality innings yet also has high leverage experience. Houston seems to have the prototype for this player in Chris Devenski, but there are few beyond him. A pitcher like Warren or Devenski can really complete a team’s bullpen.

Even though his ERA will be much higher than 1.00 for the full season, a healthy Warren gives Girardi a chance to rest his top three relievers without biting his nails or worry that a lead will implode. Or it gives him a chance to use just 1-2 relievers after only getting five innings out of a starter. Or whatever conceivable need comes up. While coming in with a four-run lead in the 7th inning as he did on Monday isn’t glamorous, it gives us a sneak peek at how Warren can be used optimally in 2017.

The bullpen has been lights out, and a thin rotation means the Yankees need it to continue

So much bullpen. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
So much bullpen. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

Isn’t it funny how one thing can happen in Spring Training, then the exact opposite happens once the regular season begins? Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird tore the cover off the ball this spring, so of course they’re off to a combined 2-for-26 (.077) start during the regular season. Masahiro Tanaka was lights out in camp, then he couldn’t get out of the third inning on Opening Day. Chase Headley was invisible in March, and he’s been a one-man wrecking crew in April.

Through three games this season the offense has been at best inconsistent and at worst flat-out bad. Sanchez and Bird (and Matt Holliday) doing nothing in particular is the biggest culprit. No doubt about that. The rotation has been mostly poor too. Even in Tuesday’s win, CC Sabathia could only go five innings. None of this is surprising, of course. Young hitters have their ups and down, and the rotation looked questionable all offseason.

The only constant for the Yankees so far this season has been the bullpen. They’re carrying eight relievers and all eight have appeared in a game already, and they’re all tossing up zeroes. Here is the game-by-game bullpen work so far:

IP H R ER BB K GB/FB
Game One 5.1 5 0 0 1 7 8/6
Game Two 4 2 0 0 1 6 6/2
Game Three 4.1 0 0 0 2 4 5/4
Total 13.2 7 0 0 4 17 19/12

The bullpen has been phenomenal through three games, protecting the one lead they’ve been given and keeping the score close in the two games they were trailing. Adam Warren has been the super early pitching MVP so far. He’s faced 14 batters total in his two appearances, retired them all, and allowed only three balls out of the infield. Warren really should be in the rotation, but I digress.

The bullpen won’t be perfect all year, we know that, but the Yankees do figure to continue to rely on their relief crew heavily. Tanaka’s short start Sunday was an outlier. That was only the fourth time in his 76 starts with the Yankees that he failed to complete five innings. Sabathia might be a five-and-fly pitcher at this point of his career though. And who knows with Michael Pineda? Same with Luis Severino tomorrow and whoever ends up being the fifth starter.

“That has to change. You knew early on that you weren’t going to get a ton out of them, but you can’t live like that,” said Joe Girardi to Mike Mazzeo following last night’s game, referring to the two short starts within the first three games of the season. The problem is there’s no real reason to expect it to change. Last season the Yankees didn’t get many innings from their non-Tanaka starters — Tanaka averaged 6.44 innings per start in 2016 while all other Yankees starters averaged 5.47 innings per start — and the personnel is the same.

The Yankees are prepared for these short starts, at least early in the season, because they’re carrying two long men in Warren and Bryan Mitchell in the bullpen. Three off-days within the first ten days of the regular season will help too. As rough as Tanaka’s and Pineda’s short starts were this week, they pitching staff is fine. The Yankees are not in a “crap our bullpen is shot for the next few days” situation. They have eight relievers and the off-days.

For now, the Yankees can survive these short starts. Their bullpen has been dynamite, and while the result is one win in three games, you can’t blame the relievers. They’ve held up their end of the bargain. I expect the offense to come around at some point, sooner rather than later. I don’t expect the non-Tanaka starters to provide much length though. The bullpen has been great and the Yankees will need it to continue being great to stay in the race this season.

A fifth bench player, not an eighth reliever, may be best use of the extra roster spot until the fifth starter is needed

So many pitching changes. (Presswire)
So many pitching changes. (Presswire)

Once again, the Yankees failed to pick up a win on a first day of the season this year. Yesterday’s loss to the Rays was not only their sixth straight Opening Day loss, it was their eighth loss in the last nine Opening Days. Yikes. Good thing it’s just another game, eh? The Yankees have not won on Opening Day since beating the Tigers back in 2011. Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano set up Mariano Rivera for the save that day.

The Yankees used four relievers in yesterday’s game, leaving four others in the bullpen unused even though Masahiro Tanaka didn’t make it out of the third inning. Today is an off-day, so those guys will get a day to rest before going back to the park for Game Two tomorrow night. They’ll be fresh, if nothing else, and they figure to be very fresh for the first few weeks of the season. The Yankees have three off-days within the first ten days of the season, which they’re using to skip the fifth starter’s spot twice. Smart move.

Rather than carry a fifth starter, the Yankees have opted to carry eight relievers to start the season, which in no way surprises me. They seem to carry an extra reliever whenever they get a chance. Like every other team, the Yankees are terrified of overworking guys early in the season and running out of pitchers in extra innings. I get it. I do. I also think the eighth reliever is wasted roster spot because those scheduled off-days ensure the bullpen won’t be overworked early.

Keep in mind what happened last year. An Opening Day rainout meant the Yankees couldn’t skip their fifth starter, but they still had three off-days within the first 14 days of the season. Because of that, last guy in the bullpen Luis Cessa made just one appearance in the first eleven days of the season. The Yankees eventually decided to send him down to Triple-A Scranton because sitting unused in the big league bullpen was doing him no good.

This year the Yankees have an extra reliever and three off-days within the first ten days of the season, not the first 14 days like last year. More relievers, more off-days early. It sure seems like we’re heading for a “this reliever(s) has to get in a game soon because he needs the work” situation next week, doesn’t it? Joe Girardi is going to lean on his top relievers early thanks to those off-days — which he absolutely should do! — meaning the other relievers will be left idle.

Perhaps the Yankees will run into some extra innings games or get a few more short starts these next two weeks and need the extra relievers. That’s what they’re worried about, right? But, keep in mind both Adam Warren and Bryan Mitchell were stretched out to start during Spring Training, so they can give the Yankees some serious distance these next few weeks. And the Yankees aren’t shy about shuttling relievers in and out either.

Anyway, my point is there may be a better way to use the roster spot vacated by the fifth starter, who won’t be needed until April 16th. The Yankees could carry a fifth bench player instead, which would allow Girardi to do two things a little more often:

  1. Pinch-run in the late innings. The Yankees are getting younger but they’re still on the slow side. If they’re down a run or two in the ninth inning and either Gary Sanchez or Greg Bird reaches base, pinch-running would be a wise move. Right now Aaron Hicks, the only backup outfielder on the roster, is the best pinch-runner option.
  2. Pinch-hit for Torreyes. Inevitably, some big moments are going to find Ronald Torreyes, the fill-in shortstop while Didi Gregorius is sidelined. It happened yesterday and Girardi went to Hicks to pinch-hit against a righty. Chris Carter is available to pinch-hit against a lefty. Pete Kozma then has to take over at short, so they’re burning two players in one move.

The Yankees almost ran out of bench players yesterday. Hicks pinch-hit for Torreyes in the seventh inning, Kozma took over at shortstop, then Carter pinch-hit for Kozma in the ninth. The Yankees were going to be short a middle infielder had they tied the game. Bird told Anthony Rieber he volunteered to play third so Chase Headley could play second, allowing Starlin Castro to slide to short. Austin Romine at second was another option. No. Just … no. Playing dudes out of position on Opening Day would not be fun.

As with the eighth reliever, how often would this fifth bench player be used? That’s the question and the answer could very well be never. Maybe the Yankees keep socking dingers like they did in Spring Training and won’t need pinch-runners, and Torreyes goes all BABIP crazy for a few weeks and there’s no reason to pinch-hit for him. Baseball can be weird like that.

There’s also this: who would be the fifth bench player? Rob Refsnyder is at the front of the call-up line, and he would give the Yankees an extra middle infielder given his ability to play second base. That said, if you’re going to lift anyone for a right-handed pinch-hitter, Carter will get the nod before Refsnyder because that dude hits fungo bat pop-ups that carry over the fence.

The only left-handed hitter on the 40-man roster and not in the big leagues is Mason Williams, and while he’s not someone Girardi figures to use as a pinch-hitter for Torreyes, Hicks sure is. He did it yesterday. Hicks hits for Torreyes, Kozma takes over at short, and the Yankees would still have a capable outfielder on the bench in Williams should, say, Carter pinch-hit for Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury against a lefty the next inning. That’s not really doable right now.

Either way, eighth reliever or fifth bench player, we are talking about literally the 25th player on the 25-man roster. No team uses the last player on the roster all that often. It just seems like, with all those early season off-days, carrying an extra reliever is a waste. Heck, the Yankees might be able to get away with only six relievers thanks to those off-days. Instead, they’re carrying eight. The extra bench player could be the better use of that roster spot, even if he only plays two or three times before the Yankees need a fifth starter.