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.

Bryan Mitchell: Starter or reliever?

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

There are rarely real battles for important rosters spots in Yankees Spring Training. Sure, there’s usually a race for the utility infielder spot or the last spot in the bullpen, but we don’t often see a significant role up for grabs. However, from the outside looking in, it appears that the competition for the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation is an honest-to-goodness competition.

As Mike wrote last Wednesday, how that battle shapes up could very well shape the Yankees’ bullpen. After all, you have more than two guys fighting for just two spots. That brings me to Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell very likely would have played a larger role — initially in the bullpen — for the 2016 Yankees if he didn’t injure his toe towards the end of the camp. He ultimately made just five appearances, all starts coming in September. Now he could see himself on the outside looking in at a rotation spot to begin the year.

Mitchell in a lot of ways seems like an afterthought, but he’s a pitcher with some real talent. After all, pitchers with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and power curveball don’t grow on trees. (He has a third pitch but more on that later). While he has a 4.52 ERA in 65 2/3 big-league innings, he’s shown enough stuff and performance to make me believe he can be viable MLB pitcher. The question becomes: Is he a starter or a reliever?

Case for Mitchell the reliever

Mitchell, who will turn 26 on April 19, only really has one season with bullpen experience, that being his 2015 campaign, in which he split time between Triple A and the majors. In 29 2/3 innings, Mitchell struck out 29 batters but had an ugly 6.37 ERA. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Through Aug. 17, Mitchell had a 3.86 ERA over 21 innings (15 1/3 in relief) and had been effective, particularly in low-leverage multiple-inning outings.

His Aug. 11 game was his best. Coming into the 12th inning of a tied game on the road, Mitchell marched through the Indians order, struck out five, allowed two hits and two walks (one intentional) but worked himself out of trouble and kept Cleveland off the board. It was a gutsy performance by a rookie thrown into a tough situation.

And then it all fell apart his next appearance. Asked to make a spot start on Aug 17, Mitchell took a line drive from Eduardo Nunez off the face in the second inning. He somehow only missed 11 days, but his performance cratered afterward, allowing 12 runs in his last 10 appearances. He walked over a batter an inning and gave a glimpse of where his game can go wrong.

Still, though, Mitchell showed a lot before his broken nose. He can clearly give the team length, something they will need out of the bullpen with their current rotation, and he had cut down on his walks for the most part, something that has always been an issue for him. MLB.com gave his control a 40 grade prior to the 2015 season while ranking him 14th among Yankees prospects. However, they were pretty positive on his raw talent, saying he had “some of the best stuff” in the system and saying that he “should be able to carve up hitters” with his fastball and curveball.

That’s where the crux of the “Mitchell should be a reliever” argument lies. Both his fastball and curveball are plus pitches and he would be able to shorten his repertoire in the bullpen, cutting out his ineffective changeup. His fastball has hit 98 in the bullpen. If he can set hitters up with his fastball, his curveball can be a nice one-two punch as his out pitch.

It’s easy to make a lot of Adam Warren comparisons here, probably too easy. Warren is a definite success story for the Yankees while Mitchell hasn’t proven himself yet. For 2017, Mitchell would be more likely to emulate 2013 Warren than 2014-15 Warren. That means his value in relief is likely to be maximized by his ability to produce multiple quality innings rather than needing high leverage situations that Warren excelled in over the 2014-15 seasons. The Yankees seem to be taken care of at the moment in the backend of the ‘pen.

Case for Mitchell the starter

Why does Mitchell work in the rotation? Beyond a fastball that still sits in the mid-90s throughout his starts (dips to 94.6 third time through the order), Mitchell has developed his cutter as a more effective secondary pitch. He still uses his four-seamer 43 percent of the time, but he actually used his cutter more often than his curveball (24.7 to 21.4 percent) in 2016. His curveball was still his out-pitch, but Mitchell utilized his cutter as a swing-and-miss secondary pitch more often as the opposing lineup turned over.

The sample size is key to note: We have only 65 2/3 major league innings of data from Mitchell, about 55 percent as a starter and the rest as a reliever. His cutter, which was his best pitch by wRC+ against in 2016, showed improvement statistically from year over year in that sample, a sign that Mitchell might be more than just a two-pitch pitcher. However, it could easily be noise rather than a major breakthrough. We need to see a full season of him in the majors before you draw any real conclusions on his cutter.

If you tend to believe the 2016 number more than anything, Mitchell can be a viable back-end starter. He had two scoreless outings (with seven walks in 12 innings), two less than stellar starts and one quality start where he took the loss. The five games were against the Blue Jays (2x), Red Sox (2x) and Dodgers, so he had to face some stiff competition along the way.

Conclusion?

When I began this exercise, I thought Mitchell was best suited for relief. Part of that is definitely the Cleveland game from 2015 sticking in my mind. I still lean that way, but I’m certainly curious as to what he would do at the end of the rotation. Is his cutter a real solid weapon or is that reading too much into too few data points? Remains to be seen.

Make no mistake: Mitchell isn’t a future ace. Yet in all but the best of rotations, the No. 4 and 5 pitchers are going to have some major warts. For Mitchell, it’s his control. If he sticks as a starter, he’ll have to conquer the ability to throw strikes more consistently. Even if that doesn’t happen, Mitchell has the makings of a strong reliever who can help make up for the Yankees’ lack of length from their starters.

The spring rotation competition could have a domino effect on the Opening Day bullpen

Luis and Luis. (Presswire)
Luis and Luis. (Presswire)

Over these next seven weeks or so, the Yankees are going to hold a massive rotation competition in Spring Training. They’ve held fake competitions in previous springs, we’ve seen plenty of those, but this one is legit. There are two spots open behind Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda, and no shortage of candidates. Here’s the approximate fourth and fifth starter pecking order:

  1. Luis Severino
  2. Luis Cessa
  3. Chad Green
  4. Bryan Mitchell
  5. Dietrich Enns
  6. Jordan Montgomery
  7. Chance Adams

The Yankees insist Adam Warren will compete for a rotation spot as well, though I have a hard time believing the soon-to-be 30-year-old Warren will be given a rotation spot over a kid in his mid-20s, especially since Warren is so valuable in relief. I suppose Ronald Herrera could be given the chance to win a rotation spot, though it seems unlikely. Generally speaking, that’s the pecking order.

This rotation competition comes with two questions. One, who wins the two spots? That’s the obvious question. And two, what happens to the guys who don’t win the rotation spots? In cases of Adams, Enns, and Montgomery (and Herrera), the answer is clear. They’ll go to Triple-A Scranton to bide their time. Warren, if he is truly involved in this rotation competition, will slide back in to the bullpen.

The top four guys is where it gets murky. It’s easy to assume the two competition losers will go to Triple-A — all four of them have options remaining (Mitchell has one, the other three have two) — and simply wait their turn. The Yankees aren’t going to get through the season using only five starters, so it’s only a matter of time until the two competition losers wind up in the rotation. That’s baseball.

That said, the answer is never that simple. The Yankees also have two open bullpen spots at the moment, and we can’t rule out the two rotation competition losers winding up in the Opening Day bullpen. They’ve done this before. The Yankees did it in 2014 with Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno, and they did it last year with Cessa. They would have done it with Mitchell too last year had he not suffered that fluke toe injury at the end of camp.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Severino and Cessa win the fourth and fifth starter’s spots. Severino has the most upside of the rotation candidates and Cessa had the most success as a starter last year. Sound good? Doesn’t matter, really, it’s only a hypothetical. In that case, the Opening Day pitching staff could shake out like so:

Rotation: Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, Severino, Cessa
Bullpen: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, Warren, Green, Mitchell

If the Yankees believe Green and Mitchell give them a better chance to win than other bullpen candidates like, say, Jonathan Holder and Ben Heller, that very well could be the Opening Day pitching staff. I know I’m not alone in thinking the rotation competition losers could win up in the bullpen. Bryan Hoch suggested something similar recently as well.

Now, is this a good idea, using the sixth and seventh starters as relievers? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer. Montgomery, Enns, Adams, and Herrera give the Yankees some decent Triple-A pitching depth should they need an emergency spot starter. Also, as we saw with Cessa last year, the team could always send one of the starters they stick in the bullpen back down to Triple-A to get stretched out.

One thing to keep in mind: the Yankees are short on innings eaters. Last season AL starters averaged 5.69 innings per start. Tanaka averaged 6.43 innings per start, 12th highest in baseball. Sabathia was at 5.97 innings per start but noticeably lost effectiveness after 80-85 pitches or so. Pineda averaged 5.48 innings per start, third lowest among the 71 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Joe Girardi doesn’t trust him and had an increasingly short leash late in the season.

The two kids, whether it’s Severino and Cessa or Green and Mitchell, probably won’t be counted on to chew up innings and save the bullpen. We saw Girardi pull Cessa after five or six innings several times last season even though his pitch count was manageable, and there are reasons for that. He didn’t want him to go through the lineup a third time, because that’s usually when the opposing team does the most damage against the starter.

With Tanaka the only reliable source of innings, having multiple relievers who can throw multiple innings wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The Yankees don’t have to employ a true tandem starter system, though on the days the starter goes five and fly, it’ll be nice to have a reliever who can go three innings, if necessary. Putting the two rotation competition losers in the bullpen would give the team those multiple long men to help cover a rotation not known to pitch deep into games.

Opening Day is still nearly two months away (groan) and a lot can and will change between now and then. With any luck, everyone will get through camp healthy and the Yankees will be in position to decide whether to send their extraneous starters to Triple-A or use them in relief. That would be a nice problem to have. The rotation competition will be a big story this spring, and there’s a pretty good chance it will overlap with the bullpen competition as well.

Do the Yankees actually need another lefty reliever?

Layne. (Presswire)
Layne. (Presswire)

For much of the offseason, most Yankees-related rumors involved their search for a new designated hitter and their pursuit of Aroldis Chapman. Since the Matt Holliday and Chapman signings, most of the talk has focused on the team’s search for middle relief, particularly left-handers. They Yankees have been connected to Justin Wilson, Boone Logan, Mike Dunn, and Brett Cecil, among others.

Chapman gives the Yankees one of the top lefty relievers in baseball. Arguably the best and no worse than the third best behind Andrew Miller and Zach Britton, though he’s not someone Joe Girardi will bring in to face, say, Chris Davis in the sixth inning. Chapman’s the closer and the ninth inning is his domain. The innings before that are up to lesser relievers. Here is New York’s lefty reliever depth chart behind Chapman:

  1. Tommy Layne
  2. Chasen Shreve
  3. Richard Bleier
  4. Dietrich Enns
  5. Joe Mantiply (re-signed to minor league deal)
  6. Jason Gurka (signed to minor league deal)

Think Bleier belongs above Shreve? I won’t argue with you. Bleier did see some higher leverage work down the stretch in September while Shreve hasn’t been very good since July 2015. Either way, Layne is at the top and everyone else is behind him in whatever order. Jacob Lindgren (non-tender), James Pazos (trade), and Tyler Webb (Rule 5 Draft) are all gone.

Looking at that depth chart, it’s easy to understand why the Yankees would seek a better left-hander for the bullpen, and there are several available. Is it worth investing money and a roster spot in another southpaw though? Given the state of the roster, I don’t think another lefty is a necessity at all, for a few reasons.

1. Layne might actually be pretty good. Guys like Layne are very hit or miss. He’s 32-year-old journeyman who didn’t make his MLB debut until age 27, and he’s been in four organizations (Diamondbacks, Padres, Red Sox, Yankees) in the last five seasons. He’s been traded for cash, non-tendered, and released. Layne is the definition of freely available talent. You don’t give up anything of value to get players like him.

The thing is, Layne is above replacement level, at least when it comes to facing left-handed batters. We all saw him last year, he’s a quintessential funky lefty with an 80-something mile-an-hour fastball and a sweepy breaking ball, yet he makes his work. His numbers against lefties the last three seasons:

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
2014 48 .159/.229/.182 .196 22.9% 8.3% 51.5% 0.00
2015 102 .144/.248/.170 .203 26.5% 10.8% 60.0% 0.00
2016 101 .214/.310/.261 .265 20.8% 9.9% 51.6% 0.36
Total 251 .175/.269/.209 .227 23.5% 10.0% 54.8% 0.14

Not a huge sample size, but that’s not Layne’s fault. That’s just the life of a left-on-left matchup guy. Overall though, he’s been pretty darn effective against same-side hitters. The walks are kinda annoying (you had one job!) but Layne has gotten enough strikeouts and grounders to compensate. If a free agent had those numbers, he’d have our attention.

The Yankees have flushed a lot of money down the toilet on proven veteran lefties like Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte and Matt Thornton over the years, and those guys serve as reminders that there is no such thing as a proven reliever. Even the most established veterans can go poof in an instant. Layne has been pretty damn effective in his limited MLB time against lefties and he costs basically nothing. Why sign a free agent who might not even be an upgrade?

2. The Yankees have righties who can get out lefties. For most of this past season, the Yankees didn’t have a true matchup lefty in the bullpen. Shreve was on the roster a bunch and so was Bleier, but, for the most part, they were lower leverage relievers. Whenever there was a lefty at the plate in a big spot in the late innings, Miller was on the mound. Or Dellin Betances.

Betances, like fellow bullpen mates Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren, has actually been better against lefties than righties the last few years. Crazy, I know. A righty who can get out lefties. What a time to be alive. Here are their platoon splits over the last three seasons:

vs. RHB vs. LHB
Betances .160/.261/.264 (.242 wOBA) .173/.244/.243 (.221 wOBA)
Clippard .195/.287/.333 (.276 wOBA) .202/.277/.336 (.270 wOBA)
Warren .250/.320/.394 (.314 wOBA) .197/.275/.310 (.255 wOBA)

Betances overpowers everyone, Clippard has that dead fish changeup, and Warren still uses four pitches as a reliever. It’s not difficult to understand why all three of them have had success against lefties the last few years. Now, will they continue to have that level of success going forward? That’s the big question. I’m not all that confident in Clippard maintaining that level of production, but Dellin and Warren? Not too worried.

Point is, the Yankees shouldn’t be desperate for a left-on-left matchup reliever because they have several righties who can get lefties out too. I know Girardi loves his matchups, so much so that he overdoes it at times, but sometimes bringing in the lefty pitcher to face a lefty hitter just isn’t necessary. Betances, Clippard, and Warren can get the job done themselves.

3. How many great lefty hitters are in the AL East anyway? David Ortiz is retired. James F. Loney is gone. Carlos Delgado and Carlos Pena have been out of the game for years now. The days of the AL East housing the most fearsome left-handed hitters in baseball are pretty much over. Here are the projected left-handed hitting regulars among the four division rivals:

  • Blue Jays: Ezequiel Carrera
  • Orioles: Chris Davis, Hyun-Soo Kim
  • Rays: Corey Dickerson, Kevin Kiermaier, Brad Miller
  • Red Sox: Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mitch Moreland

Davis is the one dude who is legitimately terrifying because he can hit the ball a mile when he connects. Benintendi is going to be really good one day, I think, perhaps as soon as 2017, but otherwise we’re looking at players who are nuisances more than major threats. Maybe I’m selling Bradley short, but even if you include him in a group with Davis and Benintendi, there still aren’t many lefty hitters in the AL East you dread seeing at the plate in a big spot.

Yes, the Yankees do play games outside the division. Lots of them, in fact. But 75 of their 162 games next season will be against the Blue Jays, Orioles, Rays, and Red Sox. Nearly half the schedule. And aside from Davis and Benintendi (and Bradley), there aren’t many AL East left-handed hitters who make a shutdown left-on-left reliever a necessity.

4. Is there even room in the bullpen for a LOOGY? This, to me, is the biggest point in this post. Can the Yankees afford to dedicate a roster spot to a true matchup reliever? A guy who comes in, faces one or two batters, then bolts. Someone who finishes the season with 34 innings in 78 appearances. That kinda thing. I’m not so sure.

(Martin Griff/Pinstriped Prospects)
A lefty who can throw multiple innings, like Enns, may be ideal. (Martin Griff/Pinstriped Prospects)

Everything in baseball is trending towards using pitchers less and less. Part of that is trying to keep them healthy, and part of that is maximizing effectiveness. Teams have begun pulling their fourth and fifth starters after the second time through the lineup to avoiding giving hitters a third look at them. CC Sabathia‘s effectiveness waned noticeably when his pitch count climbed over 80-85 in 2016.

Thing is, teams still need guys to throw all those innings, and dedicating a bullpen spot to a one-batter matchup reliever means those innings fall on other relievers. The Yankees had 121 games in which the starter did not throw more than 100 pitches this year. That blows my mind. That was the eighth most in baseball and second most in the AL. Only the Angels got fewer 101+ pitch starts from their rotation. That puts a lot of responsibility on the bullpen.

As it stands right now, the Yankees have one bonafide ace in Masahiro Tanaka, who the team treats with kid gloves. Sabathia really should be limited to 85 pitches or so these days, and Michael Pineda had a hard time completing five innings by the end of 2016. Then you have a bunch of kids lined up for the fourth and fifth spots. Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green … we’re going to see all of them next year.

Chances are the Yankees are going to ask their bullpen to soak up a lot of inning next season, to the point where carrying two long relievers might not be such a bad idea. Having a left-on-left matchup guy might not be practical. The seven bullpen spots may need to go to pitchers who can throw full innings, not five (pitches) and fly.

Layne may be pitching his way on to the 2017 Yankees, but roster space will be tight

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For much of the first four months of the season, the Yankees had two of the three best left-handed relievers in baseball in their bullpen in Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. Those two plus Zach Britton are the holy trinity of end-game southpaws. They’re not lefty specialists. They dominate batters on both sides of the plate.

After wisely trading away Chapman and Miller at the deadline, the Yankees picked up lefty Tommy Layne as soon as the Red Sox cut him loose. Boston acquired Fernando Abad at the trade deadline and didn’t need Layne anymore, so they flat out released him. Abad’s been pretty terrible, so that hasn’t worked out for them. Such is life. The Yankees wound up with a decent southpaw and gave up nothing to get him.

The 31-year-old Layne has done a fine job for the Yankees since being picked up, pitching to a 3.00 ERA (4.01 FIP) in 15 innings overall while holding lefties to a .161/.257/.161 (.205 wOBA) batting line. His finest moment in pinstripes came Monday night, when he was brought in to face the middle of the Blue Jays’ lineup — all righties, of course — with the bases loaded and no outs. He closed out the win thanks in part to his own great play at the plate:

Layne had a rough outing last night, including giving up a home run to the right-handed hitting Aaron Hill, though that’s not a big deal. It was the second of back-to-back days after a stressful game Monday night — Layne threw 24 pitches Monday after throwing 24 pitches total in his previous five outings — so I’m sure the tank was far from full. Such is the life of a left-handed specialist.

At the moment the Yankees are not particularly deep in lefty relievers. Chasen Shreve seems to have fallen out of favor, Jacob Lindgren will be out until 2018 following Tommy John surgery, and others like Richard Bleier and James Pazos probably aren’t the guys you want to count on in big spots. I suppose Tyler Webb and/or Dietrich Enns could be options starting next season should the Yankees protect them from the Rule 5 Draft.

That last part is pretty important. Space on the 40-man roster will be tight this offseason, so Webb or Enns or both might not be protected. The Yankees are going to have to free up several spots soon after the end of the World Series, and while much of that can be accomplished by cutting loose players like Anthony Swarzak and Kirby Yates, it won’t be enough. In most cases a scrap heap lefty specialist like Layne would be on the chopping block too.

Therein lies the question: how confident are the Yankees in Layne performing this way going forward? The Red Sox didn’t release him out of the kindness of their hearts. Lefties hit .255/.355/.333 (.312 wOBA) against Layne when he was with Boston earlier this year, and that’s no good. Success can be very fleeting for relievers like him, the funky finesse guys who rely on deception. Remember Clay Rapada? He was nails in 2012 but couldn’t even get through Spring Training in 2013.

If nothing else, I think Layne has moved to the back of the line of players who could lose their 40-man roster spot this offseason. There are others in front of him who figure to go first, including Swarzak and Yates, and maybe even guys like Johnny Barbato and Conor Mullee. Unless you have a Miller or Chapman, the best approach with lefty relievers seems to be stockpile as many as possible, and hope someone emerges. Layne went from scrap heap pick up to potential part of the 2017 roster in a hurry, but his spot may not be secure.

Fixing Dellin Betances is a process that should start now, not next season

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

After five excellent months, Dellin Betances has hit a wall in September and hit it hard. He’s allowed 13 runs in 8.1 innings this month while also putting 19 guys on base. Two nights ago Dellin faced three batters and didn’t retire any of them before giving way to Tommy Layne. Opponents have hit .282/.404/.385 against Betances in September. Bad. Bad bad bad.

The biggest problem with Betances, as it often is, are the walks and an overall lack of control. He’s walked eight in 8.1 innings this month after walking 20 batters in his first 63.2 innings of the season. The other night Dellin threw three strikes out of eleven total pitches, and he wasn’t exactly missing just off the plate. It wasn’t a bunch of borderline calls going against him. From Brooks Baseball:

Dellin Betances Blue Jays

“Honestly, right now I just feel like my mechanics are off,” said Betances to Chad Jennings following’s Monday game. “I’m yanking a lot of pitches and falling behind; that’s what’s hurting me. I’ve said it all along. Earlier in the year, I wasn’t walking guys. Later part of this year, I’ve been walking a lot of guys and that’s what’s been hurting me.”

Control problems — extreme control problems at that — are nothing new for Betances, who flamed out as a starter in the minors because he couldn’t throw strikes. I don’t mean paint the corners. Basic get the ball over the plate stuff. Dellin walked 69 batters in 74.2 innings as Triple-A starter in 2012, then another 16 in 24 innings in 2013 before being moved to the bullpen full-time.

Why have Betances’ mechanics fallen out of whack? There are a million possible reasons. It could be fatigue. Maybe it’s because he’s 6-foot-8 with long limbs and isn’t the most athletic guy in the world. Or maybe he’s a mental wreck because the pressure of closing for the New York Yankees is just too much to take. I highly doubt it that’s last one, Dellin’s been getting huge outs for the Yankees for three years now, but you never know.

Whatever it is — my guess is it’s a combination of fatigue and being prone to mechanical lapses — this is something the Yankees and Betances have to figure out, and that process should start right now. Not next year. I understand wanting to shut him down for the season, I totally get it, but as long as he’s healthy, he should pitch and work on getting himself right. There are five games left this season. There’s no reason he can’t pitch in two or three of them.

“No, I don’t think (shutting him down is) a good thing to do. I think he needs to get out on some good notes,” said Joe Girardi to Brendan Kuty following Monday’s game. “I think he’s a little frustrated. But we’ll get that ironed out. He’s been through this before. I know I’ve said that, but he’s been through this. We’ll get it ironed out. We’ll give him a day off and we’ll get him back out there. ”

Now, if Betances goes to the Yankees and says he’s running on fumes, then yeah, shut him down. Pitching is inherently risky. Pitching while fatigued is even riskier. The Yankees want to get Betances right but they’re not going to risk injury in the process. If he’s dealing with nothing more than normal late-September fatigue, then fine, let him pitch. Learning to be effective when less than 100% is part of being a big leaguer.

Either way, Betances is a total mess right now, and to me it seems to be mechanical more than anything. He’s just out of sorts and needs to get himself back on track. It’s not the first time he’s gone through this — it’s the first time he’s done at the MLB level, but not in his life — and chances are it won’t be the last. He’s worked his way out of it before. Betances knows how this works.

I don’t see shutting down a struggling player as a way to deal with the problem. That’s avoiding the problem. As long as Dellin is healthy, get him out there on the mound and use these last five game as an opportunity to work on things and hopefully get him back on track.