Archive for Death by Bullpen
The Yankees dismantled the Red Sox last night, and you could argue their two most exciting pitchers were on the mound for the win. Masahiro Tanaka navigated the first 7.1 innings before Dellin Betances mopped things up and recorded the final five outs. The duo combined for nine strikeouts and no walks, improving the team’s league-leading K/BB ratio to 3.44. The Red Sox are a distance second at 3.12.
Tanaka has been everything we could have possibly expected (and more!) this season while Betances is … still a middle reliever despite only allowing one run on three hits in 9.2 innings of work. He’s also struck out 16 of 38 batters faced and 56.3% of his balls in play are on the ground. Plus he can do this (via Pitcher GIFs):
That’s a pretty neat trick.
And yet, despite all of his early season success, Betances is no higher than sixth on Joe Girardi‘s bullpen pecking order. There are two reasons for that. One, he’s walked six guys in those 9.2 innings. Betances has a history of control problems and we’ve seen him come completely unhinged once or two already this season. He just loses the ability to throw strikes — I’m not even talking about painting the corners here, just basic strike-throwing ability — without warning and that can be scary.
Two, Betances is just a kid, at least in terms of experience. He did turn 26 a few weeks ago after spending eight years in the minors, but he has still only thrown 17.1 innings in the big leagues. That’s nothing. Girardi has used him as a low-leverage reliever and his 0.43 gmLI (Leverage Index when entering the game) bears that out. Only eleven out of 177 qualified relievers have a lower gmLI right now and they’re last guy out of the ‘pen types. There’s no doubt Girardi has been keeping Betances away from important situations if at all possible.
Is that wrong? I don’t think so. Not at all. There’s a level of trust that has to be built and it hasn’t yet. There hasn’t been enough time. David Robertson went through a similar situation early in his career — remember he had walk problems early on — sporting a 0.66 gmLI in his rookie year in 2008. Heck, it was a 0.77 gmLI in 2009. Robertson didn’t graduate from exciting young arm to bonafide high-leverage reliever until 2011, his fourth year in the show. Shawn Kelley went through the same thing last year (0.69 gmLI in April and May). So did Boone Logan a few years ago and Phil Hughes when he first moved into the bullpen in 2009.
As good as he was last year and in Spring Training and during these first few weeks, Betances still has a lot to learn about being a reliever in the Major Leagues. Girardi is very good with his bullpen and he’s shown he will be patient and not unnecessarily push new faces into primo bullpen roles (veteran free agents like Matt Thornton and Rafael Soriano are the obvious exceptions). With more experienced guys like Robertson, Kelley, Adam Warren, and David Phelps around to handle the important innings, the Yankees and Girardi have the luxury of breaking Betances in slowly. His opportunity for high-leverage work will come, but he has to put in some time in a lesser role first.
Outside of signing lefty specialist Matt Thornton to a two-year contract, the Yankees spent no money on their bullpen this winter. They didn’t bring in a late-inning arm to replace Mariano Rivera, instead bumping everyone up a notch on the depth chart and hoping a youngster like Dellin Betances can fill the void. I can’t say it was the ideal offseason for the bullpen, but it is what it is.
The Yankees lost their anchor the other day as David Robertson went down with a Grade I groin strain. He said he expects to be back after the minimum 15 days because of course he does. Just about every player thinks that when they get hurt. Shawn Kelley went from seventh inning guy last year to closer now, Adam Warren from swingman last year to setup man now. Thornton, Betances, and David Phelps are there to fill in the gaps.
“(Robertson) started off great, and he’s our best pitcher,” said Kelley to Chad Jennings following Monday’s game. “It forces all of us to throw another inning later, so obviously that’s not good for the whole pen, but injuries are part of it and we’ve got to overcome it. You saw today what we’re capable of, and hopefully we can string it together until he gets back.”
The first game without Robertson went fine as Warren and Kelley preserved a two-run lead in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. Vidal Nuno took a pounding in mop-up duty yesterday, but that’s what he’s there for. Ivan Nova failed to get out of the fourth inning and someone had to take one for the team. Robertson’s injury doesn’t necessarily push someone like Nuno into a bigger role; the last bullguy in the pen tends to stay the last guy in the bullpen. The injury tests the late-inning guys, and right now Thornton is the only one with any kind of meaningful late-inning experience.
Of course, experience doesn’t mean a whole lot in the bullpen. Does it help? Sure. But relievers come out of nowhere every year to dominate. Experience is preferred but far from a requirement. The ability to miss bats and the willingness to be aggressive are more important, and, for the most part, guys like Kelley, Warren, and Phelps have that. (Being aggressive doesn’t automatically mean throwing strikes. Throwing strikes is hard, remember.) Until Robertson comes back, those guys will do the heavy bullpen lifting.
To me, Joe Girardi is the key while Robertson is out. He can’t control what someone does on the mound, but he can control when and how his relievers are used, something he is very good at based on what we’ve seen the last six years. Girardi knows Thornton is only a lefty specialist at this point of his career and he knows Warren is at his best in one-inning bursts, so that’s how he’s using them. He doesn’t ask his pitchers to fill a role they are not equipped to fill unless he has absolutely no choice.
Kelley, Warren, and especially Betances have big opportunities with Robertson out. This is a chance for all three to show they are up to the task of being go-to late-inning arms, which would benefit both themselves and the team. Girardi’s responsibility of putting these guys in the best possible position to succeed — it would be nice if the offense gave the staff some breathing room once in a while — while be even greater these next few weeks. A Rivera and Robertson-less bullpen is scary, so this will be a great test of the relievers left standing.
The bullpen for the start of the 2014 season is set. Joe Girardi announced that Dellin Betances and Vidal Nuno have won the last two spots and will join David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, David Phelps, and Adam Warren in the bullpen. Robertson, of course, is replacing Mariano Rivera as closer. The bench has not yet been finalized.
Betances, 26, moved into the bullpen full-time last May and his career took off after years of command issues. He pitched to a 2.08 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 28 walks in 65 total relief innings between Triple-A and MLB last season, and this spring he’s allowed only one run with eleven strikeouts and four walks in 12.1 innings. Betances, who lives and dies with his mid-90s fastball and hard curveball, figures to cut his teeth in middle relief before possibly assuming greater responsibility.
The 26-year-old Nuno had a 2.25 ERA in 20 big league innings last summer before suffering a season-ending groin injury. He allowed three runs in eight innings this spring, walking one and striking out eight. Girardi could use Nuno as a matchup left-hander or a multi-inning guy, so the bullpen has some added flexibility. I think the best case scenario for Nuno is a lefty version of 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed reliever who can face one batter or throw four innings if need be.
The Yankees start the season with 13 games in 13 days, so having three stretched out relievers in Phelps, Warren, and Nuno allows them to take it easy on Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda out of the gate. Tanaka is transitioning from a seven-day schedule to a five-day schedule while Pineda is returning from shoulder surgery. Girardi, who is very good at getting the most out of his relievers, has insisted they would take the 12 best arms for the bullpen and that’s pretty much exactly what they’ve done.
At the outset of Spring Training, only three spots in the bullpen were truly set. David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton were not just locks to make the team, but locks to be Joe Girardi‘s primary late-inning trio at the start of the regular season. Penciling David Phelps or Adam Warren into a spot was a safe bet, but far from a sure thing. We had no idea what Michael Pineda would look like in camp and a trade to address the infield was always possible.
Fast forward a few weeks to today and the bullpen picture is much clearer. Pineda looks healthy and he pitched well during Grapefruit League play, earning the fifth starter spot. That pushed both Phelps and Warren into the bullpen after Girardi confirmed they were all but guaranteed to make the team in some capacity. They will not necessarily be pigeonholed into a long relief role either. Both guys could serve as one-inning setup relievers if their performance warrants the responsibility.
Dellin Betances really seemed to find himself after being moved to the bullpen with Triple-A Scranton last year and he’s carried his success over into Spring Training. Based on how willing he’s been to use his curveball in any count, he also seems to have more faith in his breaking ball than ever before. Betances has all but locked up a bullpen job. Preston Claiborne, on the other hand, has pitched himself out of Opening Day roster consideration. He wasn’t particularly good in the second half last year and he’s been dreadful this spring.
So, just like that, six of the seven bullpen spots are full. Well, it’s not official yet, but c’mon. Vidal Nuno and five veteran non-roster players — Chris Leroux, Matt Daley, Jim Miller, David Herndon, Yoshinori Tateyama — have pitched very well in camp, though my hunch is Tateyama (a trick pitch righty specialist) has no chance of making the club. Fred Lewis generated some buzz but seven of the 18 lefties he’s faced in camp have reached base. That’s probably not going to win him a spot. I think he’s this year’s Claiborne in the sense that he put himself in position for a midseason callup. That’s all. For what it’s worth, a second lefty is a priority but not a necessity.
“I mean, we always want to have two lefties,” said Brian Cashman to Brendan Kuty. “No question about that. So our manager, especially, likes to do the match ups. So I think the way he runs the late-inning situations, two lefties are in theory a mandatory interest for us. It might not work out that way, but it’s something we will definitely shoot to have.”
We’ve reached the point of the spring where the regular relievers are pitching on back-to-back days in preparation for the season, and so far Daley is the only one of the non-roster veterans to do that. This late in camp, that is kinda telling. Herndon can reportedly opt out of his contract on Sunday and while that could influence the bullpen decision, I doubt it would be the deciding factor. Leroux has been impressive and he is reportedly working with a new two-seamer, so there might be some tangible evidence for that success. Miller is said to be working on a new slider as well, so the same applies to him.
Actions speak louder than words and the Yankees used have Daley differently than their other bullpen candidates. To be fair, Nuno has not had a chance to work like a normal reliever because he’s been been competing for a rotation spot, but compared to guys like Herndon and Leroux, Daley is getting preferential treatment. He’s worked back-to-back games and he’s seen more action against big league caliber competition according to Baseball Reference’s opponent quality numbers. That’s how a team handles a pitcher they are leaning towards carrying when the regular season begins.
Girardi said the final bullpen announcement will come either today or tomorrow at the latest — “These guys do have to pack for a road trip on Saturday. Probably help them if we could make it by Friday,” he said to Chad Jennings — so we’ll have an answer soon enough. Robertson, Kelley, Thornton, Phelps, Warren, and Betances are locked into place and I would be surprised if someone other than Daley or Nuno got the final spot. Since Nuno is stretched out, he could wind up in Triple-A as the sixth starter. Either way, that last bullpen spot figures to be a revolving door this summer. It always is. For now, the Opening Day relief unit appears to be set.
Update: Lewis. Leroux, Claiborne, Miller, Herndon, Tateyama, and Danny Burawa were all sent to minor league camp this morning, the team announced. The competition for the final two bullpen spots is officially down to Betances, Nuno, Daley, Shane Greene, and Cesar Cabral.
Even though he caught an awful lot of crap, the Yankees had a pretty reliable lefty reliever in Boone Logan over the last few years. They wisely walked away when the Rockies offered Logan a total of $16.5M across three years this winter, instead opting to sign the veteran Matt Thornton to a more sensible two-year, $7M pact. Lefty reliever is a hardly a position worth big free agent bucks.
Logan is recovering from offseason elbow surgery and has yet to appear in a Spring Training game for Colorado while the 37-year-old Thornton has made four Grapefruit League appearances so far this spring. They’ve been four pretty terrible appearances: 14 batters faced, seven hits, one strikeout, three runs charged. He has only faced four left-handed hitters but three have hits. The other grounded out. Not ideal, but it is only spring.
“I know where I need to make improvements,” said Thornton to Brendan Kuty earlier this week. “The off-speed is coming along. I can use it in any situation. I was talking to Brian McCann after [my last] outing. He feels confident with any pitch we’re throwing out there, whether it’s the four-seamer, two-seamer slider or split, but you still have to get ahead. The next few outings I’m going for strike one, no matter what it is. You can’t fall behind guys.”
Thornton was once one of the top relievers in the game regardless of handedness, but, as I detailed in the season preview, his performance has slipped with age and he’s strictly a lefty specialist at this point. The Yankees know this and Joe Girardi is usually very good with platoon situations, so I don’t expect it to be much of an issue. He’ll be a glorified Clay Rapada rather than someone who is asked to get righties out with any sort of regularity.
As it stands right now, it seems unlikely the Yankees will carry a second lefty in the bullpen come Opening Day. Cesar Cabral continues to pitch unimportant late innings in spring games and appears to have been passed by Fred Lewis on the depth chart. Lewis has been impressive in camp but doesn’t have a promising minor league track record. Vidal Nuno is the most likely candidate for a potential second lefty spot, and he could wind up in Triple-A stretched out as the sixth starter.
Michael Pineda looked fantastic yesterday and solidified his hold on the fifth starter’s spot, meaning David Phelps and Adam Warren moved one step closer to the bullpen. That leaves only two open bullpen spots, one of which will go to Dellin Betances based on his performance this spring. Nuno could grab that last spot, it wouldn’t be that surprising, but Cabral and Lewis are a bit more off the radar. The Yankees could take a second lefty north if they’re concerned with Thornton, but I think they’ll go with him as the only southpaw until he shows he’s not up to the task in the regular season.
Mariano Rivera has retired and he’s not coming back. After 16 years of enjoying eight inning games thanks to the best reliever in baseball history, the Yankees are beginning an era in which the ninth inning isn’t such a lock anymore. The bullpen anchor is gone, and even though we got a glimpse of what life without Mo was like when he hurt his knee in 2012, this is still going to be a new experience.
The Yankees have stopped short of officially naming David Robertson their new closer, but that is a mere formality at this point. Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, and even Hal Steinbrenner have indicated Robertson will assume ninth inning duties this spring. That’s no surprise. Robertson has been excellent these last three years and has pretty much every quality you’d want in a future closer. He strikes guys out, he gets ground balls, and he has experience working high-leverage innings for a (mostly) contending team in a tough division in a huge market. All the boxes are checked.
At this point, I think we all know what Robertson is and what he can do. He’s primarily a cutter pitcher at this point, mixing in the occasional curveball when ahead in the count. He’s also cut down on his walk rate drastically these last two years, going from 4.7 BB/9 (12.2 BB%) from 2008-11 to a 2.6 BB/9 (7.3 BB%) from 2012-13. Robertson is not the most efficient pitcher in the world, but he has said this spring that he is making an effort to throw fewer pitches and get quicker outs this season. Maybe that leads to him striking out fewer batters but being available three days in a row instead of just two. We’ll see.
There seem to be two opposing schools of thought when it comes to the closer’s role: anyone can do it and not everyone can do it. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Not everyone likes pitching at the end of games — Jeremy Affeldt and LaTroy Hawkins are two notable players who have admitted as much — but way more guys can close than most people initially thought. The fact of the matter is we don’t know how Robertson will react to closing until he does it. I think he’ll be more than fine but what do I know? All we can do is wait a few weeks and see.
Instead of focusing just on Robertson, I want to spend some time exploring what the Yankees are looking at in the post-Rivera years. How the other half lives. That is, basically, a revolving door at closer. Sure, Robertson might be the guy for the next half-decade, but he has not been a closer yet and he’s due to become a free agent after the season. It’s not crazy to think he might not be the team’s closer long-term. Closers like Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Billy Wagner, and Trevor Hoffman are very rare. Not many guys do the job for ten years or more. There is generally a lot of turnover in the ninth inning.
As of right now, only three teams project to have the same closer on Opening Day 2014 as they did on Opening Day 2012: the Phillies (Papelbon), Braves (Craig Kimbrel), and Padres (Huston Street). (Aroldis Chapman and Glen Perkins took over as their club’s closer a few weeks into the 2012 season, but were not the guys on Opening Day.) Three teams, that’s it. You can go back and check if you want. Furthermore, all four LCS teams last year (Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox, Tigers) changed closers at midseason. World Series closers Koji Uehara and Trevor Rosenthal weren’t even their team’s Plan B. Uehara got the job after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey got hurt, and Rosenthal got it after Jason Motte got hurt, Mitchell Boggs flopped, and Edward Mujica crashed late in the season.
That is the norm. Most teams wind up making changes at closer if not in season, than at some point in the span of two seasons. The Yankees are very fortunate to have Robertson, who is more Rosenthal than Mujica, but in a world without Rivera, they could be looking at a new closer every year or two. Remember what it was like before Mo? John Wetteland for two years, Steve Howe for a year, Steve Farr for three years … on and on. Let’s not forget the postseason either, Rivera was beyond brilliant in October and that is irreplaceable. That revolving door is what the next few years of the ninth inning could look like, especially if Robertson proves to be not up to the task or bolts as a free agent next winter.
For this coming season, the Yankees appear to have a more than capable ninth inning man in Robertson. If he can’t hack it, then whichever reliever happens to be pitching the best at the time figures to get a crack at the ninth inning. Maybe that’s Shawn Kelley or Dellin Betances or Adam Warren. Who knows? We’ll worry about that when the time comes. Robertson is as good as any prospective closer in the game, but because of his impending free agency, the ninth inning is still a question long-term. That’s the case for almost every team in baseball and new experience for the Yankees as we know them.
Depending on what happens with the fifth starter spot, the Yankees have either two or three bullpen spots up for grabs in camp. There are something like eight or nine relievers competing for those spots, though some obviously have a better chance than others. Dellin Betances and Cesar Cabral, both of whom pitched with the team last September, have already emerged as the early favorites for big league jobs just two weeks into the Grapefruit League schedule.
Betances, who turns 26 in less than two weeks, continued his strong spring yesterday by pitching around a one out double in an inning of work. He didn’t just pitch around the double, he did it by throwing six straight curveballs to big leaguers Matt Joyce (strikeout) and Wil Myers (ground out). That’s not something Betances would have been able to do in the past. Emphasizing his offspeed stuff is something he’s been working on this spring.
“I feel good right now. I feel good with where my offspeed is. I feel like I can throw it for strikes. It’s been working for me. I’m just trying to better myself with each outing,” said Betances to Bryan Hoch. “I know my offspeed was one of the things that helped me out when I got in trouble with my fastball. I would try to use that to keep myself a little calm with my mechanics. I just tried to take that into this spring, mix my pitches. In the big leagues, everybody can hit fastballs, no matter how hard you throw. I’m just trying to use all my pitches the best way I can.”
Betances is up to 6.1 scoreless innings in camp, striking out five against two walks and two hits. The opponent quality stat at Baseball Reference says he’s been facing mostly big leaguers, which isn’t surprising. He’s been the first guy out of the bullpen in most games. Betances has the size and power stuff the Yankees love, so maybe a roster spot was his to lose coming to camp following last season’s bullpen breakout. If it was, he’s done nothing to lose the spot. If it wasn’t, he’s pushed himself towards the top of the depth chart.
With Cabral, on the other hand, it always felt like he was on the outside of the bullpen competition looking in. At least it did to me. Carrying a second lefty specialist is a luxury, and with Matt Thornton already on board to be the primary guy, passing on Cabral to take a more versatile right-hander makes some sense. It still does, actually. Then again, the best pitchers are the best pitchers, and if another southpaw is one of the seven best relievers in the organization, he should be on the roster come Opening Day.
In 4.1 innings across four appearances this spring, the just-turned-25-year-old Cabral has allowed one hit and two walks, striking out four. Lefties are 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a walk against him. Cabral has not faced the best competition however, basically Double-A level according to that opponent quality metric at B-Ref. He can only face the guys he’s put out there against though, and if he keeps getting outs and handling lefties, he’ll get a longer look and more serious consideration as camp progresses.
So far, after only a handful of Grapefruit League appearances, both Betances and Cabral have done everything they’ve needed to do to secure a big league bullpen job. Neither guy has a spot locked up of course, but they have moved to the front of the pack. Preston Claiborne, Matt Daley, and Fred Lewis have pitched well too, so they’re not alone, but others like Robert Coello and Brian Gordon have already managed to pitch themselves out of bullpen consideration. Both Betances and Cabral have made a nice little statement early on and put themselves in good position for a big league job when roster decision time comes.
Remember back when the Yankees struggled to find a reliable setup man once Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson skipped town? They spent a ton of money on guys like Steve Karsay and Kyle Farnsworth over the years — in fairness, both of them had their moments — but it wasn’t until David Robertson emerged three years ago that they had a consistently dominant eighth inning guy ahead of Mariano Rivera.
Mo retired after last season and Robertson will take over ninth inning duties, meaning the setup role is again something of a question. Joe Girardi has indicated he won’t necessarily have a designated eighth inning guy in 2014, instead relying on platoon matchups to get the ball to his new closer. While these things are always subject to change, two veterans who throw with different arms figure to share setup duties at the start of the season.
RHP Shawn Kelley
Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees a year ago. They acquired him in a minor trade with the Mariners just as Spring Training started and he gave the team 53.1 innings of 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) ball. An ugly April and an ugly September were sandwiched around three excellent months as Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) in 39.2 innings from May 1st through August 31st. During that time, he struck out 51 of 162 batters faced (31.5%).
The Yankees unlocked the 29-year-old’s strikeout potential with a tried and true formula: get ahead in the count and bury hitters with a wipeout slider. Out of the 125 relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Kelley ranked fifth in slider percentage (49.4%) and 16th in first pitch strike percentage (65.6%). Simple, right? Get ahead in the count and go to the slider. That helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .225/.290/.417 (.308 wOBA) batting line with a 32.8% strikeout rate.
Kelley is not without his warts, however. Left-handed hitters knocked him around a bit (.329 wOBA) and, perhaps more importantly, he is very fly ball and homer prone. His 33.1% ground ball rate last summer was the 17th lowest among those 125 relievers with at least 50 innings, and when you give up fly balls, you’re going to give up homers. That’s just the way it is. Kelley allowed eight dingers in his 53.1 innings (1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB), and the scary thing is that only two came in Yankee Stadium. His homer rate might go up in 2014.
That propensity to give up the long ball is what scares me most about Kelley pitching high leverage innings. I won’t go as far as saying it will be like watching 2011-13 Phil Hughes, when every pitch feels like he was walking on egg shells, but it won’t be too far off. Kelley earned the opportunity to be the setup man with last year’s performance and because he both pounds the zone and misses a ton of bats, two things that tend to make pitchers very successful. That potential for the ill-timed homer is always going to be in the back of my mind though.
LHP Matt Thornton
Boone Logan gave the Yankees three and a half very nice years — he got way more crap than he deserved and I’m guilty of handing some of it out — and those years earned him a fat three-year contract with the Rockies this offseason. New York signed Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M to take over as Girardi’s primary left-hander out of the bullpen. He went from the White Sox to the Red Sox last year but was left off Boston’s postseason roster because of a lingering oblique problem.
Thornton, 37, was once one of the very best relievers in baseball, regardless of handedness. He posted a 2.84 ERA (2.50 FIP) with a 29.1% strikeout rate from 2008-11, and he didn’t have much of a platoon split either — lefties had a .247 wOBA while righties had a .267 wOBA. Thornton’s overall effectiveness has slipped in recent years, not coincidentally as his trademark fastball started to lose some juice:
|ERA||FIP||K%||HR/FB%||FB velocity||RHB wOBA||LHB wOBA|
Thornton’s game has clearly slipped over the years but he remains a viable matchup left-hander, which is what the Yankees signed him to be. At least that’s what I hope. Asking Thornton to consistently get righties out at this point of his career is not a good idea, not with his fastball shortening up and not even with Yankee Stadium’s left-center field death valley behind him. He’s a straight matchup lefty right now. As long as Girardi uses him properly, he should be fine.
* * *
Both Kelley and Thornton have been in the league a while now and both have experience pitching in the later innings (Thornton moreso), so it makes sense to have them share setup duties based on platoon matchups at the start of the season. The bullpen is ever-changing though, and chances are the setup crew at the start of the year will be different from the setup crew come September (and hopefully October). I’m not hating on Kelley and Thornton when I say that, it’s just that bullpens are known for turnover.
Via ESPN NY: The Yankees may use left-hander Manny Banuelos as a reliever this coming season. He is returning from Tommy John surgery. “Banuelos has got that big arm,” said one member of the team’s front office. “If it’s still there and the lightning still strikes then you’re going see people say, ‘F— it, bring him with us [on Opening Day].’”
Banuelos, 22, missed all of last season following elbow reconstruction and was limited to only 24 innings in early 2012 due to a different elbow injury. Spring Training will be the first time he pitches in a competitive game in nearly two full years. Banuelos wasn’t exactly a finished product before the elbow injuries, so I think making the Opening Day roster is unlikely, even as a reliever. I’m not opposed to having him (or anyone, really) start their big league career out of the bullpen as long as there is a clear plan to get him back into the rotation at some point relatively soon.
I swear, it still feels like the 2006 draft was just yesterday, but the 2014 season will be Dellin Betances‘ eighth (!) full season in the organization. The Yankees gave the towering right-hander from Washington Heights a $1M bonus as their eighth round pick back in ’06 and hoped he would develop into a frontline starter. That has not happened but the team has not given up on his enormous potential.
Last May, following six ugly starts with Triple-A Scranton, the Yankees moved the soon-to-be 26-year-old Betances to the bullpen full-time and the improvement was immediate. He struck out 43 of the next 136 batters he faced (31.6%) while allowing only eight runs and 12 walks in 34 innings. The Yankees called him up briefly in mid-August and then again as an extra arm when rosters expanded in September. Betances finished the year with a 2.06 ERA and 93 strikeouts (35.3%) in 65.2 total relief innings.
“I just feel like, confidence wise, I feel good,” said Betances to Anthony McCarron last August when asked about moving into a relief role. “I get to pitch more often, instead of going every five days. I get to go two or three times in that span, so I think the more time I get on the mound has helped me be more consistent … I think it’s just being more aggressive, attack the strike zone right away, where if you’re a starter, you kind gradually get aggressive as the game goes on.”
Repeating his delivery and keeping his long limbs in check has always been a struggle for the 6-foot-8 Betances, but apparently working more often out of the bullpen helped him stay in control even though he threw fewer total pitches. There’s nothing particularly impressive about a 10.6% walk rate (his walk rate as a reliever in 2013), but it’s substantially better than the 14.3% walk rate he posted from the start of 2011 through the conversion last May, when he looked close to a lost cause.
Betances struck out eight and walked one in 4.1 innings last September and barring some last minute additions, he’ll head to Spring Training as part of a wide open bullpen competition. The only relievers guaranteed to be on the roster come Opening Day are David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton, so that is potentially four open spots. I count as many as ten guys competing for those four spots, including potential fifth starters like David Phelps and Adam Warren and minor league free agents like Robert Coello and Brian Gordon.
Brian Cashman confirmed that, for whatever reason, Betances qualifies for a fourth option and can be sent to the minors this season without having to pass through waivers. Had he not qualified for the fourth option and instead required waivers to go to back to Triple-A, he might have won a bullpen spot almost by default. Now Betances will have to not only earn a big league job in camp, but he’ll have to continue to pitch well in the regular season to keep it. Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day.
For the first time in his nearly nine full years as a pro, there is a clear path for Betances to make the Yankees out of camp and play a rather significant role this coming season. Nothing in the bullpen is set aside from Robertson being the closer and Thornton being the lefty specialist, so if Betances shows last summer’s success was a true indication of his ability and not just a fluke, he could assume an important late-inning role rather quickly. This is his chance to justify that seven-figure signing bonus and more than a half-decade’s worth of patience.
“I’m thrilled to just come out here and whatever situation I need to be used in,” added Betances while talking to McCarron. “I’m ready for that.”