Archive for Death by Bullpen
The Yankees will have familiar faces holding down important bullpen roles this season. Mariano Rivera is slated to close for the 17th consecutive season while David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain handle the primary setup duties. Boone Logan, entering his fourth season with the Yankees, will be the primary left-hander. Second lefty Clay Rapada and likely swingman David Phelps were with the club last year. The last spot is going to a relatively new face, or at least as new as a face can be when the player is entering his second year with the team.
David Aardsma, the 31-year-old former Mariners closer, joined the Yankees last spring on a bargain one-year contract worth just $500k. The deal included a $500k club option for a second season, which the team exercised back in November. Incentives could put another $1.5M in his pocket, but that’s still a super low-risk contract. Aardsma was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery when he signed the deal and was not expected to return until midseason. A setback pushed his return back further, and ultimately he was only able to appear in one game in late-September.
“I felt good, but I wasn’t fully back into pitching mode,” said Aardsma to Dan Martin about his one-inning outing against the Blue Jays. “It feels good to be getting ready for a real Spring Training for once.”
It’s easy to forget that Aardsma is coming back from not just one injury, but two. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip in January 2011, and it was during his rehab from that procedure that he blew out his elbow and needed the reconstruction. Prior to his one-inning cameo in September, he had not appeared in a big league game since September 2010. That’s an awful lot of rust to shake off this spring.
Before the injuries hit, Aardsma was a very good but not great reliever with Seattle. His save total — 69-for-78 from 2009-2010 — was impressive, but otherwise he pitched to a 2.44 ERA (3.44 FIP) with 9.6 K/9 (25.9 K%) and 4.39 BB/9 (11.9%) in 121 innings during his two healthy seasons with the Mariners. Prior to that he’d pitched to a 5.29 ERA (4.90 FIP) in 144.2 innings with the Giants, Cubs, White Sox, and Red Sox from 2004-2008.
Strikeouts have always been Aardsma’s thing, evidenced by his career 9.08 K/9 and 23.0 K%. Hitters have swung and missed at his pitches approximately 11.4% of the time during the PitchFX era according to Brooks Baseball, which is comfortably above-average. Walks and fly balls are also this thing, unfortunately. Aardsma’s career walk rate (5.06 BB/9 and 12.8 BB%) is scary, though it was a bit better with Seattle. His career 35.2% ground ball rate is very low, but it has helped him maintain a low BABIP — .244 with Seattle and .287 career — since fly balls are easily converted into outs. They also make him a bit homer prone (career 0.95 HR/9 and 8.8% HR/FB), which is not ideal in Yankee Stadium.
Aardsma is a three-pitch reliever, sitting in the 92-96 mph range with his fastball and backing it up with low-to-mid-80s splitters and sliders. He threw all three pitches during his one-appearance cameo in September according to PitchFX, and all three showed up at their pre-injury velocity (or thereabouts). The slider is for righties and the split for lefties, so he hasn’t shown a big platoon split — .243 wOBA with a 25.4 K% against righties and .283 and 26.4% against lefties while with the Mariners, respectively. His career split is tiny.
Coming off two lost years, we really have no idea what to expect from Aardsma in 2013. The right-hander told Martin that he’s already thrown four bullpen sessions leading up to Spring Training and hasn’t had any problems with the hip or elbow, which is great. Being healthy is the important first step. Having swing-and-miss stuff is a solid foundation, though the walks — I foresee a lot of “effectively wild” statements in the coming weeks and months — and fly balls are a concern. For a guy slated to start the season in a low-to-mid-leverage middle relief role, they aren’t they end of the world. A concern, but not a dealbreaker.
In essence, Aardsma will be taking over the Cory Wade role. The were both fly ball and homer prone right-handers without long track records of success, but the similarities stop there. I’m skeptical that Aardsma can replicate Wade’s success — at least Wade’s success before he completely imploded in late-May last summer — and that will be worth watching early in the season. If he’s missing bats and keeping the walk rate somewhat reasonable, he should be fine. If not, the Yankees will probably wind up testing that Triple-A bullpen depth before long.
Much has been made of the 2014 payroll plan, specifically how the Yankees will plug numerous rotation and lineup holes in the next 14 months or so while trimming payroll. The combination of one-year contracts signed this winter and impending free agencies mean the team could be looking to fill as many as three rotation spots and six everyday lineup spots. It’s a daunting task, and yet we all seem to be overlooking the bullpen.
Right now, the Yankees are projected to open 2013 with four relievers who will qualify for free agency after the season: Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and David Aardsma. That leaves David Robertson (due to hit free agency after 2014), Clay Rapada, and the long-man (Ivan Nova? David Phelps?) as the hold-overs heading into 2014. Cody Eppley deserves a mention here as well. Standard disclaimer: bullpens have a very high turnover rate and the club’s relief corps will look very different 12 weeks from now, nevermind 12 months.
The Yankees do have some nice relief depth scheduled to open the season in Triple-A, guys we figure to see next year at some point. Right-hander David Herndon, who spent the last few seasons with the Phillies, signed a minor league contract and is due to return from Tommy John surgery at midseason. Right-hander Chase Whitley (3.25 ERA and 3.70 FIP) threw 80.1 innings in Triple-A this past season and figures to be among the first called up whenever an arm is needed. Adam Warren will start the year in the Triple-A rotation but is likely to wind up in the bullpen long-term. The same is probably true for Dellin Betances as well. Left-hander and 2011 Rule 5 Draft pick Cesar Cabral will get a long look in Spring Training next year and could carve out a role with the team.
A little further down is right-hander Mark Montgomery, the team’s very best relief prospect. He’s a strikeout machine (career 14.6 K/9 and 40.0 K%) who will open the year in Double-A and earn a promotion before long. Left-hander Francisco Rondon was added to the 40-man roster after the season, so the team obviously thinks he can help them sooner rather than later. Non-40-man right-hander Graham Stoneburner could work his way into the mix as well. Right-handers Branden Pinder and Tommy Kahnle will start the year in Double-A with a chance to pitch there way into big league consideration down the line. Danny Burawa is coming off a lost season (rib injury) and the team liked him enough to invite him to big league camp this past year.
Prospects, especially bullpen prospects, have a high rate of attrition. Not all of these guys are going to work out, and in fact I’d be thrilled if three of them turned into legitimate big league options for New York. Some will be traded, some will get hurt, some will stink for no apparent reason. It happens. The Yankees do have plenty of inventory though, which is pretty much the only thing the team can control. They’ve also been aggressive with scrap heap pickups in recent years, plucking guys off waivers or signing them to minor league contracts, and that doesn’t figure to change. Outside of Rivera and Rafael Soriano, the club has had fielding a cheap and effective bullpen during the Joe Girardi era.
Despite that, I wouldn’t expect the Yankees to replace Mo, Joba, Logan, and Aardsma with only prospects or scrap heap pickups next year. If things play out like that and there are four bullpen holes to be filled, you can bet they’ll venture out into the free agent market for an arm or two. Here’s the list of free agents for next winter, and right now guys like Grant Balfour, Matt Belisle, and Eric O’Flaherty jump out as potential targets. Again, a whole lot can and will change before next offseason rolls around. I’m just looking ahead and thinking out loud here.
The rotation and lineup holes are going to draw a lot of attention (and posts) heading into 2014 given the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold, but we shouldn’t forget about the bullpen. The Yankees could have a lot of holes to fill beyond the right-center field wall as well, though the difference is that their internal relief solutions are far better (and more plentiful) than their in-house rotation and position player options right now. Given the inherent volatility of relievers, having depth and plenty of options to sort through is the best and most cost effective way to build a bullpen unit. The same can’t be said for starters and position players.
Despite losing Mariano Rivera to a season-ending injury in early-May, the Yankees still got a solid 3.43 ERA (3.62 FIP) out of their bullpen this season. David Robertson and Rafael Soriano did most of the heavy lifting while lefties Boone Logan and Clay Rapada were solid overall. Right-handers Cory Wade, Joba Chamberlain, Derek Lowe, Cody Eppley all had their moments. Ten different players made at least ten relief appearances for New York in 2012, and one of them was not Rivera (nine games).
Mo is due to return next season — he is still unsigned, however — and he’ll replace the departed Soriano. The rest of the bullpen falls into place behind him with Robertson in the eighth inning, Joba in the middle innings, and the two lefties doing the matchup thing. That’s five of the seven bullpen spots already accounted for, and the Yankees will have David Aardsma available on Opening Day as well. The former Mariners closer is coming off Tommy John (and hip) surgery and adds some dirt cheap ($500k) bullpen depth. So that’s already six of seven spots theoretically accounted for.
That final spot would presumably go to a long man, be it David Phelps or Adam Warren or some free agent. Joakim Soria has made it no secret that he would like to pitch in New York next season, and frankly I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t love to see the 28-year-old former Royals closer with the Yankees on an incentive-laden one-year contract. The only real issue with adding him is that it would leave the Yankees without a true long man, unless they (gasp!) stretched Joba out so he could go multiple innings. That would be pretty awesome actually, but let’s assume that’s not an option.
The Yankees could, in theory, trade a reliever so they could sign Soria and still carry a long man. Carrying two left-handed relievers is a luxury but not a necessity, and there is definitely some merit to the idea of trading Logan as he comes off a career-high workload (80 appearances and 55.1 innings) and is one year away from free agency. Rapada has been better against lefties both this year and over the last few years anyway, though Logan can at least fake it against righties in an emergency. There’s always the option of trading Joba, who is also a year away from free agency. I’d rather keep him and deal a lefty, but that’s just me.
Aardsma, Logan, and Rapada can not be sent to the minor leagues next season without first clearing waivers, and that definitely won’t happen. Some team would grab ‘em. Robertson’s definitely not going to Triple-A and I suppose there’s a chance Joba could go down, but it would surprise me if the team made the move. Eppley figures to be the up-and-down guy, and it would behoove the Yankees to add another arm or two on minor league contracts if they don’t feel Chase Whitley or Mark Montgomery are ready. Even if they are, adding the extra depth is never a bad thing. Remember, the team’s projected primary right-handers for 2013 (Rivera, Robertson, Joba, Aardsma) all spent time on the DL this season.
I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, I just kinda started thinking out loud about the bullpen and which spots were already accounted for. Ideally, I would like to see the Yankees trade one of their lefties — Josh Spence, Juan Cedeno, and possibly even Cesar Cabral serve as left-handed depth in Triple-A — add Soria, and carry a true long man who would allow Joba to remain a one-inning setup-ish man. Neither Logan nor Rapada will fetch much of anything in a trade, but maybe they serve as a second or third piece in a package. With Rivera, Aardsma, and potentially Soria coming off injury and expected to be handled carefully, carrying two LOOGYs might be a little inflexible.
I’m going to start by repeating something I said this morning, but it’s worth it: the season is not on the line in Game Three tonight but it might as well be. Coming back from a three games to none deficit in a best-of-seven series is not unprecedented, but it is incredibly difficult. For all intents and purposes, a loss tonight would be a one-way ticket to the offseason. That’s the situation the Yankees have played (really hit, I have a hard time blaming the pitchers for anything) themselves into.
Because of this, Joe Girardi has to manage tonight like it is a Game Seven, particularly with his bullpen in relief of Phil Hughes. There’s little reason to hold anyone back for tomorrow or later in the series. This isn’t the regular season anymore, there’s no point in worrying about keeping guys fresh in the long-term when the offseason could be two days away. Girardi typically does a great job of keeping his bullpen rested during the summer, but all of that should go out the window now.
Thankfully, the core late-game relievers are well-rested. Not only did Monday’s travel day give everyone a day off, but David Robertson and Rafael Soriano also had Sunday’s game off as well. They didn’t even warm up. Furthermore, CC Sabathia is scheduled to start Game Four on normal rest tomorrow night, and he’s one of the very few pitchers who can be counted on to go out and soak up seven or more innings without thinking twice. Sabathia should make everyone, including Girardi, feel a little bit better about using the bullpen heavily tonight.
If push comes to shove in Game Three in a few hours, multiple innings from both Robertson and Soriano should be on the table. Soaking up nine total outs in a close game seems like a given, maybe even more if things get really messy. Both guys are rested, Sabathia is going tomorrow, and the game is of paramount importance. This is when a team needs to rely on its top bullpen arms and the Yankees are lucky enough to have two dynamite right-handers capable of getting both lefties and righties out. They’re a luxury who will be a necessity tonight.
Earlier today we looked at the position player decisions the Yankees will have to make for their ALDS roster (meaning the last two bench spots), so now let’s take some time now to look at the guys on the mound. The Bombers have carried eleven pitchers in pretty much every postseason series under Joe Girardi and I see no reason to believe they’ll do something different now. Of those eleven spots, only two are really up for grabs. Here are the nine locks…
It doesn’t matter who the Yankees play in the ALDS, both the Orioles (Jim Thome, Chris Davis, Nate McLouth) and Rangers (Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, Mitch Moreland) have a number of quality left-handed batters. Carrying both Logan and Rapada is a given.
One of the last two spots should quite obviously go to David Phelps for two reasons. One, he’s simply performed the best out of everyone else in consideration for a postseason roster spot and deserves it based on merit. Crazy idea, rewarding the guy who’s earned the spot with his performance. Two, he’s stretched out all the way to 80+ pitches and can be a true long-man out of the bullpen. I hope the Yankees won’t need to use him in a long relief situation in a playoff series, but it’s good to have that guy available anyway.
The candidates for the final spot are Ivan Nova, Derek Lowe, and Cody Eppley. I can’t see Cory Wade or Freddy Garcia getting serious consideration given how they faded and performed poorly enough to lose their respective jobs during the regular season. Nova is the same boat, pitching so poorly in the second half that he lost his rotation spot to Phelps this past week. Considering that he has basically zero bullpen experience and didn’t even make a tune-up relief appearance — remember A.J. Burnett made a relief appearance in Game 162 last season in advance of his playoff bullpen role — before the season let up, I can’t see Nova making it. He strikes me as a guy the Yankees send to Tampa to workout and remain stretched out in case he’s needed at a later point.
That leaves us with the veteran, playoff-tested Lowe and the rookie right-handed specialist Eppley. I think we can all see where this is going. Joe wrote about Lowe pitching his way onto the playoff roster yesterday, and given how Girardi has used him the last few weeks — for multiple innings in the important situations — he appears to have a big leg up on that final pitching staff spot. I don’t even think this is a situation in which he would just make the roster and only pitch in emergencies/blowouts (think Chad Gaudin in 2009) either, I think Girardi trusts Lowe and will use him in relatively important situations. The Yankees know he can handle big situations from first hand experience, and again, there is some value in that.
Moreso than the last two bench spots, the final two bullpen spots seem to be open only in theory. Lowe and especially Phelps have outperformed the other pitching candidates and the way they’ve been used in recent weeks suggests that they’ve climbed in the pecking order. Those two simply deserve to be the on the roster over guys like Nova, Garcia, and Eppley. It’s seems pretty clear to me that they simply deserve it over the other guys, and looking at those eleven names makes me feel pretty good about the staff the Yankees will carry into the postseason. That’s a very strong rotation and a deep bullpen, certainly better than what they took in the ALDS a year ago.
The Yankees will play their 162nd game of the season tonight, a game that could either give them the best record in the AL or contribute towards playing a one-game division tie-breaker against the Orioles tomorrow. The bullpen was used heavily in last night’s extra innings win but not to the point where one of the core relievers should be unavailable tonight. Even after throwing 43 pitches in two innings, I’m sure Rafael Soriano will be out there in the ninth if need be.
Joe Girardi‘s crop of trusted relievers is well-defined at this point, and one reliever who appears to be outside the Circle of Trust™ is second left-hander Clay Rapada. The funky 31-year-old sidewinder has appeared in 69 games this season, the second most of anyone in the bullpen outside of 80-appearance man and primary lefty Boone Logan. Rapada, however, has been kept on ice lately despite ample matchup opportunities. He’s thrown just one pitch (!) since September 23rd, a one-batter appearance on September 27th. One pitch (resulting in a pop-up) in the team’s last ten games.
From late-August through mid-September, Rapada made ten appearances and faced exactly one batter in nine of them. Of a 12 total men (11 lefties) he faced during that time, five reached base (three hits and two walks). One of those three hits was by the lone right-handed batter. Maybe that shook Girardi’s confidence in him. Rapada replaced Ivan Nova in the third inning of the extra innings comeback win over the Athletics two weeks ago, allowing a run while recording four outs. That’s basically been it, he’s made just two appearances since.
Now I get that Logan was excellent earlier in the season and that he’s earned Girardi’s trust in big spots, but Rapada has actually been more effective against same-side hitters this season. Here’s a quick breakdown of their performances against lefties…
Not the biggest of sample sizes, but that’s what you get when you’re dealing with lefty relievers. Both guys have done the job well this year, but Rapada has been a bit more effective despite marginally worse strikeout and walk rates. It’s a luxury to have two quality left-handed relievers, especially late in the season when rosters expand and matching up isn’t much of an issue, and the Yankees are one of just two AL playoff teams with that luxury. The Athletics and their duo of Jerry Blevins and Sean Doolittle are the other.
The final game of the season is tonight, so there’s nothing Girardi can do now to shift some of the left-handed matchup workload from Logan to Rapada. Hopefully Rapada won’t be rusty if he gets the call against the Red Sox, but either way both guys will be on the playoff roster and there’s little reason to favor one over the other. Logan has been a little shaky of late but still solid overall, yet Rapada is a bit of an untapped weapon right now. Giving him a little more responsibility shouldn’t be an idea that is completely off the table.
When the Yankees signed Derek Lowe in August it was tough to think of it as an impact move. Lowe had started off the season well enough, pitching to a 3.06 ERA through his first 11 starts. But then that nearly 1:1 K/BB ratio started catching up with him. His next 10 starts were pure disaster, an 8.77 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. At this late stage in his career, it was tough to expect anything of him. If not for the injury to CC Sabathia, the Yankees might not even have signed Lowe in the first place.
Yet Lowe came onto the scene strong, holding down the fort for the final four innings against Texas, preserving a win for David Phelps. But it didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off again. He allowed at least one run in each of his next six outings, which included a blown game against Toronto. It seemed like the end of meaningful appearances for Lowe. But after last night’s two-inning win, perhaps Lowe has changed some opinions. It might have punched his ticket to the postseason roster.
No, we should not evaluate Lowe based on a single performance. If we did that we could just as easily base it on the one-out, four-hit, two-run appearance he had against Baltimore a month ago. Or we could even look to the crazy 10-9 win over Oakland a couple of weeks ago, when Lowe allowed the tying run that pushed the game into extras. The case for Lowe on the postseason roster involves a brief but positive trend, coupled with a generally positive performance in pinstripes.
Since signing with the Yankees in mid-August Lowe has thrown 23.2 innings in 17 appearances, holding opponents to a .261/.306/.370 line. That’s not elite, but it’s serviceable for a middle reliever who can go multiple innings. He has also managed to keep home runs in check while striking out more than twice the number he’s walked. He has also kept inherited runners in check, allowing just one of nine to score. Again, not world-beating, but certainly worthy of consideration.
Furthermore, Lowe has stepped up his game since sitting down for nine days in mid-September. Since coming in to relieve a knocked-around Phil Hughes during the doubleheader against Toronto, Lowe has allowed just seven hits in 12.1 innings, striking out five and walking four (one intentional). He has allowed just two runs in that span and has held opponents to a .171/.244/.171 line. Yes, he has not allowed an extra base hit in that time, which is one reason why he’s kept runs off the board. (In fact, he hasn’t allowed an extra base hit all month.)
When evaluating pitchers for postseason rosters, we needn’t consider the whole picture. What a pitcher did in April probably has little bearing on what he’ll do in October. The season goes through phases, and as we’ve seen so many times in the past the hot hand prevails. Lowe has certainly been on a hot streak lately, which should be enough to warrant an LDS roster spot. They do have an extra spot, as only six of seven bullpen spots seem set in stone (Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Clay Rapada, David Phelps). The Yanks could go with Cody Eppley, but they might prefer someone who can give them length and perhaps face a lefty or two.
Even when the Yankees signed Lowe it didn’t appear he’d be a strong candidate for the postseason roster. They did, after all, sign him after he’d been cut by the Indians, who had little to gain or lose by releasing him. After his first few performances it looked like he’d be out of consideration, but he’s changed that perception in the last few weeks — a time when the Yankees needed him the most. The performance last night in Boston might have just put his name onto the ALDS roster.
It’s no secret that Joe Girardi and the Yankees have leaned on their bullpen heavily these last two months, as the division lead was squandered away and games became increasingly important. The late-game quartet of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Joba Chamberlain have been at the forefront of the increased bullpen workload, as they form what amounts to the Circle of Trust™. Every manager has those guys, but Girardi has been pressed into using his more than he probably would like of late.
Joel Sherman noted today that Wednesday’s win over the Twins was the first time at least one of those four relievers did not appear in a game since August 14th, when Hiroki Kuroda two-hit the Rangers. That was 38 games ago. Since that date, Logan (22) and Robertson (21) have appeared in more than half of the team’s games. Soriano (17) and Joba (15) have had it a little easier. Looking at September only, Logan ranks second in baseball with 16 appearances. Robertson is third (14). Only former Yankee Randy Choate (17) has made more pitching appearances this month.
Robertson has made four sets of back-to-back-to-back appearances since Kuroda’s complete game, the first four back-to-back-to-back appearances of his career. That blew my mind. Had he not missed more than a month with an oblique strain, Robertson would be sitting on 70+ appearances and 70+ innings on the season. Both would be career highs. Logan, on the other hand, leads the AL with 77 appearances, three more than anyone who spent the entire season in the junior circuit. This is a guy who hadn’t appeared in more than 65 games since 2007. He seems to be worn down and his performance has suffered down the stretch.
These next seven games are imperative and Girardi shouldn’t hold back on his top relievers until the Yankees clinch something, preferably the AL East. The good news is that CC Sabathia is starting to look more like himself, which means more innings-eating appearances like what he gave the team yesterday. Andy Pettitte has stretched his pitch count up to 88 and should be good for 100 or so next time. David Phelps and his ability to go multiple innings is now in the bullpen to help lighten the load, and we’ve already seen Girardi be willing to use him in higher-leverage seventh inning appearances. I’d like to see him go two innings at a time, but even the one inning helps.
With the AL East magic number down to six, the Yankees could be wearing the division crown by the time they return home to face the Red Sox next week. That would give them three precious days to rest the four core relievers before the season ends, but of course clinching that soon will require some help. At this point of the schedule, the proverbial bullpen damage has already been done. Maybe the late-inning guys can get an extra day or two or rest before the end of the season, but the workload already is what it is. The goal right now remains winning the division and if that means these guys have to throw a bunch of innings in the next week, so be it.
When the Yankees play the second game of their three-game set against the Twins later tonight, they’ll do so with a new reliever available in the bullpen. Right-hander David Aardsma is set to join the club today after losing more than two calendar years due to injury. An oblique problem sidelined him in September 2010, then a torn labrum in his hip and Tommy John surgery (and a subsequent setback) cost him all of 2011 and all but nine games of 2012. It’s been a long road back, that’s for sure.
Since the Yankees are stuck in a tight division race with only those nine games left to play, there’s very little chance we’ll see the 30-year-old Aardsma in anything more than a low-leverage blowout situation. The eighth inning of last night’s game — the inning Cory Wade was unable to escape — seems like the kind of inning the former Mariners’ closer would be allowed to navigate. Not a particularly close game and with only a handful of outs remaining, not really enough for the other club to mount a legitimate comeback.
“When (Joe Girardi) calls down, or (Larry Rothschild) calls, or whoever does it, and my name is called, I’ll be ready,” said Aardsma yesterday. “And then I go out there and go pitch. I haven’t faced a big-league hitter in two years, but it’s a matter of, I know my stuff’s been good. It’s been playing really well down in Tampa. I know it’s not the same caliber, but I know my stuff is good. Now it’s just a matter of going out there, getting comfortable, and facing hitters. I’m not expecting to go out there in the toughest situation ever — I don’t think they would do that — but they do want me ready.”
Although the AL East crown has yet to be locked up, the Yankees don’t really need Aardsma to be much help this week. Earlier in the season after Mariano Rivera got hurt and Wade imploded? Yeah they needed bullpen help then but opted to wait for Joba Chamberlain. He struggled mightily at first before straightening things out and becoming the fourth wheel in the David Robertson-Rafael Soriano-Boone Logan end-game trio. The Yankees found out the hard way that not everyone coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery can be useful right away, but they got a little lucky with how quickly Joba turned things around.
That same problem — the general ineffectiveness following elbow surgery — could present itself with Aardsma, who really didn’t pitch all that well during his minor league rehab stint. The circumstances are much different though, as he’s just a spare arm for these next nine games and not someone the team is really counting on for an impact. Next year will be a different story, but we have all offseason to worry about that. I’ll be surprised if Aardsma appears in even three of the next nine games, but even if he does, I think we all learned from Joba earlier this season not to count on him for much right away.
After yet another close game (though thankfully, last night’s was of the winning variety), the collective blood pressure of the Yankee fanbase is once again a little higher than optimal. While the Yankees were able to jump ahead of the Red Sox in the early going, the inability to accomplish the mythical shutdown inning allowed the Red Sox to stay within striking distance for the majority of the game. This has been a problem for much of the recent stretch of subpar play.
While David Robertson and Rafael Soriano have individually had very strong seasons, the Yankee bullpen, and these two stalwarts in particular, have shown mortality at particularly inconvenient times. Robertson’s fastball velocity is down slightly from last season, and his reduction in the use of his curveball in favor of the cutter is a little puzzling. Several recent Yankee losses can directly be tied to blowups by one or both of the Yankees’ top relievers. While Joba Chamberlain has impressed in his recent outings, he is probably still not at the point of being relied upon to be a consistent shutdown presence in the 7th inning. The Clay Rapada/Cody Eppley/Boone Logan trio have performed adequately, though none of them (possibly excepting Logan) really are useful against opposite-handed batters.
As the Yankees battle through the last few weeks of the season and hopefully into October, it is evident that they could use another bullpen arm with the ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate. Presumably, a trade is incredibly unlikely at this juncture, so whatever help the Yankees are going to find will have to come from within. With several players on track to return from injury, the Yankees will have a few options as they shuffle their rotation to accommodate the returnees. Here are some of the ways they can proceed, and variables to consider.
Nova should be back from injury relatively soon, but his uneven 2012 season raises questions about how he can be most effectively deployed. He’s currently in line to replace Freddy Garcia in the rotation, but given his propensity to surrender extra-base hits, there’s no guarantee that he will be a significant upgrade. While Freddy’s repertoire doesn’t really translate well to a short relief role (though he could be an effective long man), Nova could be an effective option for shorter stints, allowing him to focus on his fastball and slider and not worry about his other pitches.
Andy Pettitte is also on his way back, though his timeline for returning to the rotation is unclear at the moment. The Yankees are currently planning to let Pettitte build his innings back up on the Major League roster, which will likely entail him making piggyback starts with one of Nova, Garcia, or Phelps. If Nova and Pettitte both make it back into the rotation, Phelps likely gets bumped back into a relief role. Phelps has been very impressive when used as a reliever this season (albeit in a small sample), so he could be an intriguing option to add more depth to the Yankee bullpen.
Yes, Wade has been incredibly disappointing in the majors this year, but he has handled himself fairly well since being demoted to AAA (2.27 ERA). That said, his strikeout rate is down compared to 2011 and his walk rate is elevated, and both trends continued when he was sent down to the Scranton traveling road show. Even though Wade is not pitching as well as he did last season (or early this year), it could be worth giving him some innings to see if he can get his confidence and stuff back.
Mark Montgomery (obligatory)
I know the Yankees have said that they will not call up Montgomery this season, but I think it is an option worth considering. He has continued to dominate his minor league opposition, and I’m not sure if there is a serious developmental case to be made for keeping him in the minors much longer. AA hitters simply have no answer for his slider, and he is striking them out in droves. While there is some obvious risk inherent in calling up a minor leaguer to contribute to a playoff chase (some may fear that getting hit around could ruin him forever, a la Mark Melancon), Montgomery has the talent and upside to be a shutdown guy right away. I trust that the Yankees know better than me regarding his big league readiness, but the possibility that Montgomery could be a shot in the arm to the Yankee bullpen (a la rookie Joba Chamberlain or Francisco Rodriguez back in the day) is hard to ignore. Considering the Yankees’ recent bullpen struggles, it seems worthwhile to reconsider the calculus of whether keeping Montgomery down is really the best option.
While a Montgomery callup doesn’t seem forthcoming (though I will continue to dream), returning Phelps to the bullpen could give the Yankees the reliable middle-inning arm that they have been missing since Cory Wade began to struggle. While Montgomery has the highest upside, Phelps is the safest bet. Phelps has excelled in the role when called upon this season, and since the Yankees may not want to overwork Chamberlain and Robertson, it makes sense to have another reliable middle relief arm who can pitch to both righties and lefties. It would be hard to expect much out of Nova or Wade if they were given a relief role, and they would definitely have to impress in their few opportunities to earn their spot.
Of all the problems facing the Yankees this season, the bullpen is probably the least of them. That said, it has contributed directly to several losses, and the Yankees do have several decent options available that could improve the situation. I assume when Pettitte and Nova are back, we will start to see some pieces in motion, as the Yankees look to fortify the middle innings.