Archive for Death by Bullpen

Kelley is going to have a much bigger role in 2014. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Kelley is going to have a much bigger role in 2014. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

The Yankees have spent more than $300M so far this offseason, but only a small part (roughly 5%) of that money has gone towards the pitching staff. Specifically, it went to Hiroki Kuroda‘s new $16M deal. That’s it. The other $285M or so has gone towards improving the offense for pretty obvious reasons.

Finding another starting pitcher remains atop the winter agenda at this point, but the Yankees also have to start digging around for reliable bullpen help. The bullpen was pretty average this past season (3.66 ERA and 3.91 FIP), and that was before Mariano Rivera retired and the generally reliable Boone Logan left via free agency. There’s a lot of uncertainty beyond the right-center field wall right now.

“Oh, I [think so],” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings when asked if there are any givens in the bullpen aside from David Robertson. “I think (Shawn) Kelley’s going to be in the bullpen. I think, obviously, (Preston) Claiborne’s going to be in our bullpen. Then you have a mixture of (David) Phelps or (Adam) Warren, depending on if they’re in the rotation, those type of guys. So some of the guys that possibly are competing for rotation spots, the ones that don’t make it are probably going to slide to the bullpen. That’s why it’s hard to tell where everyone’s going to be.”

That’s the bullpen right now. Robertson and Kelley, maybe Claiborne, and whoever doesn’t win a rotation spot. Not exactly promising. Sure, someone like Dellin Betances or Cesar Cabral or Jose Ramirez could emerge as a bullpen force, but a team that just spend $300M+ shouldn’t go into the season counting on those guys to be a factor. Girardi has a skeleton crew behind Robertson at the moment.

“In terms of the bullpen, we need to improve all the options,” said Brian Cashman at the Winter Meetings. “So when people compete in Spring Training for slots in the bullpen, hopefully it’ll be pretty obvious who slots where. There’s nobody I’m anointing as our closer. Let’s put it that way … We’d like to improve if we can. I’m looking to improve our bullpen. I’m looking for guys to come in and compete for that spot.”

Last week we heard the Yankees were in on Joaquin Benoit, who has yet to sign but appears headed to the Indians or Padres. Jen Royle reports Grant Balfour is seeking a three-year deal worth $8M annually (plus a vesting option), which seems very reasonable considering how reliable he’s been the last four or five years. The Yankees were said to have interest in him at one point a few weeks ago. The list of unsigned free agent relievers includes Jose Veras, Scott Downs, Jesse Crain, and Francisco Rodriguez, among others.

Relievers are the riskiest investment in baseball because they’re so very unpredictable, but the Yankees are stuck in a position now where they have to spend some money on bullpen help. The farm system hasn’t provided much help and outside of Kelley, the haven’t really traded for many bullpen arms in recent years. Thanks to the Rivera-Robertson tandem, the team was always able to roll the dice a bit in the middle innings because they knew the final two were locked down.

Unless the Yankees surprise everyone and add two quality starters in the next two months, they’re going to head into next season with a whole lotta question marks in the rotation. That makes the bullpen, especially the middle innings, even more important. The pitching staff as a whole is weakness right now and the bullpen stands out as something that could really derail the team next season if not addressed. The Yankees spent a ton of money to improve the club this winter, but they still have to spend a little more to upgrade the relief corps.

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(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

In replacing the 145 bullpen innings they’ve lost, the Yankees certainly need outside reinforcements. They might have a few internal players to fill some of those innings, but we can’t expect them to find all 145 within the organization. A couple of acquisitions seem probable.

One name linked to the Yankees is Joaquin Benoit, formerly of the Tigers. He seems pretty solidly in the former column, since Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski indicated that with the acquisition of Joba Chamberlain, he’s finished with his bullpen. Benoit, 36, has a number of suitors, the Yankees among them. The Padres and Indians reportedly have offers of two years and $14 million on the table, which seems reasonable. So where are the Yankees on this?

In 2013 Benoit, for the first time in his career, became a regular closer. He’d finished double-digit games in each of the previous three seasons, picking up a few saves in each, but he was never the full-time closer. Detroit, absent a “proven closer” in 2013, slid Benoit into the role with much success. The money is with closers, even older ones, as Joe Nathan proved with those very Tigers. It could be that Benoit seeks a full-time closer role, which would seemingly give the closer-absent Indians an advantage.

(The Padres have a “proven closer” of their own in Huston Street, which leaves their pursuit curious. In fact, reports have indicated that they are “in the lead,” whatever that means, so perhaps Benoit doesn’t value a closer role beyond all else.)

The Yankees could add a closer for the 2014 season, leaving David Robertson in the setup role he has so tremendously played for the past three or four seasons. That might be his ideal role, given his strikeout stuff and penchant for wiggling out of jams. But that doesn’t mean it’s the role he’ll play in the future. Ballplayers want to maximize their earnings during their relatively short window. Again, the money is there for closers.

If the Yankees don’t move Robertson into the closer’s role, they’ll probably lose him after next season to a team that will give him that opportunity. Sure, the Yankees could keep him in a setup role for 2014, and then re-sign him to be the closer in 2015 and beyond. That hardly makes any sense. Why give the guy closer money, and the closer role, when he hasn’t closed games for more than a couple weeks in his career? The prudent move, it seems, is to move Robertson into the closer role and sign a capable setup man. That way you can see what Robertson is made of, while giving him a safety net.

In that way, Benoit makes perfect sense. He’s a setup man who has had success as a closer, so if Robertson falters he could become the man. It will cost the Yankees — two years and $14 is a lot for a 36-year-old, and with three teams in the running the bidding could get higher — but he seems the perfect fit. Given the rest of the free agent market, and the unpredictable trade market, Benoit might be the Yankees best chance to help fill some of those 145 departed innings.

For the same reason, trading for a proven closer makes little sense for the Yankees. Yesterday, for instance, Buster Olney reported that the Phillies are “EXTREMELY motivated to move [Jonathan] Papelbon.” His time with the Red Sox sours him on Yankees fans, but looking beyond that he could be a good fit. You know he wants a trade to the Yankees, making him the heir to Mariano Rivera. He’d be more motivated than ever, going up against his former team six times a year.

It’s not even the money remaining on Papelbon’s deal, three years and $39 million if his 2016 option vests, that makes this a poor move. It’s the idea that with a proven closer in their ranks, Robertson could bolt for more money and a more prominent role on another team. Hell, he could bolt for the Red Sox, which is the worst possible idea. Imagine the Red Sox having an in-his-prime Robertson closing games while the Yankees have an over-the-hill (but still potentially effective) Papelbon closing theirs.

By itself, acquiring Papelbon wouldn’t be a bad idea. The Yankees obviously have the money, and Papelbon has made some adjustments to compensate for his diminishing stuff as he ages. The X factor is how this affects Robertson. If the Yankees bring in a proven closer, Robertson stands a better chance of leaving to find a closer role, and closer money, elsewhere. Why not just give Robertson the closer job in 2014 to see what he’s made of? Then they can spend that Papelbon money on Robertson if they’re satisfied.

Given the lack of relievers on the market, it might be easier to add a closer and keep Robertson in the setup role. But the easy move is rarely the correct move. The Yankees have to think beyond 2014, when they’ll need quality late-inning relievers like Robertson. To deny him the closer role in 2014 could be to lose him for 2015 and beyond. Given the mass exodus of relievers this off-season, that’s a scenario the Yankees can ill afford.

Categories : Death by Bullpen
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What Went Right: One-Run Games

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The 2013 season is over and we’ve had a week to catch our breath. It’s time to review pretty much all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the team’s strong record in one-run games.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

One year ago, the Orioles snuck into the postseason thanks in part to a historic record in one-run games. Their 29-9 (.763) record in one-run contests was the best in baseball history, yet we spent all summer expecting them to crash back to Earth. It never happened. One-run games are highly volatile just because they’re so tight — one weird bounce or bad call by an umpire can change everything. Most teams walk the .500 line in one-run games.

The 2013 Yankees were the 2012 Orioles when it came to games decided by one run, though not as extreme. They didn’t make history or anything like that, but they did have baseball’s best record in those such games at 30-16 (.652). Winning those close games definitely helped them stay in the playoff race far longer than you would have otherwise expected. I think we can both admit this club had little business being within shouting distance of a playoff spot heading into the final week of the regular season.

The 46 one-run games were the fourth fewest in baseball and right in line with New York’s last few seasons. This wasn’t some kind of anomaly; they played 47 one-run games last year (.468 winning percentage), 45 the year before (.467), and 39 the year before that (.513). The Yankees didn’t play substantially more (or fewer) one-run contests in 2013, yet their winning percentage in those games went up while their overall winning percentage (across the full 162 games) came down. Outside of those one-run games, the Yankees went 55-61 (.474) and that sucks.

There’s an awful lot that goes into being successful in one-run games, with the most obvious being bullpens. When you have David Robertson in the eighth and Mariano Rivera in the ninth, those one-run cushions in the late innings tend to turn into wins. Bullpens are absolutely a factor, but there has been quite a bit of research showing their impact on one-run contests is generally overstated. The rest of the team usually has to make it a one-run game before the bullpen comes into play. The game situation controls reliever usage, not the other way around.

Offensively, the Yankees actually fared quite a bit worse in “close and late” situations this year than they did in previous years. “Close and late” situations are defined as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later where they are tied, ahead by one run, or have the tying run on deck. Here’s a quick breakdown of the team’s “close and late” performance in recent years:

2013 1,002 0.227 0.299 0.348 91 20 8.6% 24.6% 0.290
2012 954 0.261 0.342 0.451 132 40 8.5% 20.6% 0.294
2011 925 0.221 0.316 0.348 95 21 11.1% 20.3% 0.261
2010 857 0.251 0.336 0.392 110 28 11.6% 21.8% 0.286

So the winning percentage in one-run games got better while the offense was terrible in the late innings of close games. Okay then. I mean, they had a lot of bad hitters on the roster this summer, so it’s no surprise they didn’t hit much late in the game. They didn’t hit much overall. Anecdotally, the Yankees did seem to score a bunch of runs early in games this year before the offense went to sleep in the middle innings, but the stats don’t really bear that out — they scored 221 runs in innings 1-3, 224 runs in innings 4-6, and 205 runs in innings 7+. This isn’t some kinda weird run distribution thing.

Without re-watching each game and figuring out exactly what happened, it’s close to impossible to explain why a team was successful in one-run games. Heck, Mariano Rivera blew seven (!) saves this year and five of them were one-run leads. They actually came back to win two of those five (by one run, of course), but the Yankees could have very easily been 31-15 (.674) or 32-14 (.696) in one-run contests had Rivera not had what amounts to a down season for him. The Bombers had baseball’s best record in one-run games this year for many reasons, and whether those reasons continue next year is a mystery. After that historic record last summer, the Orioles had the fifth worst record in one-run games this year (20-31, .392). The magic isn’t guaranteed to last, but it’s not guaranteed to disappear all together either.

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(Nick Laham/Getty)

(Nick Laham/Getty)

Following yesterday’s crucial extra innings win over the Rays, the Yankees confirmed right-hander Preston Claiborne will be send down to clear a roster spot for Derek Jeter. The Cap’n is coming back from his third leg injury of the year and will join the team for their series opener against the Blue Jays in Toronto. New York has been using a three-man bench since Jayson Nix broke his hand last week, so it makes sense to send a reliever down.

On the surface, keeping Joba Chamberlain over Claiborne is a head-scratcher. Claiborne (2.78 ERA/3.17 FIP) has pitched far better and appears to have entered the Circle of Trust™ — he’s entered two of his last three games with a leverage index of 1.45+. Chamberlain (4.46/5.10) has been an untrustworthy mess all season, so much so that he rarely sees even medium-leverage work. Yesterday’s tenth inning appearance (2.15 LI) was the first time he entered a game with an leverage index over 0.35 (!) since late-July and the first time over 1.00 since late-June. Joba has been relegated to mop-up duty, and even then his leash has been short.

In terms of having the best possible bullpen and 25-man roster, sending Claiborne down in favor of Joba is an obviously bad move. The bullpen will be worse off today than it was yesterday once things are made official, I think we can all agree about that. This move isn’t about having the best possible bullpen right now though. It’s about having the best possible bullpen for the remainder of the season. With Claiborne likely to join High-A Tampa, the team will circumvent the ten-day rule since Tampa’s season ends on September 1st. They can bring him back on the 2nd, one week from today. They’re trading short-term bullpen quality for long-term (long-ish term really, the season ends pretty soon) depth.

Unless Michael Pineda, David Phelps, or Vidal Nuno suddenly get healthy, the only pitchers who figure to be called up next month are Dellin Betances and Brett Marshall. I suppose the team could add someone like David Herndon to the 40-man roster, but that would be a surprise. Point is, they don’t have a ton of pitching depth at the moment. At this point, keeping Joba around is preferable to not having him at all. The Yankees aren’t in a position to give away arms, especially ones with a legit mid-90s fastball and occasionally wipeout slider. Joba has stunk of late, but there’s a chance he will contribute in a positive way in the coming weeks. It’s possible. Baseball is weird sometimes.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

“I think it’s been kind of up and down for him. Rib cage muscles can be tough to recover from. I think he has thrown better of late but we need big innings out of this guy … So he is going to have to get it done,” said Girardi to George King when asked about Joba’s role earlier this month. “I think he got into a little bit of a funk and he has been up and down … With rib cage muscles a player comes back and maybe he isn’t where he was before he got hurt but there is no pain.’’

The Yankees will play three super important games against the Orioles next weekend, and not having Claiborne for that series will suck. The good news is that they have Thursday off, a guaranteed day of rest for the bullpen. They’ll head into that series with fresh arms, at least as fresh as can be this time of year. Bullpen depth will hopefully be less of a factor these next three days as the offense does what it’s supposed to do against the second worst pitching staff in baseball. Any team can beat any other team on a given day, but if the Yankees drop two of three to the Blue Jays, someone else will have gone wrong besides keeping Joba over Claiborne.

It would be easy to sit here and rip the team for making the bullpen weaker, especially considering how important every single game is at this point. They’re not all literal must wins, but they’re damn close. I’d be looking at the trees and glossing over the forest if I ripped them though. If the Yankees want to make the postseason — 7.8% chance according to Baseball Prospectus — they need to win a lot of games, not just this week’s. Joba is better than anyone they have stashed in the minors outside of Claiborne and he can help them win games in September. That sounds silly, but so does the notion of this team being a playoff contender. They’re going to need unexpected contributions to pull this thing off and Joba pitching well in September would qualify. He can’t help them if he’s not on the roster.

Categories : Death by Bullpen
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(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Claiborne has gone from indispensable to a demotion candidate. (Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Outside of last season, when the Yankees lost Mariano Rivera to the knee injury in early-May, the team has always enjoyed a deep and productive bullpen during the Joe Girardi era. This year is no different, as New York’s relief corps has been solidly above-average with a 3.39 ERA and 3.61 FIP. Their 25.1% strikeout rate and 7.7% walk rate are the second and fifth best marks in baseball, respectively. Girardi’s bullpen has a whole has been very good this year yet again.

The weird thing about bullpen is that its usage depends largely on the game situation. The starting rotation is on a set schedule and while the lineup is tailored to the handedness of the opposing starter, it doesn’t really change throughout the course of a game. Which relievers are used on a given night depends entirely on the score, the inning, the opposing batter, basically everything you have no way of knowing going into the game. Bullpen usage is unpredictable on a day to day basis.

Because the Yankees don’t score many runs and are forced to play in close games night after night, Girardi has had to use David Robertson and Rivera probably more than he would like so far. Robertson is on pace for a career-high 71 appearances while Rivera is on pace for 67 appearances, which would be his most since 2007, the year before Girardi was hired. Both guys have appeared in five of the last eight games and ten of the last 20 games. That’s a lot of work.

Unless the Yankees magically start scoring a bunch more runs, they’re only going to continue playing close games as the division and playoff races get tighter in the second half. That means even more stressful innings for Robertson and Rivera. Shawn Kelley has emerged as a fine seventh inning option (2.05 ERA and 1.89 FIP in 22 innings since May 1st) and Adam Warren has pitched about as well as a long reliever can be expected to pitch, but Joba Chamberlain has been a disaster since coming off the DL and Preston Claiborne has hit a (really) rough path of late. The middle innings are a bit of a mess right now.

So while improving the offense needs to be priorities one, two, and the three leading up to the deadline, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Yankees to seek out a late-inning reliever type to partner with Robertson and Rivera, just to lighten the load down the stretch. The team’s internal options right now aren’t all that great:

  • RHP Mark Montgomery: Currently on the Triple-A DL with a shoulder problem. He was dealing with Kevin Whelan Syndrome when healthy anyway. Disappointing year.
  • RHP Chase Whitley: Has a 4.22 ERA and 3.20 FIP while repeating Triple-A. Middle reliever type more than a high-leverage guy.
  • RHP Matt Daley: Has a 1.57 ERA and 2.02 FIP across three minor league levels after missing most of 2011 and all of 2012 following shoulder surgery. Another middle reliever type.
  • RHP David Herndon: Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and expected to be ready sometime later this month or early-August. Ken Rosenthal says Herndon has been up to 94 mph recently. He was a middle reliever with the Phillies.
  • RHP Dellin Betances: He’s been killing it as a reliever — 2.27 ERA and 1.93 FIP in 31.2 innings — since making the switch in early-May. Easily the best bullpen option at this very moment.

When Betances is your best internal option for a late-inning bullpen arm, it’s probably best to see what’s available on the trade market. I supposed the Yankees could stick either Phil Hughes or Michael Pineda in the bullpen (with the other staying in the rotation), but that seems very unlikely at this point.

Trading for bullpen help is a very risky proposition because of the volatility of the position, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil. The Yankees aren’t at that point yet. Finding a running mate for Robertson and Rivera is just something that is on the radar and not imperative at the moment. They should keep an ear to the bullpen market ground to see if a 2010 Kerry Wood-type (Matt Thornton?) becomes available in the coming weeks, but that’s something they do all the time anyway.

The Yankees aren’t desperate for bullpen help like some of their competitors — the Red Sox and Tigers, specifically — but I don’t think they should be completely comfortable with their reliever situation either. Joba seems likely to be traded before the end of the month and Kelley is a bit too homer prone to be fully trusted in the late innings of close games. No one knows what to expect from Claiborne. There’s some uncertainty there beyond Robertson and Rivera, which is a little scary given their recent workload and the sheer number of close games this team plays.

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The rarely seen Adam Warren. (Al Bello/Getty)

The rarely seen Adam Warren. (Getty)

Two weeks and one day ago, the Yankees and Dodgers were rained out at Yankee Stadium. They played a doubleheader the next day and that forced New York to call up Ivan Nova for a spot start four days later. Nova has remained with the team ever since that spot start ten days ago, meaning they’ve been playing with an eight-man bullpen and a three-man bench for more than a week. That’s no big deal for a day or two, but ten is pushing it.

The three-man bench has come back to bite them in just one painfully obvious way so far, in the ninth inning of Sunday’s loss to the Orioles. Lyle Overbay started the inning with a double, but the next three batters were Jayson Nix, Chris Stewart, and David Adams. The only hitters on the bench were Alberto Gonzalez and Austin RomineVernon Wells was used off the bench in the eighth — so Joe Girardi had no real option to pitch-hit and the rally was soon snuffed out. Having that one extra bat would have been a help.

While the bench has been a man short, the bullpen has been a man heavy. Girardi opted to use Nova over Adam Warren in long relief of an ineffective David Phelps this past Saturday, which is fine except that Warren has now appeared in just four (!) games in the last 33 days. One of those outings last one batter (last night). I get that long relievers work on irregular schedules and could go a week or so between appearances, but that’s just ridiculous. There’s no need to carry two long men, not when the offense has trouble scoring runs and you’re playing a position player short.

Now, the elephant in the room here is that there are no obvious call-up candidates in Triple-A to help the bench. Outfielder Brennan Boesch, infielder Corban Joseph, and utility man Ronnie Mustelier are all on the minor league DL, so they aren’t options. Thomas Neal, who was sent down to make room for Nova ten days ago, is eligible to come back up today, so he’s an option. Then again, adding another right-handed bat to a three-righty bench is less than ideal.

That leaves a bunch of Quad-A types as call-up candidates: outfielder and former top prospect Fernando Martinez, corner infielder Dan Johnson, first baseman/DH Randy Ruiz, outfielder Corey Patterson, and utility man Brent Lillibridge. Johnson is the only one of those four who has been with the organization all year — the rest were acquired in the last two weeks or so. Martinez (177 wRC+) has been hitting the best with Triple-A Scranton, though Lillibridge has a strong big league season to his credit in the not too distant past (125 wRC+ in 2011) and can play almost everywhere. Martinez, Johnson, and Patterson are lefty hitters.

The 40-man roster is not a problem at the moment. The Yankees currently have one open 40-man spot, plus both Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis can be transferred over to the 60-day DL at any time given their injuries. We’re not talking about clogging up the 40-man with another prospect, it’ll be a spare part who can be designated for assignment at a moment’s notice. The only thing standing in the way is the decision to demote either Warren or Nova. Frankly, I don’t care which one goes, but one should.

Hiroki Kuroda‘s minor hip problem means both Nova and Warren will stick around for another few days, but as soon as Kuroda is ready to rejoin the rotation, I’d send one of the two long men down in favor of an extra bat. I’d probably go with Johnson myself, just because he’d add a lefty bat who can actually hit the ball out of the park on occasion to the bench. The Yankees need some more homerun power. He could also spot start at first base and DH, which would help given the suddenly long-standing struggles of Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner.

Two long men and three-man bench doesn’t do this team much good as presently constructed. Adding an extra position player is something they should consider doing as soon as Kuroda is healthy enough to make one of Nova and Warren unnecessary.

Categories : Bench, Death by Bullpen
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Last night’s victory was the 54th game of the season for the Yankees, otherwise known as the one-third point. The Bombers are on pace to go 93-69, which I think exceeds expectations coming into the year. For a while the mantra was just tread water until the injured guys come back, but instead New York is tied for first place in the AL East with the Red Sox. Of course, they’re also just two games out of fourth place in the loss column. The division is as tight as anticipated so far.

The old saying is that the first third of the season is for evaluating, the second third is for making changes, and the final third is for riding those changes out. So, with that in mind, lets take a look at what happened over the last two months to see where the Yankees need to improve and where they can stand pat.

(Rob Carr/Getty)

(Rob Carr/Getty)

Rock Solid: The Starting Rotation
The Yankees have already used seven different starters in 2013, and collectively they’ve pitched to a 3.79 ERA (3.88 FIP) in 318.1 innings. Hiroki Kuroda (2.39 ERA/3.37 FIP) has emerged as the ace with CC Sabathia (3.71/3.75) running into some early troubles, which are almost certainly related to his overall loss in velocity. He’s getting up there in age and there are a lot of miles on that arm, it happens. Sabathia showed last night that it’s a little too early to pen that career obituary — the ability to be an ace is still in there.

As expected, Phil Hughes (4.97/4.70) and David Phelps (4.32/3.42) have had some ups and downs. Ivan Nova (6.48/3.66) lost his rotation spot to Phelps thanks in part to a triceps injury that landed him on the DL for close to a month, but he was on his way to losing the job based on his performance anyway. Andy Pettitte (3.83/4.16) has been his typically reliable self when he’s actually been on the mound — back and trap issues have limited him to just eight starts so far. Those nagging issues have given Vidal Nuno (2.12/4.24) a shot, and he’s done well in three spots starts.

With two aces (potentially), a rock solid number three (when healthy), and a collection of four back-end guys, the Yankees do have some rotation depth and appear to be in good shape going forward. Obviously that can change in an instant, but the rotation is not a pressing need right now. I don’t think they have enough depth to trade away a starter, but it shouldn’t be completely off the table under the right circumstances. The rotation was going to have to carry this club early on, and it has.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

Needs Work: The Offense
It’s been a long, long time since the Yankees fielded an everyday lineup this bad. They average just 4.1 runs per game — they’ve scored the fewest runs in the division by 19 (!) — with a team 89 wRC+, their worst offensive attack since the early-1990s. Yeah, it’s been a while. Obviously losing Mark Teixeira (wrist), Kevin Youkilis (back), Alex Rodriguez (hip), Derek Jeter (ankle), and Curtis Granderson (forearm, hand) for extended periods of time hasn’t helped matters.

Robinson Cano (133 wRC+) has been the rock in the middle of the lineup even though he’s run a little cold of late. Vernon Wells (100 wRC+) and Travis Hafner (126 wRC+) were outstanding in April before hitting the skids in May, but they’ve been Cano’s primary running mates in the middle of the order. Brett Gardner (103 wRC+) has done a good job of setting the table all season, and Frankie Cervelli (138 wRC+) was a big contributor before a foul tip broke his hand and sent him to the DL. Lyle Overbay (98 wRC+) chipped in some big hits during Teixeira’s absence.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Shortstop and right field have been big problem areas this year, ditto catcher since Cervelli’s injury. A collection of replacement level types — Eduardo Nunez, Reid Brignac, Jayson Nix, and Alberto Gonzalez — have mustered a 53 wRC+ filling in for Jeter while Ichiro Suzuki (65 wRC+) has done most of the damage himself in right. Chris Stewart (80 wRC+) and Austin Romine (-35 wRC+) have been just awful since Cervelli got hurt. Brennan Boesch (120 wRC+) and David Adams (78 wRC+) have been alright in part-time roles, Ben Francisco (12 wRC+) and Chris Nelson (36 wRC+) … not so much. Those last two guys have already been dropped from the roster.

Teixeira and Youkilis returned to the lineup just last night, and while they will be a nice boost, the Yankees still need more offensively. Granderson, Jeter, and Cervelli aren’t returning anytime soon, so the club should probably explore trade scenarios for right, short, and behind the plate. Shortstop is the big one to me; Jeter has already had one setback and it shouldn’t be a surprise if his rehab continues to progress slowly. There aren’t many quality shortstops out there to be had, but I do think the Yankees should look hard for one, even if they have to overpay a bit. It’s been a major weakness.

Exceeding Expectations: The Bullpen
We’ve gotten used to the Bombers having strong bullpens over the years, and this season is no different. Joe Girardi‘s relief corps owns a stellar 3.28 ERA (3.35 FIP) in 164.2 innings, and they have the fifth highest strikeout rate (9.73 K/9 and 26.0 K%) in all the land. Unsurprisingly, Mariano Rivera (1.77 ERA/2.47 FIP) and David Robertson (2.78/3.20) have been rocks in the late-innings.



Joba Chamberlain (3.38/2.88) missed a month with an oblique injury, allowing both Shawn Kelley (5.57/3.59) and call-up Preston Claiborne (0.61/2.45) to emerge as middle inning weapons. Kelley has been a strikeout machine of late, whiffing 21 of the last 39 men he’s faced (53.8%). Boone Logan (1.80/2.86) has been fine overall as Girardi’s only southpaw. Adam Warren (2.10/3.34) has proven to be as reliable a long man as you’ll find. Nova spent a few days in long relief as well, but as since been sent to Triple-A. Others like Cody Eppley, Brett Marshall, and David Huff have come and gone with little or no impact. That collection of non-Rivera/Robertson relievers have really done an excellent job.

Outside of maybe adding a second left-hander — Clay Rapada is in Triple-A and Cesar Cabral is working his way back up the rehab ladder — the Yankees are pretty well set in the bullpen. Again, that could change in a hurry, but right now there are more than enough bodies for each role: long relief, middle relief, and late-innings. It’s been speculated that Joba could be made available in a trade given the emergence of Claiborne and Kelley, but I don’t see it happening at this point in time. Maybe in a few weeks.

* * *

The Yankees have exceeded expectations so far thanks mostly to the pitching staff. A handful of position players chipped in a few big weeks, but overall the offense remains a concern going forward. For an AL East team in a small ballpark, a little more than four runs a game just isn’t good enough. The injured guys will be back at some point, but I don’t think the team should just sit around and wait. If there’s an upgrade available, they need to pounce and worry about the roster logjam later. New York has more obvious needs right now than at any other one-third point in recent memory.

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For the first few weeks of the season, the Yankees bullpen was a bit of a mess. Specifically, the non-David Robertson and Mariano Rivera part of the bullpen was a mess. The trio of Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and Shawn Kelley combined to allow 31 base-runners and 13 runs in 17.1 innings during the first 15 games of the season, so the bridge from starter to Robertson was rather adventurous for a while. It was also a problem given the team’s low-caliber offense.

The middle relief issues lasted until mid-to-late-April, when Joba hit the DL and some of his bullpeners improved their performance. Over the last 30 days, the Yankees have the best bullpen ERA (2.49) and second best bullpen FIP (3.35) in the league. Their season ERA is down to 3.32 (3.47 FIP), the fifth best mark the AL. Any conversation about New York’s bullpen starts with Robertson and Rivera, but the other guys have really picked up the slack of late.

One of those other guys is a new face who wasn’t around for the early season struggles, right-hander Preston Claiborne. The 25-year-old was called up when Joba was placed on the DL, and he’s since struck out five while walking zero in eight scoreless innings across six appearances. Joe Girardi apparently has enough faith in him that he used him in the seventh inning or later of a two or fewer run game three times in those six appearances, including three of the first four. Talk about being thrown into the fire.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

“We were impressed with him in Spring Training, and we left thinking he could help us at some point this year, and he’s doing that right now,” said Brian Cashman about Claiborne recently. “You never know how a guy is going to act when he gets here, but he’s the same guy he was in Spring Training, and he’s probably gaining confidence every day.”

In addition to adding Claiborne, the Yankees have benefited from Kelley settling down after a nightmarish first few weeks in pinstripes. Over his last ten appearances, the 29-year-old owns a 3.18 ERA (~0.90 FIP) (!)) and has struck out exactly half of the 44 batters he faced. He’s struck out 15 of the last 21 (!) men he’s faced across his last four appearances. Kelley leads all of baseball with a 43.4% strikeout rate (min. 10 IP) after coming into the year with a career 22.6% strikeout rate. He’s throwing his low-80s slider more than ever before, basically half the time these days, which is the likely explanation for all the whiffs.

Thanks to all of those strikeouts, Kelley is pitching like the best-case Mark Montgomery scenario right now. We all expected Montgomery to bring his vicious slider to the show and pile up the strikeouts at some point, yet Kelley is the one doing that job right now. He isn’t walking anyone either (just four unintentional walks). Kelley’s homer-prone ways — five homers in 18.1 innings (2.45 HR/9 and 27.8% HR/FB) — will hold him back from being a true high-leverage option, but a reliever who can miss bats like that is a very valuable weapon in the middle innings. The ability to snuff out a rally without having to rely on the defense is huge, we’ve seen that from Robertson in recent years.

“I’ve never been on a team that has the expectations of just winning and thinking World Series as their only goal,” said Kelley to Chad Jennings recently. “To have that feeling every night, even if I go in and just get some outs in a win, it feels really good to just help the club win. I’m having a lot of fun on this team … It’s a fun way to win.”

With Adam Warren emerging as a long-man extraordinaire, Claiborne and Kelley have stepped up to solidify the middle relief ahead of Robertson and Rivera. Logan needs to settle down and start getting lefties out — they’re hitting .296/.296/.444 (.320 wOBA) against him so far — but otherwise the bullpen has fallen into place. The Yankees play an awful lot of close games these days, so having a bullpen that can consistently shut the other team down and preserve leads/keep the deficit small is a big reason why they sit atop the AL East at the moment.

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Death Strength by Bullpen

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(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Don’t look now, but the Yankees bullpen has been really good of late. Before Brett Marshall bit the bullet last night, they amassed the fifth highest cumulative WAR (1.8) in Major League Baseball — trailing only the Rockies, Tigers, White Sox, and Twins. Over 133.2 innings, the Yankees relief core has produced a 9.42 K/9 rate, surrendered only 2.53 BB/9 and 0.95 HR/9, complimented by a 3.33 ERA (3.24 FIP / 3.18 xFIP). Let’s take a look at some of the big contributors.

It all begins and ends with Mo
After missing most of the 2012 campaign, Mariano has returned with a vengeance. He’s already accumulated 16 saves (with no blown opportunities). His velocity has primarily sat in the 88-92 mph range, while his patented cutter continues dominate. To say right handed batters have had slightly more success against The Sandman would be true (.307 wOBA). However, to say that any batter has been generally successful overall against Mo this season would be false (.205 wOBA overall). When the ninth arrives, so does Mo, without compromise and in vintage form.

Girardi’s (setup) crew
The road to Mo is also pretty well paved. David Robertson has embraced his duties as the official set up man while Joba Chamberlain has handled the seventh fairly effectively (prior to injury). I really can’t get enough of Robertson either. Even though he occasionally puts me on edge with his Houdini act, his strikeout rate is certainly prolific (11.02/9). What’s more, 55.6% of his first pitches are thrown for strikes, and interesting enough, batters have swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone (33.3%) then they have in the past against him (career 25.2 O-Swing%) so far. As for Joba, his 6.75 K/9 and 5.79 BB/9 peripherals aren’t quite where you’d like them to be overall. However, prior to straining his right oblique, Joba had been looking increasingly comfortable on the mound. More importantly, his velocity seems to be right where it should be considering he isn’t all that far removed from Tommy John surgery.

Behold! The obligatory LOOGY
After pitching in 80 (!) games last season, I was pretty confident Boone Logan was going to be toast this season. I was thinking back to the days of Joe Torre when guys like Paul Quantrill, Tanyon Sturtze, Tom Gordon and Scott Proctor had their arms basically turned into mush. Early on this season, it sure appeared to be heading in that direction too. Give old Boone credit though. He has pitched in 10.1 innings, and managed a 2.61 ERA (3.79 FIP, 2.39 xFIP) with a 10.45 K/9 rate. That’ll do. Curiously, for a guy who’s primary function is to get left handers out, he’s actually shown more of a reverse split (.352 vs. 349 wOBA). I suspect this more of a byproduct though of a small sample size, and will probably normalize over the course of the season.

(Nick Laham/Getty)

(Nick Laham/Getty)

The other guys
The Yankees have also found productivity from some of the less recognizable names. Mike gave Adam Warren his due yesterday. Preston Claiborne has also done a great job on the mound in limited opportunity. Anecdotally, the kid looks composed out there, and because of it I tend to have an irrational calm every time he’s pitches. He hasn’t shown very much in the strike out department (5.14 K/9), but he’s done a good job of not giving up free bases (no walks). Claiborne has also demonstrated a willingness to use a slider and a changeup in addition to his fastball, which I personally appreciate.

Overall, Cashman has done a pretty good job of piecing together quality bullpens over the past several seasons, which is important as it seems to be an increasingly specialized (and valued) part of the game. I think it’s worth acknowledging that a fair portion of the team’s success this season can also be attributed to the bullpen given the current roster construction.

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(Jason Miller/Getty)

(Jason Miller/Getty)

Coming into this season, Adam Warren was at a weird place in his career. He repeated the Triple-A level in 2012 and pitched marginally better than he had in 2011, but not well enough to really force his way into the team’s plans. His disastrous one-start big league stint last summer didn’t help matters either. Warren was stuck in spare arm purgatory, a nice pitcher to have in the organization but hardly a cornerstone.

Instead of going back to Scranton for a third stint at Triple-A, the 25-year-old Warren made the team out of Spring Training with an assist from Phil Hughes‘ balky back. It was basically a repeat of last year, when David Phelps unexpectedly made the club out of camp thanks to Michael Pineda‘s shoulder. An injury to a projected starter forced the projected long man into the rotation, creating an opening in the bullpen. Phelps took advantage last year and Warren is looking to do the same now.

“I think Dave kind of started something last year when he came up and did well,” said Warren to Mark Feinsand on Monday. “For us guys down in the minor leagues, we’re kind of like, ‘Well, we might have a chance to help this team.’ So you kind of get that little bit of glimmer of hope. Now, this year, guys are getting some opportunities and we’re trying to take advantage of them. We have that confidence coming up that we know we can get outs, so I think that really helped us.”

In seven relief appearances this year, Warren has posted a 1.45 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 18.2 innings. Four of those seven outings lasted at least two innings, including his first (one run in 5.1 innings) and most recent (four scoreless innings) appearances. His strikeout rate isn’t anything special (7.23 K/9 and 20.3%) despite an above-average 10.4% overall whiff rate, but he has limited walks (2.89 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%) and gotten a ton of ground balls (52.8%). They aren’t the kind of peripherals that make you think he’s worthy of higher leverage work, but they’re plenty good enough to succeed in this role.

Warren hasn’t changed his approach much in relief, mostly because he’s turned lineups over a few times and needed to use all his pitches. His fastball has averaged 92.3 mph and topped out at 94.1 mph — a tick or two better than what he usually does as a starter — and he’s thrown his mid-80s slider and low-80s changeup nearly 20% of the time each. He’s thrown his upper-70s curveball once out of every ten pitches as well. Most guys scrap their third or fourth best pitch when they move into the bullpen, even long relief, but Warren has stuck with the kitchen sink approach.

“You just have to stay mentally focused,” said Warren to Chad Jennings earlier this month when asked about his role. “Things can change so quick. For me personally, I try to have a good attitude about whatever role I’m in. Opportunities arise. You do have to stay kind of mentally focused even though you may not be pitching in games that are close to start out with, just try to stay sharp for when you do get that opportunity.”

I wasn’t quite sure where Warren fit with the Yankees after last season, at least beyond being an extra arm in Triple-A for emergencies. It seemed like he was, at best, the team’s seventh starter and tradeable prospect. Kinda sorta useful. To his credit, Warren has taken advantage of his opportunity and become a valuable multi-inning reliever, someone capable of soaking up some bulk innings in blowouts without sending Joe Girardi to the bullpen phone every time a runner reaches base. He might only be the 22nd or 23rd man on the roster, but he’s pitched himself up the depth chart after being the 38th or 39th man on the 40-man roster just a few weeks ago.

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