The Two Fifth Starter Candidates with Different Bullpen Roles [2015 Season Preview]

It’s no secret the Yankees are heading into the regular season with some significant health concerns in the rotation. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda have all made it through Spring Training just fine up to this point, though that could change in an instant, either now in March or at some point during the season. On top of that, Chris Capuano will be out several weeks with a quad strain. One of the starters who wasn’t supposed to get hurt got hurt.

Capuano’s injury has forced the Yankees to hold a fifth starter competition in camp. While guys like Bryan Mitchell, Chase Whitley, and Scott Baker are being stretched out and throwing multiple innings per appearance during Grapefruit League play, the fifth starter competition is basically a two-horse race between Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers. Those two were supposed to compete for the sixth starter’s job — the Yankees have indicated they want to use a strategic sixth starter on occasion this year to rest the other starters — but now they’re fighting for the fifth spot.

Either way, starter or reliever, Warren and Rogers are locks to make the Opening Day roster. Their roles as relievers would be very different, however. Let’s preview New York’s two sixth-turned-fifth starter candidates.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Warren In The Rotation: Uncharted Territory

All signs point to Warren being the favorite for the fifth starter’s job right now. He’s performed better than Rogers during Grapefruit League play and it seems like the Yankees want him to be the fifth starter, at least until Capuano gets healthy. They haven’t come out and said that, but we can read between the lines. Warren appears to be the heavy favorite.

Warren is about to enter his third full season with the Yankees, though his track record as a big league starter is very short. He’s made three career starts in pinstripes:

  1. June 29th, 2012: Six runs on eight hits and two walks in 2.1 innings against the White Sox. Warren’s big league debut was ugly.
  2. August 21st, 2013: Two runs on four hits and two walks in three innings against the Blue Jays. He was on a strict pitch count (60 pitches) during the spot start.
  3. September 27th, 2013: Two hits in five scoreless innings against the Astros in Game 160. Both teams had been eliminated from the postseason and Houston’s players checked out for the season in, like, June.

That doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Warren can do as a starter in 2015. It doesn’t tell us anything, really. Warren was a starter all throughout college and in the minor leagues, though he gained experience and presumably confidence while working in the bullpen these last two years. He’s a different pitcher now, and while I think that increases Warren’s chances of success as a starter, it doesn’t guarantee it.

One thing we do know about Warren is his repertoire and pitch selection. Even as a reliever the last two seasons he regularly used five pitches, so he has the arsenal to start. Here are his pitch usage percentages since breaking into MLB (via Brooks Baseball):

Adam Warren pitch selection

Ignore 2012. That is only one game worth of data. As a long reliever in 2013, Warren used all five pitches at least 10% of the time and four of his five pitches at least 18% of the time. He used everything. In a short relief role last year, he scaled back on his sinker and curveball and stuck mostly with his four-seamer and slider. Warren emphasized his two best pitches in last season’s short reliever role like most short relievers.

As a starter I would expect Warren to scale up the usage of his sinker and curve, though that experience factor I discussed earlier could come into play here. Warren may feel the sinker isn’t worth the trouble — it had a below average 42.5% ground ball rate from 2012-13 (MLB average for a sinker is 49.5%) — and stick with his four-seamer as his main fastball, making him a four-pitch pitcher. That’s not automatically a bad thing! The sinker has been his least effective pitch as a big leaguer, so pushing that aside in favor of his better pitches may equal a more effective Warren overall.

We’re basically just guessing here. Warren has no meaningful track record as a starter in MLB and it’s close to impossible to know what he can do taking a regular turn in the rotation. We do know he’s a big league caliber pitcher though, at least in relief, and he has a deep enough repertoire to turn a lineup over two or three times even without the sinker. The question is whether Warren can be effective while pacing himself as a starter rather than airing it out as a reliever.

Warren In The Bullpen: Setup Reliever

Should the unexpected happen and Warren start the season in the bullpen, he figures to move right back into the role he held last year, that late-inning setup guy. He’d probably be Joe Girardi‘s number two righty behind Dellin Betances since David Carpenter hasn’t yet had the opportunity to enter the Circle of Trust™. There’s even an off chance Warren could close — Girardi has mentioned that as a possibility this spring.

Warren was outstanding last year, throwing 78.2 innings with a 2.97 ERA (2.89 FIP) and good to great strikeout (8.69 K/9 and 23.5 K%), walk (2.75 BB/9 and 7.4 BB%), and ground ball (45.4%) rates. His velocity also ticked up noticeably, averaging 95.2 mph in short relief in 2014 after averaging 93.9 mph in long relief in 2013. With the caveat that relievers can start sucking at any time for no apparent reason, I would expect Warren to match if not improve upon last season’s performance this year if he again fills a setup role.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Rogers In The Rotation: Ugly Track Record

Unlike Warren, Rogers has spent time as a regular MLB starter, making 43 starts with the Rockies, Blue Jays, and Yankees in his career. (He made that one spot start soon after being acquired last August.) Twenty-two of those 43 starts came with the Rockies and seven of those 22 came in Coors Field. Here are Esmil’s career numbers as a starter and reliever:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB%
as SP 225.2 5.50 4.72 16.5% 8.6% 48.2% 14.4%
as RP 195.1 5.58 4.10 21.2% 8.9% 43.6% 11.5%

That’s not very good! Rogers has been less bad as a reliever when you look at strikeout rate, home run rate, and … well, that’s about it. There’s not much to like here, though these are career stats, and I’d put more value in what Rogers did from 2012-14 (4.91 ERA and 4.35 FIP) than what he did from 2009-11 (6.57 ERA and 4.57 FIP). That doesn’t really help things, I guess.

The Yankees clearly like something about Rogers. He has good stuff — his fastball has sat north of 93 mph his entire career and his slider has had at least a 17.2% swing-and-miss rate every year since 2010, better than the 15.2% league average — and he’s a converted position player who may be a late blooper. (Rogers is an ex-shortstop who didn’t start pitching until 2007.) The club has had some success with starters exceeding expectations under pitching coach Larry Rothschild in recent years and perhaps they’re banking on that with Rogers.

Rogers In The Bullpen: Swingman

Again, unlike Warren, Rogers would not step into some sort of setup role should he fail to win the fifth starter’s spot. He’s stretched out and his greatest value to the team comes as a swingman, someone who can spot start if needed or throw five innings out of the bullpen. Rogers has had success as a one-inning reliever — 3.06 ERA (3.13 FIP) in that role with the Indians in 2012 — but this is a “what have you done for me lately” business. Warren was excellent in a setup role last year. Rogers hasn’t done that for the Yankees. He’s a swingman all the way, assuming he loses the fifth starter’s spot to Warren.

email

Capuano injury, plan for Tanaka could change way Yanks build early-season bullpen

Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be far-fetched. (Presswire)
Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be so far-fetched. (Presswire)

Last week the Yankees lost projected fifth starter Chris Capuano for several weeks with a Grade II right quad strain. Capuano is the team’s most replaceable starter but that doesn’t mean the loss is insignificant. Someone else has to fill that rotation spot now and chances are it will be someone who was slated to open the year in the bullpen, either Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers, most likely. The loss will be felt somewhere.

The Yankees have also been discussing using a six-man rotation early in the season — not necessarily a strict six-man rotation, but rather strategically using a sixth starter on occasion to give the other guys rest. That makes sense considering Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda all have some kind of health concern. In fact, the team is planning to use Tanaka specifically every sixth day early in the season, according to Kevin Kernan.

The Yankees have a plan to keep Masahiro Tanaka as healthy as possible, and that means giving him an extra day of rest now and during the season so he pitches every sixth day.

“It’s something we’d like to do,’’ one Yankees official told The Post on Friday of keeping the rotation on a six-day spin.

Tanaka worked on a six-day schedule in Japan until signing with the Yankees last winter, and given his elbow situation, the extra day could be beneficial both short and long-term. April off-days and a strategic sixth starter will help the Yankees accomplish their goal of starting Tanaka every sixth day, though Capuano’s injury complicates things a little bit because it changes the bullpen construction.

Assuming Warren or Rogers replaces Capuano in the rotation — I think it’ll be Warren personally, but there are still three weeks of Spring Training to go — five of the seven bullpen spots are set:

  1. Dellin Betances
  2. Andrew Miller
  3. David Carpenter
  4. Justin Wilson
  5. Warren or Rogers
  6. ?
  7. ?

There are no shortage of candidates for those last two spots. Finding bodies won’t be difficult. The Yankees have the luxury of filling those spots any way they want because of all the available options. And with Capuano hurt and the Yankees wanting to start Tanaka every sixth day, the most practical way to fill both spots may be with long men. At least temporarily.

Baker. (Presswire)
Baker. (Presswire)

The thinking is one of those two long men — it would really be three long men in the bullpen when you include the Warren/Rogers spot — could step in as the sixth starter as needed to spell Tanaka (and the other starters) every so often. That would leave at least one more long man for other days, in case Warren/Rogers or any of the other starters go short. This isn’t rocket science, the more relievers in the bullpen who can throw multiple innings, the better.

Planning to carry multiple long men is one thing, but actually having multiple viable long men is another. The Yankees started last season with three relievers who could have been considered long relievers (Warren, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno), but that was a bit of an outlier. You don’t see many teams break camp with three guys like that. (I thought the Yankees would sent at least one to Triple-A to stay stretched out as the sixth starter, but nope.)

Here are the club’s long man candidates still in big league camp (listed alphabetically), assuming Warren and Rogers will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity no matter what:

  • Scott Baker: Veteran guy who threw 80.2 generally ineffective innings (5.47 ERA and 4.78 FIP) for the Rangers last year. He’s thrown four innings across a pair of appearances this spring.
  • Kyle Davies: Threw 154.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year and hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2011. He’s thrown four innings in three appearances during Grapefruit League play.
  • Jose DePaula: DePaula has dealt with numerous injuries in recent years and was limited to 51.1 innings in Triple-A last year. He’s made just one appearance this spring, throwing two innings.
  • Bryan Mitchell: Eleven innings in MLB last year and another 103 in the minors. He threw 145.1 minor league innings back in 2013. Mitchell has thrown four innings in two appearances this spring.
  • Chase Whitley: Made the conversion from bullpen to rotation last year and threw a career high 107 innings, including 75.2 in MLB. He’s thrown seven innings this spring, appearing in three games.

We can group these five guys into three different … well, groups. The Yankees have nothing invested in Baker and Davies long-term. They’re older pitchers trying to hang on and the team will not hesitate to run them into the ground, then designate them for assignment. It sounds rough but that’s baseball. Baker and Davies aren’t stupid, they know where they are at this stage of their careers.

Mitchell is an actual prospect and the Yankees do have reason to protect him with an eye towards the future. Mitchell will turn 24 next month and he’s also the least MLB ready of the bunch despite making his debut last season. He could use some more Triple-A time for fine-tuning. DePaula and Whitley are somewhere in the middle. Not really potential pieces of the long-term puzzle like Mitchell but probably not guys the Yankees would abuse a la Baker and Davies either.

The Yankees don’t have to decide on those final bullpen spots for a few weeks and by then they should have a better idea of Capuano’s timetable. If he’s expected back relatively soon, within the first week or two of the regular season, they could opt to take a short reliever who can be optioned down when Capuano’s healthy to make life easy. If he’ll miss a few weeks and not return until closer May, carrying two long relievers like, say, Baker and Whitley early on could make sense if the Yankees intend to stick to their strategic sixth starter plan.

Chris Capuano’s injury complicates pitching situation and creates an opportunity

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two batters into yesterday afternoon’s game, the Yankees lost left-hander Chris Capuano for what is expected to be several weeks with a Grade II right quad strain. It was a fluke injury — Capuano was covering first base on a ground ball and landed awkwardly on the bag. That’s all. Not exactly an uncommon baseball injury.

The big problem here is Capuano was supposed to be one of the starters who didn’t get hurt. We were all supposed to start the year waiting for Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow to give or CC Sabathia‘s knee to crumble while complaining about Capuano slopballing is way through five or six innings every fifth day. Capuano was supposed to be the guy who stayed healthy.

“We’ll look at everyone, that’s the bottom line. Because we need to fill a spot now,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings following yesterday’s game. The Yankees will now dip into their pitching reserves to bolster the rotation early in the season, something we expected to happen pretty much all winter. We just didn’t think they’d be replacing Capuano. Here’s a look at the team’s options at the moment.

Internal Options: Warren, Rogers, Mitchell, Whitley

Adam Warren, Esmil Rogers, Bryan Mitchell, and Chase Whitley are all working as starters in camp for this exact reason: to be ready to step into the rotation if needed. Others like Luis Severino, Jose DePaula, and Scott Baker are in camp as non-roster players and yeah, I guess that makes them rotation candidates, but I get the sense they are deep depth options, not guys being seriously considered for the Opening Day rotation.

Warren was mentioned as a rotation candidate every time a starter got hurt last season and for whatever reason I get the sense this spring he’s the guy the Yankees want to use as a starter if necessary, and it is necessary now thanks to Capuano’s quad. Warren’s been successful as a reliever these last two years but he has enough pitches to start, came up through the system as a starter, and it seems like the Yankees believe he can be an effective MLB starter.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the same time, both Girardi and Brian Cashman recently went out of their way to praise Rogers, who spent a few years floundering as a starter with the Rockies earlier in his career. “(Rogers has) thrown the ball really well. Larry (Rothschild) worked with him long and hard last year during some bullpen sessions about changing a few things … He’s been really good this spring. He’ll be one of the guys we’re really looking at,” said Girardi to Jennings yesterday, for example.

Mitchell probably has the best raw arm of the group but is the most green of the bunch. He could use some more time in Triple-A to iron a few things out, particularly his fastball location. Whitley had a nice little run as a starter last year before the league figured him out, though he has three pitches, and as long as he has three pitches, the Yankees might as well keep working him as a starter.

The Yankees have only played a week’s worth of Grapefruit League games, so none of these guys have had a chance to jump to the front of the pack yet. Besides, Spring Training performance isn’t — or shouldn’t be, anyway — the only factor in this decision. My hunch is this four-man race is really a two-man race between Warren and Rogers. It’s their job to lose, not someone else’s to win.

External Options? Probably Not Happening

When Yu Darvish blew out his elbow a few days ago, Rangers GM Jon Daniels said they will fill his rotation spot internally. When Marcus Stroman tore his ACL earlier this week, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said they will replace him internally. That’s the standard operation procedure time of year. Everyone says they will replace injured players internally because saying “we’re going to make a trade” just isn’t smart business. It makes you look desperate.

Like it or not, the Yankees are not going to trade for Cole Hamels because Capuano got hurt. (Hamels is the kind of move that gets made regardless of the status of guys like Capuano.) They’re probably not going to take on $5.3M in salary and give up a prospect to get Dillon Gee either. The Yankees might scour the scrap heap for an out of options arm — Mariners changeup specialist Erasmo Ramirez is also out of minor league options and another name to keep in mind — these next few weeks, but I don’t expect a move to bring in a no-doubt big leaguer.

Remember, when starters were dropping like flies early last year, the Yankees cycled through their internal options to make sure they did need to go outside the organization for help before actually doing so. I expect the same this year. They might pluck someone off waivers or make a minor trade for depth, but a significant move isn’t happening. At least not right now. Their M.O. in recent years has been to try internal options first.

The Schedule

Thanks to the usual slate of early-season off-days, the Yankees only need their fifth starter three times in April. Opening Day is April 6th, so based on the above calendar they will need their fifth starter on April 12th, 21st, and 26th. They won’t need him again until May 5th either. So only three times in the first 26 games of the season. Capuano might be ready to return by then.

Now, that said, the Yankees have already been talking about occasionally using a sixth starter early in the season to give guys like Tanaka, Sabathia, and Michael Pineda extra rest. I’m guessing they aren’t too enthusiastic about the idea of riding their top four starters hard in April and skipping the fifth spot whenever possible. They could do it, sure, but they have to think big picture here. A few more starts by the fifth (and sixth?) starter in April could mean many more Tanaka, Sabathia, and Pineda starts in August and September.

So yes, the schedule does give the Yankees the flexibility to skip their fifth starter a few times in April. That doesn’t mean it would be a good idea, however. The Yankees have played it very cautiously with Tanaka and Sabathia so far this spring and I don’t expect them to change course just because Capuano got hurt. The fifth starter, whoever it ends up being, is probably going to end up taking a regular rotation turn early in the season.

What About The Bullpen?

If the Yankees do end up using Warren or Rogers to replace Capuano in the rotation, it opens up another spot in the bullpen. They already had one open coming into Spring Training. This is no big deal though. If there’s one thing the Yankees have in spades, it’s relievers. They have about a dozen candidates for those last bullpen spots: Jacob Lindgren, Branden Pinder, Andrew Bailey, Danny Burawa, Chris Martin, Chasen Shreve, Jose Ramirez, Jose DePaula, Jared Burton, Nick Rumbelow, Tyler Webb, Wilking Rodriguez … on and on it goes. They’ll find someone to fill the necessary bullpen spots. No worries here.

* * *

Capuano’s injury is unfortunate, though the silver lining is that he is the team’s most replaceable starter. The Yankees also don’t have to replace him today. Spring Training doesn’t end for another three and a half weeks. It’s not like they need to come up with his replacement in time for his start next week or something like that. They can take their time, see how every looks with some more innings under their belt, then make a decision.

The majority of RAB readers believe Warren will get the call to replace Capuano based on yesterday’s poll and I agree. I just feel like he’s the guy. I do expect the Yankees to keep an eye on any pitchers who may become available before Opening Day — they were going to do that anyway, Capuano injury or not — but I would be surprised if they made anything more than a minor move. That just hasn’t been the way they’ve operated in recent years. Capuano’s injury means someone who is already with the Yankees is about to get a big opportunity in the rotation.

Previewing the Yanks’ few Spring Training position battles

Sixth starter or setup man? (Presswire)
Sixth starter or setup man? (Presswire)

Pitchers and catchers are set to report to Spring Training this Friday, though several Yankees players are already in Tampa preparing for the season according to reporters on site. It’s the guys you’d expect to show up to camp early — rehabbing players (Ivan Nova), players new to the organization (Nathan Eovaldi), and players trying to win a job in camp.

The Yankees don’t have many open roster spots, at least not on paper, but that doesn’t mean jobs aren’t up for grabs in Spring Training. Sometimes the job on the line is being the first guy called up when the inevitable injury strikes. Just look at Preston Claiborne two years ago. He didn’t win a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he put himself on the call-up map with a strong showing in camp. So, with Spring Training set to start later this week, let’s preview New York’s position battles.

Sixth Starter
Candidates: Adam Warren, Esmil Rogers, Bryan Mitchell

Every team needs a sixth and seventh and occasionally even eighth starter during the season, and the Yankees are more likely to need spare starters than most teams because of the injury risk in the rotation. Warren and Rogers were both told to come to Spring Training ready to work as starting pitchers and Mitchell has been a starter his entire minor league career. You don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which one of these guys is in the rotation come Opening Day.

Warren did very nice work as a short reliever last year but came up through the minors as a starter. Rogers has both started and relieved in the past, and he worked as a swingman last year. Mitchell is a rookie with just a big league cup of coffee under his belt. Warren and Rogers are all but certain to open the season on the 25-man roster in some capacity and I’m sure the Yankees want both to be relievers. That means everyone in the rotation is healthy. Mitchell would go back to Triple-A to bide his time in that scenario.

If someone does get hurt in Spring Training and the Yankees do need a replacement starter, I think it would come down to who has the best camp. Not necessarily statistically, but who shows the Yankees they have the best chance of turning over a lineup three times. My guess is Warren would get the first chance to start if necessary, but I’m not all that confident in that pick. I am confident these guys are ahead of scrap heap signings Scott Baker and Kyle Davies on the rotation depth chart, however.

Seventh Reliever
Candidates: Lots

Whitley. (Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

In a perfect world, Warren and Rogers would be in the Opening Day bullpen alongside Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, David Carpenter, and Justin Wilson. (Rogers would presumably be the long man in that scenario.) The seventh bullpen spot is wide open and the Yankees have no shortage of candidates on the 40-man roster: Danny Burawa, Jose DePaula, Chris Martin, Branden Pinder, Jose Ramirez, Chasen Shreve, and Chase Whitley. We should probably include Mitchell in there as well. Non-40-man roster candidates include Jacob Lindgren and Andrew Bailey.

At least one of those extra guys is going to make the roster as the seventh reliever. If Warren and/or Rogers are needed in the rotation, several of the extra arms will make the Opening Day roster to fill out the bullpen. And since there are so many viable seventh reliever candidates, I think it will come down to Spring Training performance. I don’t think handedness will matter one bit. And remember, just because someone wins a job in Spring Training, it doesn’t mean they keep it forever. If, say, Martin wins the last bullpen spot but has a 6.00 ERA two weeks into the season, the Yankees will swap him out for someone else. The seventh bullpen spot is always a revolving door.

Backup Catcher
Candidates: Austin Romine, John Ryan Murphy

Technically, this is a competition since nothing is final, but it’s widely believed Murphy will be the backup catcher come Opening Day. Everything points in that direction. Romine wasn’t all that impressive during his extended stint as Chris Stewart’s backup in 2013, and when the team needed a long-term fill-in for Frankie Cervelli last summer, Murphy got the call ahead of Romine. And, when they needed a third catcher after rosters expanded it September, it was again Murphy over Romine. That doesn’t mean Romine has nothing to play for in camp, of course.

“I want it. I want to go out there and prove to them that I want it. That’s why I’m here early and I just want to hit the ground running and go after it and bust my ass to make the team,” said Romine to Mark Feinsand last week. “(There are) a little more doors opening up with Cervelli gone now. Whatever happens, happens. I’m going to show them I want this.”

Romine is out of options, meaning he can’t go to Triple-A without first passing through waivers. That could happen but the Yankees have to proceed as if it won’t. That’s why they signed Eddy Rodriguez to a minor league deal. Even if he can’t beat out Murphy for the backup job, Romine is auditioning himself for other teams this spring, teams that could claim him off waivers before the start of the season or look to acquire him in a minor trade. This is the definition of a healthy competition, even if the job is basically Murphy’s to lose.

Ryan. (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Ryan. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Last Bench Player
Candidates: Brendan Ryan, Jose Pirela, Rob Refsnyder

This is basically a “can either Pirela or Refsnyder convince the Yankees they’re better off paying Ryan his $2M salary to not play for them?” competition. I’m guessing no — Ryan’s ability to play shortstop is a hard to find skill with real value — but you know how it goes. Stranger things have happened. For what it’s worth, Brian Cashman insists Refsnyder will get a chance to win a job in camp.

“I can’t tell you he’s not Major League ready just yet,” said Cashman in a radio interview earlier month, according to Brendan Kuty. “The bottom line is, he’ll go into camp, and he’ll compete, and he’ll have a chance to potentially earn a spot on the roster … We’re all going to see that develop in Spring Training.”

The Yankees could opt for Pirela’s versatility or Refsnyder’s bat over Ryan’s defense, especially since Stephen Drew can cover Didi Gregorius at shortstop. There is a legitimate baseball reason to keep Ryan though. We can’t forget that. Depth at shortstop is necessary. Either way, we’re talking about the 25th man on the roster. This isn’t a decision that will make or break the season.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 15-16

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’re inevitably going to disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

Warren. (Presswire)
Warren. (Presswire)

The Yankees have a recent reputation for being a poor player development team, and most of it is deserved. The only above-average players they have produced (and kept) since Robinson Cano arrived in the big leagues are Brett Gardner and a pair of relievers (Dellin Betances and David Robertson). The farm system hasn’t given the big league club enough help these last eight years or so. No doubt about it.

But, the Yankee do have a knack for producing complementary players, and we’re going to look at two of them in this post, the latest in our Ranking the 40-Man Roster series. One is a pitcher with two years of big league time under his belt — a reliever, of course — and the other a position player about to get his first extended taste of MLB action. To the next two spots …

No. 16: Adam Warren

2015 Role: Versatile reliever. As we saw last year, Joe Girardi is willing to use Warren in just about any situation and for multiple innings if needed. He’s at his best as a one-inning guy because he can air it out and use his best fastball, though Warren has the stuff to go two and sometimes three innings as well. David Carpenter is a pure one-inning guy and Betances could end up closing, meaning Warren will have an important role bridging the gap between the starter and late-inning relievers.

Of course, the Yankees are bringing Warren to Spring Training as a starting pitcher, and, given all the injury concerns in the rotation, you don’t have to try too hard to envision him as a starter at some point this year. I like Warren most in short relief but there simply might not be any better options for the rotation. If it comes to that, hopefully he can use what he learned in the bullpen and the confidence he’s built to be an effective starter every fifth day. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that.

Long-Term Role: More of the same, that versatile reliever and perpetually discussed rotation option. Remember last year, when every time a starter got hurt, Warren was always mentioned as a possible replacement? I don’t think that will be limited to 2014. Something tells me we’re going to hear that a lot these next few years.

Warren is entering his third and final pre-arbitration year, so he won’t qualify for free agency until after the 2018 season.  It seems unlikely he will rack up saves, meaning his salary won’t balloon out of control during his arbitration years, and there’s no reason to think Warren will become a non-tender candidate down the road. If he starts and pitches well enough to earn a nice salary, good! The Yankees will happily pay if he turns into a reliable starter.

Murphy. (Presswire)
Murphy. (Presswire)

No. 15: John Ryan Murphy

2015 Role: Backup catcher. The Yankees traded Francisco Cervelli early in the offseason to clear the way for Murphy, so the job is more or less being handed to him. Yeah, I suppose the out of options Austin Romine could beat him out for the job in camp, but that seems so unlikely. Everything the Yankees have done over the last year or so suggests the job is Murphy’s. Not giving Romine a September call-up* seems pretty telling.

* Romine was eventually called up in the middle of September when Cervelli got hurt. Murphy was the guy called up to be the third catcher on September 1st, however.

Long-Term Role: I think it’s starting catcher. Either for the Yankees or another team. We should never rule out a trade, and, as a young catcher with a promising bat and excellent defensive chops, Murphy is a pretty desirable piece. The Yankees would have no trouble finding an interested team if they made him available. Clubs usually go to great lengths to secure a young backstop.

There’s a clear … well, clear-ish path for Murphy to take over as the starting catcher in New York. Brian McCann has four years left on his contract, but he’ll turn 31 next month and he has a ton of innings behind the plate on his legs. He’s been a starting big league catcher since age 22, remember. At some point the Yankees will have to scale back McCann’s workload, either by sticking him first base, at DH, or simply on the bench more regularly, and Murphy is in position to take those extra at-bats.

Gary Sanchez, who ranked 18th on this list, is coming up right behind Murphy and is scheduled to start the year in Triple-A. He has much more offensive potential but isn’t close to the same level of defender, and the Yankees absolutely prioritize defense behind the plate. That gives Murphy a pretty big advantage when it comes to sticking with the team long-term and eventually taking over as the number one catcher. There’s nothing sexy about being the backup catcher, but it’s a start for Murphy, who could stick with the team for several years.

Coming Monday: Nos. 11-14. Four former stars on the downside of their careers who are signed for big bucks for another two or three seasons.

Even with bullpen depth, picking a closer an important decision for Yankees

(Getty)
(Getty)

After the 2013 season, Mariano Rivera retired and left the Yankees with a closer problem. Or at least a lot of people acted like they had a closer problem. It was weird. David Robertson was as qualified as any closer-in-waiting in the game and, sure enough, he handled the ninth inning last year just as well as he handled the eighth inning from 2011-13. It was a seamless transition.

The Yankees again have a closer problem this offseason, but only in the sense that they don’t have a set closer right now, more than five weeks before the start of Spring Training. They’ve spent the winter adding bullpen depth and have a number of closer candidates already in-house. Replacing Robertson — who the Yankees let walk as a free agent — is not a question of whether the Yankees have anyone who can do it, but who they will pick to do it.

The two primary closer candidates are Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, both of whom were among the four or five best relievers in baseball last season. They’re actually quite similar, at least in the sense that they are both former top prospects who fought command problems due in part to their height — did you know Miller is 6-foot-7? I had no idea until the Yankees signed him — earlier in their careers and didn’t figure things out until they moved into the bullpen full-time. Either guy could step in and close no questions asked.

The Yankees don’t have anyone with actual closer experience — among pitchers currently on the 40-man roster, Adam Warren and David Carpenter have the most career saves with four apiece — but their closer options go beyond Betances and Miller. They could go with Warren or Carpenter, or give Justin Wilson a try. Jacob Lindgren could be the closer of the future, or he could be the closer of the present. The Yankees have a clean slate and are free to pick their closer.

Having lots of options doesn’t lessen the important of picking a closer, however. Everyone in the bullpen seems to fall in line once the closer is set, and relievers do like to know their roles. Who can blame them? No one would like going to work everyday not knowing what you’ll be asked to do. Relievers like to know their role so they know how and when to prepare. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and bullpen roles fuel that habit. Here are things the Yankees will surely consider when picking their next ninth inning guy.

Saves Pay

If you’re a reliever, the easiest way to make money is to accumulate saves. They pay in arbitration and they still pay in free agency. Addison Reed, with his 101 saves and career 98 ERA+, is projected to get $3.8M during his first trip through arbitration this winter. Robertson went into his first arbitration year (2012) with two career saves and a 112 ERA+ and received only $1.6M. Saves do pay. It’s dumb but that’s the system.

Should Betances get the ninth inning and rack up, say, 30+ saves this year and next, his 2017 arbitration salary will be much higher than it would be if he remains setup man. That also carries into future years too — his salaries in 2018 and 2019 will be higher as well. The same is true with Carpenter, Warren, Wilson, whoever. This might not be such a big deal with Betances, but if someone like Carpenter or Warren closes, their salary could exceed their actual value in a hurry, making them non-tender candidates.

Miller, on the other hand, has a multi-year contract. He’s getting paid $9M in each of the next four seasons no matter what. The Yankees could opt to use Miller — who is more than qualified for the job, remember — as the closer and keep costs down with the rest of the bullpen. That’s not being cheap, that’s being smart. Miller’s making what he’s making. That’s already set. If Betances starts making big money as the closer too, then that’s less money the Yankees can use elsewhere.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

Does Handedness Matter?

Right now, the only full-time left-handed closers in baseball are Aroldis Chapman, Sean Doolittle, Glen Perkins, and Zach Britton. Doolittle and Britton just got the job last year. Since 1990, nine lefties have saved 25+ games in multiple seasons while 88 righties have done so. The innings pitched split in baseball has historically been about 75/25 in favor of righties, but the closer split the last 25 years has been 90/10 or so. For whatever reason, there’s a bit of a bias against lefty closers.

Miller is no ordinary lefty, of course. He dominates both righties and lefties and is just as capable of pitching a full inning as any righty reliever in baseball. That isn’t the question. The question is whether the Yankees and Joe Girardi want a bullpen in which three of their six non-closers could be left-handed, with Wilson and either Lindgren or Chasen Shreve joining Miller. Betances, Warren, Carpenter or another righty would be closing in that scenario.

Personally, I don’t think the Yankees would care one bit about having three or four lefties in the bullpen if they are among the seven best bullpeners in the organization. If they were all matchup specialists in the mold of Clay Rapada, then yeah, it would be a problem. You can’t have three pitchers like that in one bullpen. But these guys aren’t Rapada types. They throw hard and don’t have platoon concerns. The Yankees have the luxury of having several quality relievers, and some of them just happen to throw left-handed. For New York, handedness is no concern right now.

Why Not Use Co-Closers?

The bullpen by committee idea just doesn’t work for whatever reason. A few teams have tried it — most notably the 2003 Red Sox — but it just doesn’t hasn’t worked. Things seem to fall apart once guys don’t have a set role and don’t know when they’ll pitch day after day. Having that one set guy in the ninth inning changes the entire bullpen dynamic for the better.

A few years ago though, the Braves used lefty Mike Gonzalez and righty Rafael Soriano as what were essentially co-closers. Gonzalez faced the tough lefties whenever they were due up, either in the eighth or ninth, while Soriano faced the tough righties and pitched the other inning. Gonzalez wound up with ten saves and Soriano with 27. The Yankees could try something similar with the lefty Miller and righty Betances.

In theory, the Yankees could use a similar co-closer system in 2015. They certainly have the right personnel to try it. But, Girardi has shown he very much likes to have a set closer and a set eighth inning guy, and will rarely deviate from that strategy. Would he be open to a platoon closer/setup man combination? Possibly, sure. But I’m going to bet against it. Girardi likes his relievers in set roles and that’s perfectly fine. He makes it work. Co-closers or a closer by committee can be chaotic.

Untuck Part II? (Mitchell Leff/Getty)
Untuck Part II? (Mitchell Leff/Getty)

Free Agents?

There are still some quality — and by quality I mean big name more than big production — closers on the market in Soriano, Francisco Rodriguez, and Casey Janssen. I wouldn’t ever rule out the Yankees signing a free agent, though I don’t expect it right now. They’ve accumulated a lot of bullpen arms this winter and the plans seems to be to use that depth. If they’re going to spend a decent amount of money on a player at this point, it’ll probably be someone who can help the rotation. A free agent closer signing is always possible. At this point it seems unlikely.

Dellin’s Destiny!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the eerily similar career paths of Betances and Rivera. Both guys were underwhelming minor league starters who moved into the bullpen and dominated as multi-inning setup men in their first MLB season at age 26, then, the next year, they took over as closer after the team’s incumbent ninth inning guy left as a free agent. This year it was Robertson. In 1997 it was John Wetteland. The parallels are freaky. Clearly it is Dellin’s destiny to take over as closer, right?

* * *

Okay, so let’s get back to reality. The Yankees will have to pick a closer at some point before the start of the regular season and this isn’t something they can determine with a Spring Training competition. They couldn’t send Miller and Betances out there in March and tell them the guy who performs best in his seven or eight Grapefruit League innings gets the glory of closing. That would be silly. The only way Spring Training should effect the closer situation is if someone gets hurt.

Girardi and his coaching staff and I’m sure the front office will get together to discuss the team’s closer for the upcoming season at some point That could have happened already for all we know, or they could mull it over until the very end of camp. The team’s bullpen depth is a great weapon but it doesn’t lessen the importance of the decision. Everyone else falls into place in the bullpen once the closer is picked. It’s not a decision that will make or break the season, but it isn’t one the Yankees should take lightly either. Closer is a position they want to get settled as soon as possible.

Who should be the closer?

Bullpen depth could lead to Adam Warren working as a starter in 2015

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even after losing David Robertson to free agency and trading away Shawn Kelley (and losing Preston Claiborne on waivers), the Yankees have a ton of upper level bullpen depth at the moment. Andrew Miller replaced Robertson, the just acquired David Carpenter replaces Kelley, and the team also added lefty Justin Wilson in the Francisco Cervelli trade. The Yankees seem to have more relievers than bullpen spots at the moment. Look:

That’s 16 17 pitchers for 14 bullpen spots — seven in MLB and seven in Triple-A — and I still feel like I’m forgetting someone. (Update: Forgot Wilson!) Obviously it isn’t that simple — DePaula, Mitchell, and Whitley could all wind up in the Triple-A Scranton rotation, we have no idea if Pinder and Burawa can get MLBers out consistently, etc. — but the point stands. On paper, the Yankees have a ton of bullpen depth right now.

What the Yankees don’t have is a lot of rotation depth. The rotation right now is Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Chris Capuano in whatever order, but both Tanaka (elbow) and Sabathia (knee) have major injury concerns. No pitcher is a lock to make it through Spring Training healthy, though it is especially true for those two. Pineda isn’t exactly known for his durability either.

Because of the rotation concerns, the Yankees told Warren to come to Spring Training as a starter and prepared to compete for a rotation spot. (They told David Phelps the same before he was traded away.) In fact, I bet they told Rogers the same thing. He’s been a starter before, including last season in Triple-A with the Blue Jays (and one spot start with the Yankees), so there’s no reason not to stretch him out. It doesn’t hurt anyone and gives the team options in camp.

Warren did a nice job as a swingman in 2013 and really seemed to find himself in short relief last year, when his velocity ticked up and he missed more bats than ever. He was a starter his entire career before the 2013 season though, and I’m sure that if you asked him, he’d like to be a starter once again. That’s where the money is at, after all. I’m certain he sees the injury questions in the rotation as a big opportunity this coming year.

Warren has made three career big league starts (6.97 ERA and 6.83 FIP) but the numbers are skewed heavily by his disastrous six-run, 2.1- inning MLB debut back in 2012. He made two spot starts in 2013 and both went fine — two runs in three innings while on a strict pitch count in the first, five shutout innings in the second — plus he also made several strong multi-inning relief outings, including five of at least four innings (four runs in 23.1 innings in those five outings).

That really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Warren can do as a starter in 2015 though. Those long relief appearances have selection bias — the reason he was in there 4+ innings is because he was getting outs, they wouldn’t have left him in that long if he was getting hammered — and 2013 Adam Warren isn’t the same as 2015 Adam Warren. He has more experience now and is presumably more comfortable in the league. That matters.

Even as a short reliever last year, Warren threw three pitches (four-seamer, slider, changeup) regularly while also throwing some curveballs and cutters, according to Brooks Baseball. He definitely has enough pitches to start, the question is whether his stuff is good enough to turn over a lineup multiple times. The answer could easily be yes, especially now in this no offense era, and that after his success last season he is more willing to attack hitters and better understands how to maximize his arsenal. Like I said, experience matters.

I like Warren most as a short reliever and I can’t say I’m confident he can turn over a lineup multiple times, but there is no harm in seeing what he does as a starter in Spring Training. Remember, this doesn’t have to be a permanent thing either. The team may only need him to start until Ivan Nova returns at midseason, perhaps as early as May. Warren was an important part of the relief crew last year but the Yankees do now have enough bullpen depth to replace him. Moving him into the rotation is much more viable now than it was a year ago.