2013 Season Preview: The Relievers

Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

Mariano Rivera is worthy of his own post, but he is just one of many when it comes to the bullpen. The Yankees used 17 different relievers last season, including ten for at least ten appearances. That is pretty much par for the course these days — they used 26 (!) different relievers in 2011 and 18 in 2010 — since no team ever makes it through the season without injuries or underperformance. In fact, the Yankees have already lost one reliever (Clay Rapada) to the DL and the season hasn’t even started yet. He is the first injured bullpener, but he won’t be the last.

The Setup Man
Over the last two seasons, soon-to-be 28-year-old David Robertson has emerged as one of the very best relievers in all of baseball. He’s pitched to a 1.84 ERA (2.15 FIP) with a 12.79 K/9 (34.8 K%) since 2011, all of which are top five marks among big league relievers. Robertson managed to curtail his career-long walk issue last season — career-best 2.82 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%, including just five walks in his last 33 innings — but I’m going to need to see him do it again before I buy that as real improvement. His track record of iffy command is too long to be washed away in one (half) season.

With Rivera back and Rafael Soriano gone, Robertson is the unquestioned Eighth Inning Guy™ and backup closer whenever Mo needs a day to rest. That means we’re unlikely to see him brought into mid-to-late-inning jams to clean up the mess, which is where he and his strikeout-heavy ways are best deployed. Regardless, Robertson is an extremely valuable reliever who will see a ton of high-leverage work. Outside of Rivera, he’s the most important pitcher in the bullpen.

The Lefty Specialist
The Yankees have had enough injury problems this spring, but one player who seems to have survived the bug is Boone Logan. The 28-year-old dealt with a barking elbow for a few weeks and didn’t get into a game until last week, but he appears to be on track for Opening Day. Logan threw a career-high 55.1 innings in a league-leading 80 appearances last summer, which may or may not have contributed to the elbow issue. Given his extremely slider usage — 51.4% (!) last year, the third straight year his usage increased — it would be foolish to think the workload didn’t contribute to the elbow problem somewhat.

Anyway, Logan has quietly emerged as a high strikeout left-hander these last two years, posting a 10.58 K/9 and 26.9 K% since the start of 2011. Despite the strikeouts, he hasn’t been especially effective against same-side hitters, limiting them to a .240/.309/.413 (.314 wOBA) line over the last two years. That’s nothing special for a primary lefty specialist — Rapada has been far more effective against left-handers — but he redeems himself (somewhat) by being more than a true specialist. Righties have hit just .243/.355/.386 (.315 wOBA) against him these last two years, so Girardi can run Logan out there for a full inning if need be. He’s definitely useful, though perhaps miscast as a late-inning guy.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Middle Men
It has been two years since either Joba Chamberlain or David Aardsma has had a full, healthy season. Both had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and both had another major injury as well — Joba his ankle and Aardsma his hip —  and both were pretty darn effective before the injuries. The Yankees will count on both as their pre-eighth inning righties this year, mixing and matching with Logan and Rapada (when healthy).

All of the team’s relievers are cut from a similar cloth and these two are no different. Both Joba and Aardsma are high strikeout guys with swing-and-miss offspeed pitches, the question is just how effective they will be following the injuries. Chamberlain, 27, was pretty bad in the second half last year before finishing strong while the 31-year-old Aardsma made one late-September appearance and nothing more. They could be awesome, they could be awful, they could be something in-between. I’m guessing we’ll see a bit of all three at times this summer.

Rapada, 32, will start the season on the DL due to shoulder bursitis and there is no timetable for his return. He’s been crazy effective against lefties in his relatively short big league career (.231 wOBA against), though righties have hit him hard (.453 wOBA). As a soft-tossing, low-arm slot guy with a funky delivery, he’s a true specialist. But damn is he good at what he does.

The Long Man
When Spring Training started, it was assumed the loser of the Ivan Nova/David Phelps fifth starter competition would move to the bullpen and serve as the long man. Phil Hughes‘ back injury is likely to land him on the DL coming Opening Day, meaning both Nova and Phelps will be in the rotation to start the year. Long man replacements include 25-year-old right-hander Adam Warren and 25-year-old left-hander Vidal Nuno, the latter of whom has gotten talked up as a potential Rapada placement. He’s been, by far, the more impressive pitcher in Grapefruit League play. Either way, the long reliever job will go to Nova or Phelps whenever Hughes returns, which could be as soon as the second turn through the rotation.

Knocking on the Door
Beyond Warren and Nuno — starters by trade who are relief candidates by default — the Yankees have a number of legit bullpen backup plans slated for Triple-A. The two most obvious candidates are right-handers Shawn Kelley, 28, and Cody Eppley, 27, both of whom are on the 40-man roster, have big league experience, and have minor league options. Kelley is a traditional fastball/slider/strikeout guy while Eppley is low-slot sinker/slider/ground ball righty specialist. There’s a good chance one of these two — likely Kelley because Eppley was been terrible in camp — will crack the Opening Day roster as a Hughes/Rapada replacement. Right-hander David Herndon, 27, will be in the big league mix once he finishes rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at midseason.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Among the bullpen prospects scheduled to open the season with Triple-A Scranton are 22-year-old slider machine Mark Montgomery, the team’s top relief prospect. He ranked tenth on my preseason top 30 prospects list and should make his big league debut at some point this season. Montgomery gets compared to Robertson but that isn’t particularly fair even though he’s also an undersized strikeout fiend with a trademark breaking ball. No need to set yourself up for disappointment like that. Remember, it took Robertson two years before he finally stuck in the show and three before he became truly dominant.

Right-hander Chase Whitley, 23, and left-hander Francisco Rondon, 24, will both be in the Triple-A bullpen and one phone call away as well. Whitley is a three-pitch guy who projects more as a middle reliever than a late-inning arm, but he’s a very high probability guy. Rondon opened some eyes in camp by flashing a knockout slider after being added to the 40-man roster in November. He needs to work on his command and get some Triple-A experience before being a big league option, however. Whitley is pretty much ready to go.

The Top Prospects
Montgomery is New York’s top relief prospect at the moment, but right-handers Nick Goody and Corey Black deserve a mention as well. The 21-year-old Goody posted a 1.12 ERA (~0.89 FIP) with 52 strikeouts and just nine walks in 32 innings after signing as the team’s sixth round pick last year. The 21-year-old Black pitched to a 3.08 ERA (~2.70 FIP) in 52.2 innings after being the team’s fourth rounder last summer, but the Yankees have him working as a starter at the moment. He is expected to move into a relief role in due time if he doesn’t firm up his offspeed pitches. Both Goody (#21) and Black (#24) cracked my preseason top 30 and both are expected to open the year with High-A Tampa.

* * *

The Yankees have had consistently strong bullpens during the Girardi era, due in part to his willingness to spread the workload around rather than overwork one or two guys. The front office has (mostly) gotten away from big money relievers and focused on adding depth and power arms. Girardi got away from his strength last year because of injury (Rivera, Joba, Robertson for a month) and ineffectiveness (Cory Wade), instead relying heavily on his primary late-inning guys. That will hopefully change this year and the team will get back to having a deep and diverse bullpen, something they’ll need given the diminished offense.

email

Could Josh Spence or Vidal Nuno sneak onto the Opening Day roster?

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Although Derek Jeter is day-to-day with left ankle inflammation, the Yankees did actually get some positive injury news yesterday. Left-hander Boone Logan made his Grapefruit League debut against the Phillies, striking out two and allowing a bloop single in a scoreless inning of work. He had been battling elbow inflammation earlier in camp, inflammation that may or may not be related to his career-high workload and league-leading 80 appearances in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Yankees are still without second lefty reliever Clay Rapada. He’s been out for a few weeks with shoulder bursitis, and while he was able to play long-toss yesterday, it’s looking less and less likely he will be ready in time for Opening Day. Opening the year with just one lefty reliever — assuming Logan’s elbow continues to hold up — isn’t the end of the world, but Rapada’s injury does open the door for fellow southpaws Josh Spence and Vidal Nuno these next ten days.

Spence and Nuno are both cut from a very similar cloth. They’re both 25 years old and not on the 40-man roster, plus they’re offspeed-heavy finesse guys. Spence — who pitched to a 3.15 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 40 innings for the Padres from 2011-2012 — is a changeup pitcher while Nuno relies on his slider. They’ve both had strong Spring Trainings but Nuno has been better, striking out a dozen against two walks in 8.1 innings of one-run ball. He’ll also capable of pitching multiple innings while Spence is more of a true specialist. Then again, he has no big league experience.

Carrying a second left-hander in the bullpen won’t be imperative early in the season. The Red Sox are in town for the first series of the year and both David Ortiz (heels) and Stephen Drew (concussion) are likely to start the year on the DL. Assuming Mike Carp fills in for Ortiz, he and Ellsbury will be the only lefty-hitting regulars in Boston’s lineup. The Yankees head to Detroit for three games after that, and Alex Avila is their only lefty bat worthy of a matchup southpaw. Prince Fielder mashes everyone and Andy Dirks has shown no split in his short big league career. The Indians are up next after that and carrying two lefties would be nice starting with that series.

Of course, carrying a second lefty specialist isn’t all that important anyway. Carrying the best pitchers possible is more important than having someone who throws with a specific arm just because, plus the Yankees do have three right-handed relievers who get lefties out in Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, and Joba Chamberlain. Though two of those three are married to specific innings though, it’s not like Joe Girardi will use Robertson to get a tough lefty out in the sixth inning or something. The point stands though, the club has a few guys capable of retiring lefties even if Rapada has to start the year on the shelf.

Now, if Logan’s elbow starts barking again, things will change. I can’t imagine the Yankees would open the season without no lefty relievers at all, meaning Spence or Nuno could be the guy. Both would have to be added to the 40-man and have minor league options remaining, so sending them to Triple-A when Logan and/or Rapada get healthy won’t be difficult. It becomes a question of which guy is the better bet to actually help the team, and I’m not sure we can answer that. Spence has some big league success but is an unconventional lefty specialist because he’s a changeup pitcher. Nuno has no Triple-A experience, nevermind MLB experience, but is more conventional thanks to his slider.

In all likelihood, the Yankees will use either Shawn Kelley or Cody Eppley in Rapada’s place come Opening Day if Logan remains healthy. Both righties are ticketed for Triple-A but have big league experience and would be used in lower-leverage spots anyway. Finding someone capable to fill-in isn’t the problem, it’s just a question of how much the Yankees value a reliever’s handedness. I say take the best pitchers regardless of which hands they throw with, but the Bombers clearly value left-handedness and would like to have two southpaws if possible. There’s at least a small chance Spence or Nuno could sneak onto the roster if they continue to impress in camp.

Boone Logan pain-free following today’s bullpen session

Finally, some good injury news. Lefty reliever threw his first bullpen session in about two weeks this morning, and afterwards he told Mark Feinsand he was pain-free. “I’ve never been so excited to throw a bullpen,” said the southpaw, who insisted he will be ready for Opening Day.

Logan, 28, was sidelined by a barking elbow a little more than a week ago, but an MRI did come back clean. The Yankees had been taking it easy on him early in camp following last year’s career-high workload, which included 55.1 innings spread across a league-leading 80 appearances. Second lefty reliever Clay Rapada has been shut down for 7-10 days with shoulder bursitis, so the Yankees are currently without a healthy southpaw for the bullpen. Good thing the season doesn’t start for another three weeks.

Heathcott (thumb) and Logan (elbow) battling injuries

Via Bryan Hoch & Sweeny Murti: Both Slade Heathcott (sprained thumb) and Boone Logan (sore elbow) are battling injuries. Both guys will be out a few days after MRIs came back clean.

Heathcott, 22, hurt himself (surprise!) when he ran into Ronnie Mustelier at full speed the other day (video). No word on his timetable yet. The Yankees have been taking it easy on the 28-year-old Logan so far in camp, but that apparently hasn’t helped. He’s coming off a career-high workload that included a league-leading 80 appearances.

Yankees taking it easy on Boone Logan (and his elbow) early in camp

Via George King: The Yankees are taking it easy on left-hander Boone Logan — who had his elbow wrapped yesterday — early in camp. “We are being cautious with him,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild. “We have decided to slow him down and make sure he catches up before we give him too much.”

Logan, 28, threw a career-high 55.1 innings in a league-leading 80 appearances last season. He really ramped up the use of his slider in 2012, throwing the pitch 51.4% (!) of the time compared to 35.5% in 2011 and 31.3% from 2006-2011. Logan has never been on the DL and outside of a sore shoulder during winter ball back in the day, he hasn’t had any arm problems. Throwing a ton of breaking balls tends to get the elbow barking though, so it’s good to see they’re being cautious. The Yankees have plenty of left-handed relief depth and Logan will be a free agent next winter.

Taking stock of the Yankees’ trade chips

(Elsa/Getty)

The Yankees have been very active on the free agent market this offseason, though it’s easy to forget since most of the signings were re-signings. Kevin Youkilis is the only new player the team has signed this winter, and they still have questions to answer at DH, behind the plate (unlikely to be addressed in a meaningful way), and on the bench. There’s a lot of offseason left and a lot of holes to fill.

For a big market team like New York, free agency is the easiest way to add players. There’s always the trade route though, and in fact the club has swung a major trade in four of the last five offseasons. Some (Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson) have worked better than others (Michael Pineda and Javy Vazquez). The Yankees may or may not have a trade of that magnitude left in them this winter, but not every deal has to be a blockbuster to help. Let’s take stock of the team’s current crop of trade chips.

Boone Logan
Logan, 28, has emerged as the team’s primary left-handed reliever over the last two years, but in no way should he be off limits this offseason. In fact, Clay Rapada has been much more effective against same-side hitters in recent years, though he’s unusable against righties. Logan can at least fake it against batters of the opposite hand if need be. Since he’s due to become a free agent next winter and is coming off a career-high (and league-leading) 80 appearances, Boone should be made very available this winter. Teams continually prove willing to overpay for quality relief, especially a left-handed relief.

Eduardo Nunez
For all his defensive deficiencies, the 25-year-old Nunez has garnered plenty of trade interest (from the Braves and Mariners, specifically) in recent years. Finding decent middle infield help these days is close to impossible, so teams are eager to roll the dice on a cheap young player with speed and contact skills. Frankly, if Nunez had spent the last few years in some other city, a lot of Yankees fans would be looking at him as a buy-low guy whose defense might be fixable with enough reps. Because we’ve seen the hilarious frequency of his errors first hand, he gets written off quickly. C’est la vie.

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Ivan Nova & David Phelps
The Yankees brought both Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte back, meaning Nova and Phelps will battle it out for the fifth starter’s spot in camp. The loser goes to the bullpen (or Triple-A) to wait his turn as the sixth starter. Both guys could also be trade bait as young, cost-controlled back-end arms, though both also have their warts. Nova got pounded last season and Phelps has just a handful of big league starts to his credit.

Phil Hughes could also be lumped into this group, but he only offers one year of team control and is being counted on as the fourth starter behind the three veterans. He shouldn’t be off-limits, but he might not fetch as much as the team would like given the impending free agency. Hughes is most desirable to contenders, and it’s not often you see a trade made between two contenders.

Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Gary Sanchez & Tyler Austin
You can’t have a trade chips post without mentioning the top prospects. These four represent the team’s best young minor leaguers in whatever order, though none of them have meaningful experience at the Double-A level. For all intents and purposes, they’re four high-upside guys in Single-A ball.  As we’ve seen in the recent R.A. Dickey and James Shields trades, it takes an elite prospect on the cusp of the big leagues to land an impact player. Teams will surely line up to acquire these four, but I don’t think any of them would be enough to bring say, a young and MLB ready impact bat without significant secondary pieces. Twelve months from now, one or all of these guys could be among the best trade chips in the sport.

* * *

Curtis Granderson’s name has popped up as a trade candidate numerous times this offseason, though I maintain that it will be close to impossible to trade him and improve the team at the same time. The Yankees didn’t drop $62M total on five free agents this winter to trade their best power hitter for a young player who might help two or three years from now, potentially wasting a year of CC Sabathia at his best, of Robinson Cano at his best, of David Robertson at his best, of Pettitte and Mariano Rivera before they call it a career. With the 2014 payroll plan looming, making one last “all-in” run in 2013 should be the club’s top priority even if they seem to feel differently.