Aroldis Chapman and the changing dynamic of the bullpen

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Later today, the Yankees’ prized offseason addition will finally join the active roster. Aroldis Chapman‘s 30-game suspension is up — he only served 29 games thanks to a rainout — and he’ll be in the bullpen tonight ready to close. Joe Girardi has already confirmed Chapman will take over the ninth inning. He’s the closer.

The Yankees are not exactly one reliever away from turning things around, but Chapman will no doubt help. He is arguably the best reliever in the world and adding an elite player like that instantly makes the team better. Chapman’s return — is it really a return if he’s never been here before? no, right? — has a trickle down effect on the rest of the bullpen and the pitching staff in general. Let’s run it all down.

The Roster Move

Might as well start here. Chapman did not count against the 40-man roster during his suspension, so the Yankees had an open spot for much of the first five weeks of the season. That open spot went to Phil Coke the other day, however, so the Yankees have to clear a 40-man spot for Chapman today.

That’s not a problem though. The Yankees have four 60-day DL candidates: Greg Bird (shoulder), Mason Williams (shoulder), Bryan Mitchell (toe), and Branden Pinder (Tommy John surgery). My guess is Pinder gets transferred to the 60-day DL because the Yankees know for certain he’ll miss the rest of the season, but it could be any of the four. Doesn’t matter who it is, really. Point is, the Yankees don’t have to designate anyone for assignment to make room for Chapman.

As for getting Aroldis on the active roster, Nick Goody seems like the obvious candidate to be shipped down to Triple-A. The Yankees could dump Coke, but with Ivan Nova in the rotation for the time being, they need a new long man, and Coke is stretched out after working as a starter in an independent league. Keeping Coke around and sending Goody down makes the most sense given the current roster situation.

New Roles

Girardi loves to assign his relievers set innings, so it stands to reason Andrew Miller will now take over as the eighth inning guy with Dellin Betances sliding back into the seventh inning. That pushes Chasen Shreve back into a lower leverage middle innings role with Johnny Barbato joining Kirby Yates, where he belongs at this point give his recent bout of longballitis.

The Yankees and Girardi have talked about using only two of the three big relievers per game to ensure one of them is always fresh the next day, which is sounds great, but it may be tough to pull off. Could you imagine losing a game because, say, Barbato is on the mound in the late innings while Miller is available in the bullpen and not being used? Wait, yes I can. Dammit to hell.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Anyway, the “only use two per day” plan only works if the starter gives enough length and the lead is big enough. You’re going to have a tough time convincing me Girardi should not use the three big relievers if the starter is out of the game after six innings and the Yankees are tied or nursing a small lead. The Yankees are not in any position to prioritize tomorrow over today at the moment.

I would like to see Betances and Miller match up in the seventh and eighth rather than be assigned a specific innings, though I’m not sure it really matters. Those two are great against batters on both sides of the plate. Still, if the other team is sending their best lefty hitters to the plate in the seventh, why not use Miller there instead of Betances simply because it’s his inning? I’m actually hopefully this will happen. We’ll see.

Either way, Chapman’s return means everyone in the bullpen gets knocked down a peg and that’s a good thing. Miller is an overqualified eighth inning guy. Betances is an extremely overqualified seventh inning guy. Shreve is now the No. 4 instead of the No. 3. The added depth is going to help a lot. The Yankees will automatically have an advantage on the mound in any close game in the late innings.

About The Ninth Inning

No, Andrew Miller does not deserve to lose the closer’s job. He’s been outstanding in that role since the start of last season. It is an undeserved demotion. No doubt about it. I also don’t it matters at all. Miller has been talking about doing whatever the team needs since the day he signed and it seems sincere. Here’s what Miller told Chad Jennings yesterday:

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “You want me to throw a fit? The goal here is to win. I think if you go around and ask, there’s 25 lockers in here and I think everyone is going to say that. We haven’t gotten off to the start that we want to. I think we’ve played well in the last couple of days, and the goal is to keep that going. Wins are what’s fun at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if you’re saving games for a last-place team.”

It’s refreshing to hear that. Drew Storen complained and sulked after the Nationals acquired Jonathan Papelbon last year. Kenley Jansen said he wanted to close after the Dodgers almost acquired Chapman over the winter. Closer is a prestigious job and every reliever wants it. Miller would have every right to be upset, but he truly seems okay with it.

I would be surprised if Miller’s performance suffered at all following the move into the setup role. Same with Betances, though he’s going from eighth inning setup man to seventh inning setup man. If one of those two — or Chapman, for that matter — blows a game at some point in the next few days, the new roles are going to be talked about a lot. It’s unavoidable. I’m not worried about this at all though. Chapman’s been closing for a long time and Miller and Betances seem perfectly happy with their roles.

Spread The Workload Around

The Yankees don’t seem to win blowout games anymore. Saturday was an outlier. Seven of the team’s eleven wins have been by three or fewer runs, meaning Miller and Betances have worked a lot. Through 29 games Miller has 12 appearances and 11.2 innings. Betances has 15 appearances (!) and 14 innings. The other day Miller was asked to get a four-out save and Betances recently pitched in three consecutive days. He was the first Yankees reliever to do that since David Robertson in September 2014, when he had one foot out the door as a free agent and the team wasn’t all that invested in his long-term future.

Girardi has had to lean on Miller and Betances and awful lot early on, and adding Chapman means the late-inning workload can be spread out a bit going forward. Like I said a bit earlier, this is easier said than done because it’s going to be tough to stay away from those guys in the late innings, but having that third high-end bullpener will lighten the load a bit. Whenever the starter gets through seven Girardi won’t have to use all three. The Yankees now have three guys soaking up high-leverage innings, not only two. That’s huge.

Trade Bait

Even if the Yankees completely turn things around and claw their way back into contention, trading Chapman is the best thing for the team long-term. The Yankees were able to get him at a very discounted rate because of the uncertainty surrounding his potential suspension, and now the suspension has been served. The mystery is gone. Chapman is back today and is a game-ready pitcher.

Chapman is a Grade-A piece of trade bait as a rental elite closer. Literally every team in the league could use someone like him — including the Yankees! — though obviously contenders figure to show the most interest. Any team with championship aspirations will check in, so the Yankees have an opportunity to create a bidding war to maximize their return. The Mets, Nationals, Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, Tigers, Mariners, Rangers … they’ll all get involved.

As I said last week, I think the Yankees should look to trade Chapman sooner rather than later. The sooner they trade him, the longer his new team gets him, meaning the Yankees can ask for more in return. There’s also the injury factor. Pitchers get hurt, and the longer the Yankees wait, the more risk they’ll assume. It takes two to tango, another team has to be willing to make a trade right now, but I think the Yankees should be shopping Chapman right now. Put him out here and start the process.

* * *

For now, the Yankees are adding another dominant reliever to their already dominant end-game bullpen. They’re a better team today than they were in the first 29 games of the season because Chapman is back. He can help them climb back into the playoff race in the short-term and accumulate young assets via trade in the long-term. Even though his time in pinstripes may be limited, it’s not a stretch to call Chapman one of the most important Yankees in 2016.

Yankeemetrics: Nightmare on River Avenue [April 19-21]

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

Bonus cantos is no bueno
Free baseball is a great thing most of the time – except if you’re a Yankee fan watching the team at the friendly confines. Following their 3-2 loss in extra innings to the A’s on Tuesday night, no team has more extra-inning losses at home since the start of last season than the Yankees (eight). This latest disaster was their first loss to the A’s in the 11th inning or later at Yankee Stadium since August 9, 2002.

What made this loss so deflating – aside from their continued inability to cash in on scoring opportunities – was that the Yankees wasted Michael Pineda‘s best start of the season. He delivered six strong innings, limiting Oakland to two runs while striking out seven. That lowered his career ERA against the A’s to 2.25 in four starts, the sixth-lowest by any pitcher with than many starts versus the A’s since his debut in 2011.

Johnny Barbato gave up the game-winning hit with two outs in the top of the 11th, ending a run of brilliance to start his rookie season. He had pitched at least one inning in each of his first five outings, allowing zero runs and no more than one hit in each game. The only Yankee in the last 100 years with a longer streak like that to begin his major-league career was Joba Chamberlain in 2007.

The definition of insanity is …
Well, at least the Yankees are consistent — a consistently bad and frustrating team right now, that is. The Yankees fell into last place in the AL East after losing to the A’s, 5-2, in the middle game of this three-game series. The last time they were in the basement of the division this late into the season (game No. 13 or later) was 2008.

They keep finding new ways to lose, adding boneheaded baserunning plays (no, Didi, no) on Wednesday night to the stable of offensive woes, lack of clutch hitting and defensive miscues that has defined this awful stretch of baseball in the past week.

Nathan Eovaldi‘s performance was marred by one bad inning, but otherwise he spun a bare-minimum quality start (6 innings, 3 earned runs) with seven strikeouts and had probably his best effort of the season. It was his seventh straight start striking out at least seven batters, tying the longest such streak in franchise history, done previously by CC Sabathia (2009, 2011), Mike Mussina (2003) and Ron Guidry (1978).

The most obscure statistical nugget of the game probably came from the visiting squad, when the A’s were forced to have pitcher Kendall Graveman bat cleanup after infielder Danny Valencia got injured and the A’s lost their DH. Graveman became the first starting pitcher to bat in a game at Yankee Stadium since the designated hitter rule was enacted in 1973.

Party like it’s 1990
If there is something deeper than rock bottom, the Yankees have hit it — and there’s no light at the end of this tunnel yet.

Despite scoring first in each of the three games in this series, the Yankees were swept by the A’s after dropping Thursday night’s contest, 7-3. It is the first time Oakland has swept the Yankees at Yankee Stadium since June 9-11, 2006. Their 5-9 record overall is their worst 14-game start since 2005; the only other season in the Wild Card era that they lost nine of their first 14 games was 1997.

Following the loss, the Yankees are now an unfathomable 2-7 when drawing first blood this season; last year, they won 75 percent of the games in which they scored first. They’ve held a lead in 12 of 14 games this season, yet have gone just 5-7 in those 12 contests. Their seven blown losses are tied with the Blue Jays and Braves for the most in the majors.

Once again a Yankee starter — this time Luis Severino — delivered a solid outing, yet the Yankees couldn’t capitalize on the strong pitching performance. This game marked the seventh time that a Yankee starter allowed three runs or fewer and the team lost the game, tied with the Twins for the most such games by a rotation this season.

The most shocking part of this loss, though, was that the supposed strength of this team — the almighty bullpen — proved to be a weakness (along with the perennially slumping offense). They surrendered five runs in three innings, and four of those scores came via home runs. The Yankees bullpen had faced 173 batters in the first 13 games and had yielded just one homer, tied for the fewest given up in the majors entering Thursday’s slate.

Barbato looks like a keeper, not a shuttle candidate, so far this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Coming into Spring Training, Johnny Barbato was an afterthought in the competition for an Opening Day bullpen spot. At least I thought so. The Yankees had a ton of bullpen candidates in camp, many of them with big league experience, and I figured they would get first dibs. Instead, Barbato out-pitched them all in camp, and won a spot on the roster.

Seven games into the season, Barbato already looks like a power reliever with some staying power, not someone who will spend his summer tracking mileage between Scranton and the Bronx. (Expense reports are such a pain.) His regular season numbers (3.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K) are great, but they’re also still meaningless because the sample is so small. Barbato’s stuff and ability to locate is what makes him look so promising.

“First pitch was 95-96 mph. Second pitch was a buckler and I usually don’t buckle on breaking balls. Next pitch ground ball to first. Three pitches. Not a fun at-bat,” said Chris Colabello to George King when asked about facing Barbato following Wednesday’s game. Barbato allowed a two-out walk in an otherwise clean inning that night, and because the Yankees scored in the next half-inning, he picked up his first career win. That’s always cool.

New York acquired Barbato from the Padres for Shawn Kelley last offseason. He was a pretty big deal as a prospect back in the day — San Diego gave Barbato a $1.4M bonus as a sixth rounder in 2010 — because of his live arm, but he never did pick up a changeup, so he had to move to relief. Here is Baseball America’s scouting report (no subs. req’d) following the trade:

He pitches with mid-90s velocity and verve, attacking hitters with a live fastball that sinks and runs as it nears the plate. He throws a true curveball in the high 70s that features extreme break through the zone, and he locates and mixes his two pitches well enough to boast a career strikeout rate of 9.2 per nine innings.

That matches up with what we’ve seen from Barbato early this season and in Spring Training, right? The fastball is lively and his curveball has some very nice bend to it. (Here’s the GIF.) And he has verve. Verve is always good. The scouting report refers to Barbato as a two-pitch pitcher, however. There is no mention of his slider, a slider we’ve seen this year. To the action footage:

Johnny Barbato SL

I do enjoy the little bunny hop following the release. Nice touch. I guess that’s the verve the scouting report was talking about.

Anyway, that’s a slider. Fight me if you think otherwise. I guess maybe it could be a cutter, but it’s no mid-90s four-seamer and it for sure is not a 70-something mile an hour curveball. That’s a pitch that is unaccounted for in the scouting reports. (There’s no mention of the slider in Baseball America’s write-ups over the years.)

That pitch also did not exist until this year according to PitchFX, albeit in limited looks. The Padres hold Spring Training in Arizona, and several Cactus League ballparks are outfitted with PitchFX. Barbato also pitched in the Arizona Fall League a few years back. Here is the very limited PitchFX data we have on Johnny Boombatz, via Brooks Baseball:

Johnny Barbato pitch selectionSee? The slider has come out of nowhere. It’s very possible Barbato was throwing it in the minors last year, but I can’t find any record of it. This appears to be a new pitch Barbato has added at some point since the trade, and that’s pretty cool. The Yankees are known to teach cutters — David Robertson is the best example, but others like Ian Clarkin and Manny Banuelos added the pitch as well — so it wouldn’t be unprecedented if Barbato added a similar pitch since the trade.

Right now Barbato is coming out of the bullpen with a mid-90s four-seamer, his trademark upper-70s curveball, and this new cutter/slider (slutter?) thing at 88-89 mph or so. He throws all three pitches regularly — he’s thrown 21.0% curves and 22.6% slutters so far — and his swing-and-miss rate is a healthy 15.7% in the super duper early going. Joe Girardi seems to trust Barbato too; he brought him into the sixth inning of a tie game against the Blue Jays on Wednesday. The first batter he faced was Troy Tulowitzki.

Last season the Yankees shuttled young relievers in and out of the bullpen every time a fresh arm was needed. And, for the most part, none of the shuttle relievers did anything to distinguish themselves. It’s a tough job, I get that, but no one came out throwing fire and left you wanting to see more. They came up, threw a few innings, then were sent back out and no one really cared. None of those guys did enough to impress the brain trust and stick around.

Barbato has already stood out in a way none of the shuttle relievers did last season. He took advantage of an opportunity in Spring Training and he’s carried that performance over into the regular season. He’s throwing strikes — it’s not uncommon for even the most polished minor leagues to lose the zone a bit early in their MLB careers — and missing bats. It’s early, but so far Barbato looks like someone who should stick around and not ride the shuttle.

Yankees officially set 2016 Opening Day roster

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon — weather permitting — the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season against the same team and in the same place their 2015 season ended: at Yankee Stadium against the Astros. Opening Day is just another game in the grand scheme of things, but it absolutely has symbolic value, and besides, everyone wants to start the new year with a win.

Earlier today the Yankees officially announced their Opening Day roster. The deadline to file the roster with MLB was 12pm ET this afternoon. The Opening Day roster offers no surprises. There were no last minute trades or waiver claims. Nothing like that. The roster is exactly as expected following all the roster moves over the last week or two. Here is the club’s Opening Day roster:

CATCHERS (2)
C Brian McCann
C Austin Romine (No. 27)

INFIELDERS (6)
UTIL Dustin Ackley
2B Starlin Castro
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
1B Mark Teixeira
IF Ronald Torreyes (No. 17)

OUTFIELDERS (4)
RF Carlos Beltran
LF Brett Gardner
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
OF Aaron Hicks (No. 31)

DESIGNATED HITTERS (1)
DH Alex Rodriguez

STARTERS (5)
RHP Nathan Eovaldi
RHP Michael Pineda
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka

RELIEVERS (7)
RHP Johnny Barbato (No. 26)
RHP Dellin Betances
RHP Luis Cessa (No. 85)
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP Chasen Shreve
RHP Kirby Yates (No. 39)

MISCELLANY (4)
1B Greg Bird (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)
LHP Aroldis Chapman (restricted list, 30-game suspension)
RHP Bryan Mitchell (15-day DL retroactive to March 31st, broken toe)
OF Mason Williams (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)

Romine beat out Gary Sanchez and I guess Carlos Corporan for the backup catcher’s job. Torreyes beat out Pete Kozma and Rob Refsnyder for the backup infielder’s job, and Sabathia beat out Nova for the fifth starter’s spot. Barbato, Cessa, and Yates beat out a small army of relievers for spots on the Opening Day roster. They’re on the shuttle though; they could be send down for a fresh arm in short order.

Tanaka will start his second straight Opening Day tomorrow — Sabathia started six straight Opening Days prior to last year — and be followed in the rotation by Pineda, Eovaldi, Severino, and Sabathia in that order. Miller is going to pitch through the chip fracture in his right wrist, which is both admirable and awesome. After spending all winter talking about the team’s super-bullpen, the Yankees were dangerously close to starting the season with only one of their three elite relievers.

Chapman will return on May 9th, in the 31st game of the season. Bird is done for the season, Mitchell will miss a minimum of three months, and I’m not quite sure how long Williams will be sidelined. He’s been hitting and throwing at Tampa, so I assume his return is weeks away, not months. Chapman’s suspension means the Yankees have an open 40-man roster spot. Bird and Mitchell are 60-day DL candidates whenever more spots are needed.

Okay, that was entirely too many words about an Opening Day roster with zero surprises. Hooray for baseball being back. Go team.

Girardi confirms Tanaka to start Opening Day; Romine and Cessa make roster

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

During this afternoon’s game broadcast on YES, Joe Girardi confirmed Masahiro Tanaka will indeed start Opening Day this coming Monday. He’s been lined up to start Opening Day all spring, so this isn’t a surprise. The Yankees dragged out the announcement for whatever reason. It will be Tanaka’s second straight Opening Day start.

The rotation behind Tanaka will be Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Luis Severino in that order, Girardi confirmed. The Yankees will pick between CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova for the fifth starter’s spot. Apparently that decision has not yet been made. Either that or the players have not been informed and the team is not ready to make the announcement.

Girardi also said both Luis Cessa and Austin Romine will make the Opening Day roster. The writing has been on the wall for Romine since Gary Sanchez was optioned to minor league camp last week. He’s had the inside track to be Brian McCann‘s backup for a while now. Romine has had a nice camp, and because he is out of options with a prior outright assignment, he could have elected free agent if he did not make the team.

Cessa, 23, came over from the Tigers this past offseason in the Justin Wilson trade. He allowed three runs on eight hits and two walks in ten innings this spring, and all three runs came in one of his five Grapefruit League outings. Cessa struck out ten. He’s a starter by trade and can give the team multiple innings. Interestingly, Girardi said Cessa made the team even before Bryan Mitchell went down with his broken toe.

In other roster news, Johnny Barbato told reporters in Tampa this morning he has been told he will make the team as well. The 23-year-old came over from the Padres in last year’s Shawn Kelley trade. He surrendered one run in 10.1 innings this spring, with 12 strikeouts and one one walk. Neither Barbato nor Cessa has pitched in the big leagues before, so the Yankees will have two true rookies in their Opening Day bullpen.

Earlier this week we learned Ronald Torreyes has indeed made the team as the backup infielder, beating out Pete Kozma. Here’s the roster at the moment:

CATCHERS (2) INFIELDERS (6) OUTFIELDERS (4) STARTERS (5) RELIEVERS (7) MISC. (4)
McCann Ackley Beltran Tanaka Barbato Chapman (sus.)
Romine Castro Ellsbury Pineda Betances Bird (DL)
Gregorius Gardner Eovaldi Cessa Mitchell (DL)
DH (1) Headley Hicks Severino Shreve Williams (DL)
Rodriguez Teixeira CC or Nova CC or Nova
Torreyes Miller?
???

Andrew Miller is a question right now because he suffered a chip fracture yesterday when he took a line drive to the wrist. He intends to pitch through his wrist fracture, though we’ll see what happens later today, after he visits a specialist. It might not be a playable injury. Hopefully it is.

Mitchell’s injury created an open bullpen spot, which is that last ??? in the table under relievers. Kirby Yates and Anthony Swarzak are the only bullpeners still in big league camp and not on the Opening Day roster. Yates has out-pitched Swarzak this spring, so we’ll see if that’s enough to land him on the team. The Yankees could always bring someone back from minor league camp as well.

Latest roster cuts leave four pitchers for final two bullpen spots

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

Earlier this morning the Yankees announced they have optioned left-hander Tyler Olson and right-handers Branden Pinder and Nick Goody to Triple-A Scranton. Pinder is the only moderate surprise. Olson started camp well but scuffled of late, and Goody served up three homers in the span of 24 hours earlier this week, so yeah.

Today’s cuts leave four candidates for the Yankees’ final two bullpen spots: righties Johnny Barbato, Luis Cessa, Anthony Swarzak, and Kirby Yates. Two of them will join Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Chasen Shreve, Ivan Nova, and Bryan Mitchell in the Opening Day bullpen. (Mitchell was told he made the team yesterday.) Here’s a quick pros and cons list:

  • Barbato: Great camp (pro), out-pitch curveball (pro), zero MLB experience (con).
  • Cessa: Very good camp (pro), can go multiple innings (pro), zero MLB experience (con).
  • Swarzak: Mediocre camp (con), blah stuff (con), can go multiple innings (pro).
  • Yates: Very good camp (pro), big league experience (pro), historically homer prone (con).

That about covers it. Earlier this week I said I expected Barbato and Yates to get the final two bullpen spots and I’m sticking to that right now. I don’t think Swarzak has much of a chance to make the roster, though Cessa definitely does. The question is do the Yankees want him in their MLB bullpen, or stretched out in Triple-A ready to start?

Either way, these last two bullpen spots are shuttle spots, meaning fresh relievers will be cycled in and out as necessary all year. Barbato and Yates may start the season in the bullpen, but the odds of them sticking through the end of April are small, nevermind sticking through the end of the season. That’s the plan. That’s the way the roster has been built.

Yesterday afternoon Joe Girardi said he hopes all the final roster decisions are made by tomorrow, and at this point I have to think the Yankees know who they’re taking north in the bullpen. They have a game this afternoon and two split squad games tomorrow, but realistically, what could happen in those games to change their mind? Outside of injury, probably nothing. Not unless Swarzak shows up throwing 100 or something.

Following today’s moves, the Yankees are down to 34 players in big league camp. It’s really 31 players though because Mason Williams (shoulder), Greg Bird (shoulder), and Aroldis Chapman (suspension) aren’t Opening Day roster candidates. Earlier today Girardi announced Ronald Torreyes has won the final bench spot, so the backup catcher’s job — Austin Romine has that all but locked up — and the two bullpen spots are the only remaining unsettled roster spots.

The Bullpen Shuttle [2016 Season Preview]

Shreve. (Presswire)
Shreve. (Presswire)

Over the last few years the Yankees have done a good job finding interesting bullpen prospects in different places. The late rounds of the draft, waivers, minor league free agency, whatever. These guys are not future ace closers or anything like that, but they look like serviceable bullpen options, so the Yankees put them to work last year. They cycled relievers in and out as part of their bullpen shuttle. They called someone up, got a few innings out of him, then sent him down for a fresh arm. Over and over again.

The Yankees will again employ a bullpen shuttle in 2016, perhaps even moreso than last year. They have multiple open bullpen spots and a small army of relievers with options, so they can send these guys up and down as much as they want this summer. And they will. We’re going to see pitchers come up, throw in a game or two, then get sent down. Big league stints will be measured in days, not weeks. Here are the main bullpen shuttle candidates for the coming season, presented alphabetically.

The Spring Standout

An offseason ago the Yankees flipped Shawn Kelley to the Padres in what was widely believed to be a cost-cutting move. Kelley was solid, not great, and he figured to be a key piece of the 2015 bullpen. Instead, the Yankees traded him for a Double-A relief prospect with a balky elbow. That prospect: Johnny Barbato. And one year after the trade, Barbato is in position to make the bullpen.

“Definitely came in trying to open some eyes,” said Barbato to Chad Jennings over the weekend. “Just worked my butt off this offseason to get ready, and I think I did. I think coming in here feeling confident, feeling comfortable — I lost a bunch of weight — just came in feeling good, and I think I’ve done well enough to open some eyes.”

Barbato, 23, had a 3.19 ERA (3.45 FIP) with a 24.8% strikeout rate and a 9.2% walk rate in 67.2 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A last year. The concerns about his elbow blew over. He’s been healthy since the trade. This spring he’s allowed two runs (both in the same game) in 8.2 innings with an 11/1 K/BB. Barbato’s done it with a low-to-mid-90s fastball, his trademark curveball …

Johnny Barbato curveball

… and a little slider/cutter thing. The Yankees added Barbato to the 40-man roster over the winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, and while taking Grapefruit League numbers to heart is a fool’s errand, Barbato has clearly opened some eyes in camp. With most of the other shuttle relievers struggling, he has put himself in very good position to be on the Opening Day roster. Either way, Opening Day roster or not, we’ll see Barbato in the big leagues this summer.

The Offseason Pickup

It’s funny how history repeats itself, isn’t it? Last offseason this Yankees traded someone we all thought would be a big part of their 2015 bullpen (Kelley) for a prospect, and everyone said they were doing it to save money. Now that prospect looks pretty good. They did the same thing this past offseason, sending Justin Wilson to the Tigers for two Triple-A starting pitcher prospects, one of which is righty Luis Cessa.

Cessa, a former shortstop, has been traded twice in the past eight months. The Mets sent him to the Tigers in the Yoenis Cespedes deal, then the Tigers sent to the Yankees for Wilson. The 23-year-old Cessa has been solid in limited action this spring (7 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K) and Brian Cashman has praised his work thus far. The GM could just be pumping up a recent addition, though ultimately the words do not matter. What matters is what happens on the mound.

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

In all likelihood Cessa, who is starting tonight’s game against the Tigers, will open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation. Don’t think that’s significant? Four of the five pitchers who opened last season in the Triple-A rotation ended up in the big leagues at some point. (Bryan Mitchell, Chase Whitley, Kyle Davies, Danny Burawa. Jaron Long was the exception.) Cessa, who is on the 40-man roster, is a fastball/slider/changeup pitcher with surprisingly good command for a converted position player, though he still needs some fine-tuning.

After Ivan Nova, Cessa could very well be the first pitcher to brought up from the minors to make a spot start in 2016. Mitchell started last season in the Triple-A rotation before getting some extended time in the MLB bullpen, and a similar path is a definite possibility for Cessa, though I think the Yankees really believe in him as a future starter. I’m sure he’ll reach the show at some point this year anyway. Similar to Barbato at the time of his trade, Cessa’s true coming out party may be a year away.

The Minor League Stats Guy

You’re not going to find a shuttle reliever with better minor league numbers than Nick Goody. The 24-year-old righty missed most of the 2013 and 2014 seasons due to Tommy John surgery, then, in his first full season with his rebuilt elbow, Goody had a 1.59 ERA (2.06 FIP) with a 33.2% strikeout rate and an 8.3% walk rate in 62.1 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2015. He also threw 5.2 innings in the show.

Goody was on the shuttle last year and he’ll be on the it again this year. He hasn’t had a great Spring Training (8.1 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) but the Yankees have not yet reassigned him to minor league camp, so his Opening Day roster hopes are still alive. Goody is a low-90s fastball/low-80s slider guy, so since he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, his presently shaky command probably isn’t good enough for high-leverage work. Perhaps his command can improve the way David Robertson‘s did. For the timing being, he’s the quintessential up-and-down middle reliever.

The Former Top Pick

Less than a year after being the Yankees’ top selection (second round) in the 2014 draft, left-hander Jacob Lindgren was in the big leagues, getting a chance to show he belonged long-term. (When they needed a roster spot, the Yankees cut the veteran David Carpenter and kept Lindgren.) Lindgren struggled in his seven MLB innings and eventually had surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, ending his season.

Lindgren, 23, was the very first 40-man roster player and Opening Day bullpen hopeful reassigned to minor league camp this spring. His numbers were not great, though it was basically one disaster outing in three appearances:

Jacob Lindgren stats

Joe Girardi said the Yankees felt Lindgren was pressing because he was trying to make the team, so they sent him down to clear his head and get regular work. Lindgren’s calling card is his wipeout slider, though he lacks command, lacks a big fastball (mostly 89-91 in pro ball), and has just good enough control to make it work. That’s the recipe for a frustrating reliever.

That slider gives Lindgren the best chance to be a late-inning reliever among the shuttle guys, though he’s going to have to throw more strikes going forward. That’s the goal this season with elbow surgery in the rear-view mirror: more strikes. A wipeout breaking ball is no good if you’re behind in the count. Lindgren is definitely a shuttle candidate, but I wonder if the Yankees will leave him in Triple-A for an extended period of time to iron out that control.

The Starter Turned Reliever

Real Talk: If the fifth starter competition was a real thing, Bryan Mitchell would be winning in a landslide. He’s been fantastic this spring (14.2 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 11 K) and he was very good out of the bullpen for the Yankees last year before taking a line drive to the nose. At this point it’s hard to believe Mitchell won’t be on the Opening Day roster. How could he not be?

The stuff as never been in question. Mitchell, who will turn 25 next month, has a mid-90s heater and a knockout curveball, and his third pitch is a cutter. He’s never been able to pick up a changeup, so he has to use the cutter against lefties. That lack of a changeup and career long command issues are Mitchell’s biggest flaws. One of those will have to improve — ideally both — for Mitchell to hack it as a starter at the next level.

For now, Mitchell is certain to open the season in the bullpen, and Girardi has talked about using him in the Adam Warren role. That versatile reliever who can go multiple innings and even pitch in the late innings on occasion. The Yankees shouldn’t close the door on Mitchell as a starter and I don’t think they will. For now, they need him in the bullpen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the big leagues for good. Mitchell may be too good to shuttle up and down.

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

The Lefty Specialist

Every year the Yankees (and every other team) make a series of small pickups in the offseason, and those small pickups can be easy to overlook. Left-hander Tyler Olson, who came over in a minor trade with the Dodgers, was one of those easy to overlook pickups this winter. He’s a pure left-on-left matchup guy with a funky delivery, a mid-to-upper-80s heater, and a loopy breaking ball, so his usefulness is limited.

Olson, 26, has had a pretty strong spring up until his last appearance or two. Having a spare lefty specialist you can bring up whenever you’re getting set to face a lefty heavy lineup is nice, but of all the shuttle relievers, I think Olson is most in danger of losing his 40-man roster spot. The Yankees have other lefties and they have other relievers who can throw full innings. Chances are we’ll see Olson at some point this summer. I would be surprised if he carved out a role and stuck around long-term, however.

The Other Lefty Specialist

The Yankees really seem to like James Pazos. He was reportedly on their list of untouchable prospects at the trade deadline — I refuse to believe that. It can’t possibly be true, can it? — and the club called him up last September before he had to be added to the 40-man roster. Pazos is a hard-thrower — PitchFX clocked his average fastball at 94.5 mph last September — though he lacks consistency with his slider and seems to be prone to bouncing pitches in the dirt.

Pazos was sent to minor league camp this past weekend, taking him out of the running for an Opening Day bullpen spot. But, like I said, the Yankees really seem to like him, and I have little doubt we’ll see him this season. Improving that slider will be his focus in Triple-A for the time being. Pazos seems to be the middle man between Olson (short-term fill-in) and Lindgren (potential long-term solution) among the shuttle lefties. Regardless, he’s going to get an awful lot of chances in this game because he’s a lefty and he throws hard.

The Shuttle Veteran

None of the shuttle relievers threw more big league innings (27.2) or made more up-and-down trips (six!) than 27-year-old Branden Pinder last season. The fastball-slider right-hander was called up at least once each month last season, so he’s a pro at this by now. He is well-versed in this shuttle reliever thing after only one year and that’s good, because he’ll be riding that shuttle again in 2016.

Pinder has had an steady but unspectacular spring (6.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 6 K) and he remains in big league camp, giving him a chance to make the Opening Day roster. That said, even if he makes the Opening Day roster, he’s a candidate to be sent to Triple-A whenever a fresh arm is needed. Pinder lacks a reliable weapon against lefties and he’s prone to missing over the plate, limiting his ceiling. Still, his stuff is good, and I feel like he’s going to carve out a lengthy career as a journeyman middle reliever. A Chad Qualls/Jason Frasor type.

Rumblin’ Rumbelow

Aside from Lindgren, no minor league reliever climbed the ladder as quickly as Nick Rumbelow in recent seasons. Rumbelow went from Low-A Charleston to Triple-A Scranton in 2014, then he made his big league debut in 2015. He threw 15.2 mostly forgettable innings with the Yankees a year ago, and over the weekend he was reassigned to minor league camp, meaning he’s not going to be on the MLB roster to start the new season next week.

Rumbelow, 24, has three pitches, unlike most of the other shuttle bullpeners. PitchFX had his average fastball at 93.3 mph last year, and he also throws a low-80s curveball and a mid-80s changeup. The curveball was Rumbelow’s go-to secondary pitch when he first signed as the team’s seventh round pick in 2013, but nowadays he prefers the changeup. He’ll double up on the change and throw it to righties.

Three pitches, a funky delivery, and good enough control are a nice recipe for a big league career. Rumbelow has fine-tuning to do before he sticks long-term — anecdotally, he seems prone to overthrowing and leaving pitches up in the zone — but the tools are there, and he’ll surely get plenty of chances to show what he can do this year. Rumbelow figures to see lots and lots of shuttle time this year. He might supplant Pinder and be the top shuttle guy in 2016.

The (Temporary) Seventh Inning Guy

I’m not sure anyone in camp needed a good spring more than Chasen Shreve. Shreve, who is still only 25, was very good for the first four and a half months of 2015, but he crashed hard down the stretch, and no one really knew why. There was talk he was tipping his pitches, talk the league figured him out, stuff like that. Most with the Yankees said they believe it was fatigue, which sounds like a cop-out, but it was a plausible explanation.

So far this spring Shreve has been untouchable: 8 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K. The only base-runner against him came on an error. The numbers are great, but, more importantly, Shreve looks comfortable on the mound and he’s throwing with conviction. His body language wasn’t so great late last year and that was understandable. Opponents made him pay for every mistake. Shreve looks rested and he’s been aggressive. It’s been a good spring.

At the outset of camp, Girardi talked about Shreve like one of his regular relievers, as if he had a bullpen spot locked up. Fans were understandably skeptical given his finish last season, but if the Yankees felt the same way, they weren’t showing it. Shreve is not only a lock for the Opening Day bullpen at this point, it seems likely he will assume seventh inning work while Aroldis Chapman serves his suspension. Shreve held that role last when Andrew Miller was on the DL.

It’s probably unfair to lump Shreve in with the other shuttle relievers at this point given what he did last year. He wasn’t just pretty good, remember. He was dominant from April through mid-August, using his low-90s fastball/low-80s splitter combination to neutralize both righties and lefties. If the Yankees have to send Shreve down to Triple-A at some point in 2016, something went wrong. I think he’s up for good.

The Darkhorse

Similar to Olson, right-hander Kirby Yates was a nondescript offseason pickup who was easy to overlook coming into camp. Now, with Opening Day a week away, the 29-year-old Yates appears to have a legitimate chance to make the team, especially since so many of the other shuttle guys haven’t had good Grapefruit League seasons. He’s been very good in camp (6.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K) and he has big league experience, throwing 56.1 innings with the Rays the last two seasons.

Yates is a generic low-to-mid-90s fastball/mid-80s slider guy, so lefties give him a problem, which limits his ceiling. That fine though. We’re talking about a possible low-leverage middle reliever who gets shipped in and out whenever the team needs a fresh arm. If nothing else, Yates opened some eyes this spring and cemented himself as a shuttle candidate. Even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’s put himself in position to be among the first called up.

Yates. (Presswire)
Yates. (Presswire)

The Non-40-Man Roster Options

In addition to all the 40-man guys, the Yankees have several non-40-man roster pitchers who could see time on the shuttle this season. Remember, guys like Kyle Davies and Matt Tracy and Joel De La Cruz went from afterthoughts to big leaguers a year ago, simply because they were available. Journeymen like lefty Richard Bleier and righties Anthony Swarzak, Vinnie Pestano, Tyler Cloyd, and Diego Moreno could all be temporary call-ups in 2016.

As for actual prospects, lefty Tyler Webb and righties Chad Green and Brady Lail seem most likely to be called up this summer. Maybe Mark Montgomery too. Green, the other prospect acquired in the Wilson/Cessa trade, and Lail are ticketed for the Triple-A rotation. Webb is going to return to the RailRiders’ bullpen. Depending on their Triple-A performance and the big league team’s needs, those guys could see the show this year.

Calling up someone like Bleier or Pestano is no big deal because the Yankees could drop them from the roster no questions asked. Call him up, get whatever innings you need, then move on. You can’t really do that with someone like Green or Lail because they’re actual prospects and you can’t simply drop them from the 40-man roster when a spot is needed. That’s a serious roster consideration. Is it worth clogging up a 40-man spot (and burning an option year) to get, say, two innings from Lail on a random June afternoon because you played 15 innings the night before? Probably not.

For now the Yankees appear to have plenty of bullpen shuttle candidates on the 40-man roster. I have ten 40-man relievers listed in this post even without counting Shreve. The Yankees are going to cycle through those pitchers all year, and with any luck, one or two will stand out from the pack and earn extended opportunities in the big leagues. With the Yankees unlikely to get much length from their starters, the extra bullpen arms will again be very important in 2016.