2014 Midseason Grades: The Bullpen

Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple, straightforward, and totally subjective grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. We’ve already covered the catchers, infielders, outfielders, and rotation, so now let’s wrap up with the bullpen.

Game over. (Al Bello/Getty)
Game over. (Al Bello/Getty)

David Robertson — Grade A

So maybe replacing Mariano Rivera won’t be so difficult after all. Robertson inherited the closer’s job — to the dismay of more than a few — and has run with it, pitching to a 2.76 ERA (1.73 FIP) in 32 appearances and 32.2 innings. He is 23-for-25 in save chances with a career best strikeout rate (16.26 K/9 and 44.7 K%) and a career best ground rate (51.6%) while keeping his walk rate (2.76 BB/9 and 7.6 BB%) in line with the last two years. Robertson is also holding opponents to a .198 batting average, second lowest of his career (.170 in 2011) despite a career worst .356 BABIP.

Robertson has allowed ten earned runs this year with five coming in one disaster outing against the Twins on June 1st. He has allowed one run while striking out 27 of 56 batters faced since. Overall, 59 of 98 outs this season have been strikeouts, including 58 of 89 (65.2%) since coming off the disabled list (groin) in mid-April. No pitcher who has thrown at least 30 innings this season has a high strikeout rate. It’s not even close, really. Robertson leads in K/9 by more than one full strikeout and in K% by roughly three percentage points. He’s been dominant in every sense of the word.

The Yankees will need Robertson to continue his dominance in the second half for obvious reasons, though his looming free agency will be hanging over everyone’s head. The two sides have not discussed an extension but that could change at any time. Relievers like Robertson — super high strikeout pitchers with proven late-inning/big market chops and no history of arm problems — are rare and the Yankees should make every effort to keep him beyond this season. If his work this year doesn’t convince them he is the man to replace Rivera long-term, then I’m not sure they’ll ever find someone good enough.

Lots of (very) high fives for Dellin this year. (Presswire)
Undisputed best photo of the season. (Presswire)

Dellin Betances — Grade A

Just a few short months ago, Betances had a win a roster spot in Spring Training. Now he’s an All-Star high-leverage reliever who is 1996 Rivera to Robertson’s 1996 John Wetteland. Betances has a 1.46 ERA (1.37 FIP) while ranking third among full-time relievers in innings (55.1) and first in both fWAR (2.1) and bWAR (1.7). His strikeout rate (13.66 K/9 and 40.8 K%) is a bit behind Robertson’s but still among the highest in the league. He’s also stopped walking dudes (2.60 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) and is getting grounders (50.5%).

Joe Girardi has not been shy about using Betances for multiple innings given his history as a starter — Betances has recorded at least four outs in 25 of his 40 appearances and at least six outs 12 times — though he did take his foot off the gas right before the All-Star break because it did appear the big right-hander was starting to fatigue a bit. His stuff was still electric but not quite as crisp. Hopefully the break recharges his batteries. A little more than a year ago, Betances looked like he may soon be out of baseball. The move into the bullpen has saved his career and given the Yankees a second elite reliever to pair with Robertson in the first season post-Mo.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Adam Warren — Grade B

From spot starter to swingman to trusted high-leverage reliever. Warren has had his role redefined over the last few seasons and he has now settled in as a quality third option behind Robertson and Betances. His numbers — 2.79 ERA (2.70 FIP) in 42 appearances and 48.1 innings — are not quite as good as those two, but he gets strikeouts (8.57 K/9 and 22.4 K%), gets grounders (46.8%), and is stingy with ball four (2.79 BB/9 and 7.3 BB%). His fastball velocity has also ticked up in short relief, averaging 94.1 mph this year after sitting 93.0 last year.

As with Betances, Girardi has taken advantage of Warren’s history as a starter by using his for multiple innings on several occasions — he’s recorded 4+ outs in 18 of his 42 appearances. The Yankees have said that if the need arises, they would pull Warren out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation, but starters are dropping like flies and it hasn’t happened yet. Warren seems to have found a niche in short relief and he’s been a very valuable member of the bullpen despite being overshadowed by Robertson and Betances.

(Elsa/Getty)
Kelly and Kelley. (Elsa/Getty)

Shawn Kelley — Grade C

It was a tale of two first halves for Kelley, who opened the season as the regular eighth inning guy and nailed down four saves in four chances while Robertson was on the disabled list in April. He had a 1.88 (1.67 FIP) in his first 14.1 innings of the year before a disaster outing against the Angels on May 5th (two outs, four walks, three runs), after which he was placed on the disabled list with a back injury. It kept him out a month and he has a 4.05 ERA (3.21 FIP) in 13.1 innings since returning.

Kelley didn’t look right when he first returned from the back problem. He wasn’t able to finish his pitches and his trademark slider didn’t have much bite. It just kinda spun and floated. He looked much better in his last few outings before the All-Star break — one run, five hits, no walks, 13 strikeouts in 8.1 innings — and hopefully that’s a sign he’s now 100% and ready to take on some late-inning responsibilities so Girardi can spread the workload around. Definitely a mixed bag for Kelley in the first half.

Matt Thornton — Grade C

The rules of baseball fandom say we must hate the team’s lefty specialist, but Thornton has been solid (3.10 ERA and 3.04 FIP) in his 38 appearances and 20.1 innings. As his innings-to-appearances ratio suggests, Girardi has used him as a true matchup left-hander and not tried to force it against righties whenever possible. Thornton has held same-side hitters to a .229/.319/.244 (.262 wOBA) batting line with a 15.1% strikeout rate, a 3.8% walk rate, and a 50.0% ground ball rate. Solid.

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

The only real negative about Thornton is he doesn’t miss bats, even against left-handed hitters. That 15.1% strikeout rate is 76th out of the 90 left-handed pitchers who have faced at least 50 left-handed batters this year. Lefties have swung and missed only 20 times at the 220 pitches Thornton has thrown them this year (9.1%). That kinda sucks for a left-on-left reliever. Thornton missed a week with undisclosed soreness right before the break but did return to pitch against the Indians last week. LOOGYs, huh? Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

Preston Claiborne and David Huff — Grade C

Remember how awful Claiborne looked in Spring Training? We were talking about him as a candidate to be dropped from the 40-man roster if a need arose, but the Yankees kept him around and he pitched to a 3.57 ERA (3.82 FIP) in 17.2 innings while going up and down a few times in the first half. Three of his nine walks were intentional, uglifying his numbers a bit. Claiborne is currently on the Triple-A Scranton disabled list with a shoulder injury of unknown severity, which is not insignificant given his status as the team’s primary up and down depth arm.

The Yankees re-acquired Huff from the Giants in mid-June as part of their continuing efforts to find a not awful long man, and he’s since given the team 16.2 innings of 2.16 ERA (5.18 FIP) ball. Girardi used him as a matchup lefty while Thornton was out with his soreness and that predictably did not go well. Warren was pretty awesome by long man standards last year and that kinda spoiled us. Most long relievers stink. Is Huff keeping runs off the board? His ERA says yes. Has it been pretty? No but who cares. In that role you just want someone who can limited the damage and Huff has done that for the most part.

Alfredo Aceves — Grade F

Did you realize Aceves threw the sixth most innings among the team’s relievers in the first half? I sure didn’t. The Mexican Gangster threw 5.1 scoreless innings in long relief in his first outing back with the team, but it was all downhill from there. He allowed 14 runs on 20 hits (six homers!) and four walks in his next nine games and 14 innings, putting his overall season numbers at 6.52 ERA (6.29 FIP) in 19.1 total innings. The Yankees designated Aceves for assignment in early-June, he accepted the outright assignment to Triple-A Scranton, and he was recently suspended 50 games after a second failed test for a drug of abuse. He will be missed by: no one.

Matt Daley, Jose Ramirez, Bruce Billings, Jim Miller, Chris Leroux, Cesar Cabral, and Wade LeBlanc — Grade F

The combined pitching line of these seven: 33.2 IP, 46 H, 36 R, 33 ER, 19 BB, 33 K, 6 HBP, 6 HR. That’s an 8.82 ERA and a 5.19 FIP in one more inning than Robertson has thrown this year. I didn’t even include Dean Anna. /barfs

* * *

Girardi has had to rely on his bullpen more than I’m sure he would have liked in the first half, mostly because of the rotation injuries. Yankees relievers have thrown 292 innings this season, the 13th most in MLB, though their 264 total pitching changes are only 23rd most. That’s because of guys like Betances, Warren, and Huff being used for multiple innings at a time.

The bullpen has a 3.85 ERA (3.60 FIP) overall, which is bottom third in the league, but they have a top-heavy relief crew with arguably the best setup man/closer tandem in the game. The late innings are no problem at all. The middle innings are where it gets messy. Kelley is the bullpen key to the second half to me — if he gets back to pitching like he did before his back started acting up, Girardi will have another trustworthy high-strikeout arm who could potential solve that middle innings problem.

Yankees call up Jim Miller, send Jose Ramirez to Triple-A

The Yankees have called up right-hander Jim Miller from Triple-A Scranton, the Yankees announced. Righty Jose Ramirez was sent down in a corresponding move. The Yankees needed to add a fresh arm after burning through their bullpen in extra innings last night. CC Sabathia was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man roster spot.

Miller, 32, has a 2.85 ERA (3.11 FIP) in 41 Triple-A innings this season. He appeared in one game with the Yankees last September, allowing three runs in 1.1 innings. Ramirez showed a very live arm in his limited time with the team but was erratic, which is not uncommon for young pitchers. Some more time in Triple-A won’t be the end of the world.

Bullpen Shakeup: Yankees drop Aceves and Claiborne, add Ramirez and LeBlanc

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have shaken up their bullpen, at least slightly. Alfredo Aceves has been designated for assignment and Preston Claiborne has been sent down to Triple-A Scranton, the team announced. In corresponding moves, Jose Ramirez was called up and Wade LeBlanc was added to the active roster. LeBlanc was claimed off waivers from the Angels yesterday. The moves leave the Yankees with an open 40-man roster spot.

Aceves had a 6.52 ERA (6.22 FIP) in 19.1 innings during his second stint in pinstripes. He somehow allowed six homers in his last 12 innings. In addition to his bad pitching, I think the Yankees were sick of his attitude as well. Aceves didn’t seem to get on the same page as Brian McCann, plus Larry Rothschild had to go out to the mound the other day to tell Aceves to stop throwing inside after giving up a few homers. He’s long had some attitude problems.

Claiborne had a 3.57 ERA (3.74 FIP) in 17.2 innings. I think he’s going down because the team wants to get a look at Ramirez more than anything. Ramirez had a 0.84 ERA (2.86 FIP) in 10.2 Triple-A innings this year after missing the start of the season with an oblique problem. LeBlanc simple takes over as the veteran journeyman long reliever  Joe Girardi can use and abuse as needed. With the starters struggling to go five innings at times, that’s guy is kinda necessary.

The Yankees called up Scott Sizemore and demoted Zoilo Almonte yesterday, and today they shook up the bullpen a little bit. Carlos Beltran is expected to activated off the disabled list either tomorrow or the next day, so there is at least one more change coming. It’s not much, but it’s better than remaining status quo. Sizemore should be more useful than Almonte, Ramirez could be an impact reliever, and dumping Aceves is a positive almost regardless of who replaces him.

Injury Updates: Tex, Robertson, Ryan, Ramirez

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

The Yankees are starting to get healthy. Or, really, several of their players have started working their way back after being shut down for various lengths of time. No one has actually come off the DL yet. Here are some updates on the walking wounded, courtesy of George King, Erik Boland, and Jorge Castillo.

  • Mark Teixeira (hamstring) went 0-for-1 with two walks during an Extended Spring Training game yesterday and 1-for-5 with a strikeout today. He played the field both games and had to run hard on several occasions. “I will be fully ready to play Sunday and disappointed if I don’t.,” said Teixeira, who is eligible to activated off the DL on Sunday.
  • David Robertson (groin) threw a 25-pitch bullpen session yesterday and is scheduled to throw in an inning in Extended Spring Training tomorrow. “Get Sunday and Monday off and be ready to go Tuesday,’’ said Robertson. He’s eligible to be activated off the DL on Tuesday.
  • Brendan Ryan (back) got several at-bats in a simulated game this morning, his first game action since getting hurt. Because he missed just about all of Spring Training, Ryan’s rehab will be much longer than a handful of minor league games. He’s still a few weeks from returning.
  • Jose Ramirez (oblique) was one of the pitchers to face Teixeira this morning. He missed all of Spring Training but is throwing now, so that’s good. No word on when he’ll rejoin one of the minor league affiliates.

Cashman confirms Yankees will move Jose Ramirez to the bullpen

During a recent interview (video link), Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees are moving Jose Ramirez to the bullpen full-time. “Jose Ramirez is a power right-hander that’s been a starter throughout his minor league career, but because of injuries we’re going to stick him in the bullpen,” said the GM. “He has a chance to move very fast.”

Ramirez, 24, has not pitched this spring due to a lingering oblique injury. He has thrown 100+ innings only twice in his career (2010-11) because of elbow, shoulder, lat, and oblique problems. Ramirez pitched to a 3.67 ERA (4.62 FIP) with a 78/36 K/BB in 73.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season. I think his mid-90s fastball/changeup/slider combo could be devastating in relief, and I’m glad to see they’ve pulled the plug on him as a starter due to the continued injuries. I ranked Ramirez as the team’s 12th best prospect last month and we could see him at some point this summer, health permitting.

2014 Season Preview: Help From Within

It's Dellin's time to shine. (Presswire)
It’s Dellin’s time to shine. (Presswire)

Last year, the Yankees got close to zero help from their farm system. The only player to come up from the minors and establish himself as a big leaguer was Adam Warren, who spent the year as the swingman. Guys like David Adams, Preston Claiborne, and Zoilo Almonte got off to hot starts, but they all tailed off once they were pressed into regular playing time. Austin Romine also failed to impress as the backup catcher. The system offered close to no help as the injuries mounted and the poor stretches turned into poor seasons.

The Yankees were not oblivious to this — Hal Steinbrenner called a staff meeting and essentially had the scouting and player development staff audited to figure out why there were no internal solution. No major personnel changes were made, but some procedural changes were implemented and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. Turning around the system probably won’t happen overnight, but the team did take some steps in the right direction these last few months.

At some point this season, the Yankees will have to dip into their farm system for help. It’s inevitable. Injuries will strike and fringe players will play their way off the roster. When that happens, the first attempt at fixing the problem will come from within. The Yankees have shown they will be patient and not jump right into the trade market when they need help these last few years and I have no reason to think that will change in 2014. Here are the prospects who could come up and help the MLB team this summer.

Catcher: John Ryan Murphy
Murphy, 22, got his first taste of the big leagues late last year, but that was nothing more than a September cup of coffee following a breakout season in Double-A and Triple-A. He hit .269/.347/.426 with 29 doubles and 12 homers between the two levels and has improved so much defensively that he is now viewed as a no doubt catcher long-term. Had the Yankees not signed Brian McCann, the temptation to start Murphy in 2014 would have been be great. Instead, he figures to bide his time in Triple-A and await an injury after jumping Romine on the depth chart. Of course, he might be nothing more than trade bait. Sleeper: Eh, there really isn’t a sleeper behind the plate for 2014.

Anna. (Getty)
Anna. (Getty)

Infield: Dean Anna
Similar to Murphy, Anna figures to be the first called up whenever injury strikes the infield. The Yankees acquired the 27-year-old from the Padres in a minor offseason deal and he can do a little of everything except hit for power. He can get on base and play both second and short, where the offensive bar is pretty low. I’d say the chances of Anna coming up and being an impact player  this summer are remote, but he does enough to potentially help the team both at the plate and in the field if pressed into duty. Sleeper: Jose Pirela, who’s hit .264/.334/.401 and played four positions (second, short, third, left) at Double-A the last three years.

Outfield: Zoilo Almonte
Technically, Almonte had his chance to help the MLB team last year. He came up in mid-June and had five pretty great games to start his career, but it went downhill fast and he finished the year with a .236/.274/.302 batting line in 113 big league plate appearances around an ankle injury. Almonte, 24, offers sound corner outfield defense and a switch-hitting bat, and there’s a case to be made that he’s a better fit for the bench than Ichiro Suzuki right now. Instead of making the Opening Day roster, Zoilo will have to settle for a trip to Triple-A, where he will be the first called up whenever an extra outfield body is needed. He’s the clear first in line. Sleeper: Ronnie Mustelier, who didn’t get a shot last year but could hit his way into the conversation again.

Right-handers: Dellin Betances, Mark Montgomery, Jose Ramirez
Of everyone in this post, the 25-year-old Betances probably has the best chance to crack the Opening Day roster. He finally found something resembling sustained success in the bullpen last year, pitching to a 2.06 ERA with a 93/28 K/BB in 65.2 innings after shifting into a relief role. It feels like a foregone conclusion that Betances will get a chance to not only stick in the big leagues this year, but also assume a high-profile, late-inning role. The time is now for Dellin.

Had Montgomery not gotten hurt last year, he probably would have been called up instead of Claiborne. Instead, the 23-year-old struggled to throw strikes while missing time with shoulder problems. Montgomery will likely have to show he’s back to being the guy he was from 2011-12 before getting a chance to help the MLB team with his wipeout slider. Ramirez, 24, has had trouble staying healthy over the years and sure enough, he’s already been sidelined with an oblique problem in camp. When right, his fastball-changeup combination is electric and could have a huge impact out of the bullpen, assuming the Yankees are ready to give up on him as a starter given his career-long lack of durability. Sleeper: Danny Burawa, assuming he can figure out how consistently throw strikes.

Cabral. (Getty)
Cabral. (Getty)

Left-handers: Cesar Cabral, Vidal Nuno
I wouldn’t be a complete shock if either Cabral or Nuno made the Opening Day roster, but, more likely, they figure to serve as up and down arms this season. The 25-year-old Cabral is a pure lefty specialist with a low-90s fastball and a sweepy slider, and his late-season cameo was impressive (nine lefties faced, six strikeouts). Nuno, 26, has a deep enough repertoire to start and we saw him do that last summer before his groin injury. In a perfect world, he’d turn into a left-handed 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed swingman who could come in for one batter or four innings without much of a problem. Sleeper: Fred Lewis, who lacks sexy numbers but has the fastball-slider combination to help as a specialist.

* * *

The Yankees do not have a Xander Bogaerts or a Gregory Polanco in their farm system, that super high upside MLB ready prospect with a clear path to big league playing time in 2014. Any help they get from within this summer figures to come in small doses, from bench players or relievers. Sure, Murphy could take over as the starter if McCann gets hurt or Nuno could grab the fifth starter’s spot and run with it, but that would be a surprise. The system is not a position to provide an immediate impact right now unless it involves trading prospects for a big leaguer.

Keith Law’s top 11 Yankees prospects

Clarkin and Judge. (AP)
Clarkin and Judge. (AP)

One day after posting his top 100 prospects list and two days after posting his organizational rankings, Keith Law released his top ten prospects lists for each of the 15 AL clubs today (East, Central, West, subs. req’d). The NL will be released tomorrow, if you care. Here are the Yankees’ top 11, according to KLaw:

  1. C Gary Sanchez (68th on the top 100)
  2. OF Tyler Austin (85th)
  3. OF Mason Williams (87th)
  4. C J.R. Murphy
  5. OF Slade Heathcott
  6. OF Aaron Judge
  7. LHP Ian Clarkin
  8. 3B Eric Jagielo
  9. RHP Luis Severino
  10. 1B Greg Bird
  11. RHP Jose Ramirez (Law said he is #11 in the write-up)

Judge is mentioned as a breakout candidate (video link) who could jump not just into the top 100 next year, but into the top 25 with a strong season.

In his write-up, Law says Murphy is “going to be an every-day catcher for somebody” while Bird’s “patience/power game could make him a second-division regular down the road.” Severino might not stick as a starter long-term but his “three-pitch mix might be three pluses out of the pen, and it’s a grade-65 or 70 fastball [on the 20-80 scale] even in the rotation.” Law also quotes a scout who said Heathcott is “legitimately a crazy person,” which is kinda funny. The kid always seems to have his dial set to 11.

“The Yankees have to be excited about Venezuelan catcher Luis Torrens, whom they signed for $1.3 million in July 2012,” added Law, picking Torrens as the organization’s sleeper prospect. “A new convert to catching, Torrens took to it extremely well, with plus hands and plus defense overall, with a good swing and feel at the plate, only lacking power but likely hitting for average with good OBP when he develops.”

Sanchez is the clear top prospect in the organization right now. I’m not sure anyone will disagree with that. After him though, there really isn’t much separation between the guys Law has ranked from two through about eight. You can rank those players in almost any order and it would be tough the argue. Either way, the Yankees need better results from their minor league system and that starts with rebound seasons from guys like Austin and Williams. Both will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft next winter, so hopefully that 40-man roster spot serves as a nice carrot this summer.