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.

Montgomery scratched from batting practice session due to back strain

Via George King: Right-hander Mark Montgomery was scratched from yesterday’s live batting practice sessions due to a back strain. “I have been told it’s a 48-hour thing,’’ said Brian Cashman.

Montgomery, 22, is the Yankees’ top bullpen prospect. He’s pitched to a 1.65 ERA (1.43 FIP) in 92.2 innings since signing as the team’s 11th round pick in 2011, reaching Double-A Trenton late last summer. Montgomery, who has struck out 40% of the batters he’s faced as a pro, is slated to return to the Thunder when the season opens, but he figures to be in the big league mix by the second half. As long as the back strain is nothing serious, then no big deal.

Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects list

Keith Law published his list of baseball’s top 110 prospects yesterday, and he followed up today by releasing individual top ten prospects lists for each American League club (subs. req’d). The top five prospects are the same guys from the top 110 yesterday (in the same order), and numbers six through ten are RHP Ty Hensley, LHP Manny Banuelos, RHP Jose Campos, RHP Mark Montgomery, and 2B Angelo Gumbs.

Within the write-up, Law notes the system is top-heavy with high-end guys, and their only real impact prospects for 2013 are Montgomery and RHP Dellin Betances if he takes to the bullpen. He lists Hensley as the organization’s sleeper, saying the shoulder abnormality hasn’t stopped him from running his fastball up to 98, and “if he can just show that kind of stuff and last for a 120-140 inning season in 2013, he’s a likely top-100 guy.” Interestingly enough, he notes the Yankees love OF Ben Gamel, and they expect him to show more power this summer after bulking up thanks to his offseason conditioning program.

Hot .GIF Action: Mark Montgomery

That’s right-hander Mark Montgomery, the Yankees’ top relief prospect, in tonight’s Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Showcase. He struck out the side in his scoreless inning, allowing a base-runner when the first baseman booted a ground ball. Baseball America said he had “a slider that grades as major league plus already” following the 2011 draft, when New York grabbed him in the 11th round. More .gifs after the jump.
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The Yankees could use some relief

Three David Phelps photos in one day? Madness. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

After yet another close game (though thankfully, last night’s was of the winning variety), the collective blood pressure of the Yankee fanbase is once again a little higher than optimal.  While the Yankees were able to jump ahead of the Red Sox in the early going, the inability to accomplish the mythical shutdown inning allowed the Red Sox to stay within striking distance for the majority of the game.  This has been a problem for much of the recent stretch of subpar play.

While David Robertson and Rafael Soriano have individually had very strong seasons, the Yankee bullpen, and these two stalwarts in particular, have shown mortality at particularly inconvenient times.  Robertson’s fastball velocity is down slightly from last season, and his reduction in the use of his curveball in favor of the cutter is a little puzzling.  Several recent Yankee losses can directly be tied to blowups by one or both of the Yankees’ top relievers.  While Joba Chamberlain has impressed in his recent outings, he is probably still not at the point of being relied upon to be a consistent shutdown presence in the 7th inning.  The Clay Rapada/Cody Eppley/Boone Logan trio have performed adequately, though none of them (possibly excepting Logan) really are useful against opposite-handed batters.

As the Yankees battle through the last few weeks of the season and hopefully into October, it is evident that they could use another bullpen arm with the ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate.  Presumably, a trade is incredibly unlikely at this juncture, so whatever help the Yankees are going to find will have to come from within.  With several players on track to return from injury, the Yankees will have a few options as they shuffle their rotation to accommodate the returnees.  Here are some of the ways they can proceed, and variables to consider.

Ivan Nova

Nova should be back from injury relatively soon, but his uneven 2012 season raises questions about how he can be most effectively deployed.  He’s currently in line to replace Freddy Garcia in the rotation, but given his propensity to surrender extra-base hits, there’s no guarantee that he will be a significant upgrade.  While Freddy’s repertoire doesn’t really translate well to a short relief role (though he could be an effective long man), Nova could be an effective option for shorter stints, allowing him to focus on his fastball and slider and not worry about his other pitches.

David Phelps

Andy Pettitte is also on his way back, though his timeline for returning to the rotation is unclear at the moment.  The Yankees are currently planning to let Pettitte build his innings back up on the Major League roster, which will likely entail him making piggyback starts with one of Nova, Garcia, or Phelps. If Nova and Pettitte both make it back into the rotation, Phelps likely gets bumped back into a relief role.  Phelps has been very impressive when used as a reliever this season (albeit in a small sample), so he could be an intriguing option to add more depth to the Yankee bullpen.

Cory Wade

Yes, Wade has been incredibly disappointing in the majors this year, but he has handled himself fairly well since being demoted to AAA (2.27 ERA).  That said, his strikeout rate is down compared to 2011 and his walk rate is elevated, and both trends continued when he was sent down to the Scranton traveling road show.  Even though Wade is not pitching as well as he did last season (or early this year), it could be worth giving him some innings to see if he can get his confidence and stuff back.

Mark Montgomery (obligatory)

I know the Yankees have said that they will not call up Montgomery this season, but I think it is an option worth considering.  He has continued to dominate his minor league opposition, and I’m not sure if there is a serious developmental case to be made for keeping him in the minors much longer.  AA hitters simply have no answer for his slider, and he is striking them out in droves.  While there is some obvious risk inherent in calling up a minor leaguer to contribute to a playoff chase (some may fear that getting hit around could ruin him forever, a la Mark Melancon), Montgomery has the talent and upside to be a shutdown guy right away.  I trust that the Yankees know better than me regarding his big league readiness, but the possibility that Montgomery could be a shot in the arm to the Yankee bullpen (a la rookie Joba Chamberlain or Francisco Rodriguez back in the day) is hard to ignore.  Considering the Yankees’ recent bullpen struggles, it seems worthwhile to reconsider the calculus of whether keeping Montgomery down is really the best option.

While a Montgomery callup doesn’t seem forthcoming (though I will continue to dream), returning Phelps to the bullpen could give the Yankees the reliable middle-inning arm that they have been missing since Cory Wade began to struggle.  While Montgomery has the highest upside, Phelps is the safest bet.  Phelps has excelled in the role when called upon this season, and since the Yankees may not want to overwork Chamberlain and Robertson, it makes sense to have another reliable middle relief arm who can pitch to both righties and lefties.  It would be hard to expect much out of Nova or Wade if they were given a relief role, and they would definitely have to impress in their few opportunities to earn their spot.

Of all the problems facing the Yankees this season, the bullpen is probably the least of them.  That said, it has contributed directly to several losses, and the Yankees do have several decent options available that could improve the situation.  I assume when Pettitte and Nova are back, we will start to see some pieces in motion, as the Yankees look to fortify the middle innings.

Betances & Montgomery highlight Arizona Fall League pitching crop

Via Josh Norris, the Yankees are sending right-handers Dellin Betances, Mark Montgomery, Danny Burawa, and Zach Nuding to the Arizona Fall League this year. Austin Romine, Slade Heathcott, and David Adams have already been confirmed on the position player side.

Betances had a nightmare season that ended with shoulder tendinitis, but apparently he’ll be healthy enough to pitch in the desert. He has a long way to go to rebuild his prospect value, and it’ll be interesting to see if he starts or relieves out there. Montgomery is the club’s best bullpen prospect and Burawa isn’t far behind, though he missed the entire season with oblique and rib problems. Nuding is a bit of a sleeper and might have the biggest arm in the organization, though he missed time with a shoulder injury this year as well. That’s the common theme here, everyone ticketed for the AzFL other than Montgomery had injury problems in 2012.