Yankee fans’ focus has been fixated on DJ LeMahieu this offseason and rightfully so, as LeMahieu finished top five in MVP voting in each of the past two seasons. Another concern is the uncertainty of the Yankees’ pitching rotation past Gerrit Cole. Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ (finally) all may not return. Add in the fact that Luis Severino won’t be back until some time this summer, and nobody is certain how Brian Cashman will fill out his staff. But one thing that I think has been flying under the radar is the Yankees’ bullpen situation.
The Yankee bullpen has been a strength in recent seasons. Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton, and Adam Ottavino have all been in pinstripes within the last five years. Cashman has always ensured his bullpen was loaded. At least, until now.
When Kahnle went down with a season-ending injury early in 2020, I figured he would be replaced. I was wrong. Not only did the Yankees lose Kahnle, but Ottavino was hardly the high-leverage reliever the Yankees pay him $9 million a year to be. Aaron Boone essentially only trusted Green, Britton, and Chapman in the Tampa series. The Yankees playing five games in five days with only three relievers went about as poorly as you’d think. Cashman needs to address the bullpen going into 2021. However, with Chapman, Britton, and Ottavino earning nearly $40 million combined next year, Cashman will have to get creative.
The back end
Green, Britton, and Chapman still make up a formidable back end of the Yankee bullpen. I know Chapman is extremely frustrating. I’m far from his biggest fan. But at the end of the day, he’s been great for the Yankees. Even though the Jose Altuve & Mike Brosseau home runs are extremely painful to think about, Chapman has a career 2.40 ERA in the postseason. Would I be nervous watching him come into another elimination game with a tied score? Of course. I wouldn’t be opposed to moving him off of the 9th inning. But at the end of the day, Chapman is extremely talented and likely here to stay.
The one notable move the Yankees have made all offseason was opting into the last two years, $27 million of Britton’s contract. I loved the decision, as Britton has been fantastic for the Yankees. He’s posted sub-2 ERA’s in each of the past two seasons. Britton is the groundball king.
I really, really, really, really, REALLY miss watching Zack Britton induce double plays with his sinker. pic.twitter.com/9KPWU17Wrw
Green and the Yankees avoided arbitration on Sunday agreeing to a $1.275 million deal for 2021. Cashman finding another diamond in the rough like Green would be huge for the Yankees.
The other “locks”
I consider Ottavino, Luis Cessa, and Jonathan Loaisiga other locks to make the Yankee bullpen. I’ve said numerous times I’d like for the Yankees to trade Ottavino, because $9 million for an unreliable relief pitcher is not exactly ideal. Unfortunately, I can’t see anybody taking him unless the Yankees either ate some of the salary or attached an intriguing prospect. Therefore, the best we can do is hope Ottavino returns to the lockdown reliever we saw for much of 2019.
Cessa has been serviceable since the Yankees switched his role from starter to middle reliever in 2019. He posted a 3.32 ERA in 16 appearances this past season. Am I thrilled at the prospect of Boone handing Cessa the 7th inning of a one-run game? No, but I’m comfortable with him in the middle innings of close-ish games.
Loaisiga is an interesting case. The Yankees clearly hope he can become a back-end of the bullpen type guy. Boone even went to him in a crucial situation in Game 2 of the Wild Card series. While Loaisiga didn’t come through, I don’t blame him. Did he pitch in any high-leverage situations prior to that all season?
If 2020 was a full season, some of the Yankees’ problems would’ve been exposed more. But I also think it could’ve given them time to solve some problems. Maybe Loaisiga gets the chance to actually pitch in high leverage spots before being thrust into that role in the playoffs
I think a full 162-game season will give players additional opportunities that can help them prepare for October, and Loaisiga is a prime example.
There are a variety of young pitchers the Yankees could turn to throughout the course of 2021 that could become part of the bullpen solution. Nick Nelson showed promise during his first season in the big leagues. Aside from a horrific outing in Philadelphia, Nelson was pretty effective. Brendan Kuty named Brooks Kriske as somebody the Yankees are high on. Ben Heller is another potential option. The team’s number 12 prospect Albert Abreu & number 15 prospect Miguel Yajure each saw limited MLB action in 2020. They each have the potential to spend 2021 in the Yankee bullpen.
If you were dreaming about the Yankees adding Liam Hendriks, or are still dreaming about Brad Hand, it’s not happening. I hate to burst your bubble, but with $40 million invested in three relievers, another big money deal for a bullpen piece likely isn’t in the cards. Nevertheless, the relief pitching free agent market is fairly deep right now. While I expect Cashman to rely on internal options, I could see him looking for a bargain reliever.
Former Yankee Shane Greene of the Braves is a name that stands out to me. Alex Colome of the White Sox is another free agent who had a fantastic 2020. Ken Giles is a bounce-back candidate after missing most of 2020 due to an injury. Giles throwing to Gary Sanchez would be something.
The Pirates’ Keona Kela another name I’ve seen thrown around a lot on Yankees twitter. The Padres’ Kirby Yates and Archie Bradley of the Reds are two other relievers I’d love to have, but could fall on the expensive side.
So what’s the solution?
Overall, the Yankee bullpen still has a solid back end of Green, Britton Chapman. I expect them to hold onto Ottavino and hope he bounces back, while also elevating Loaisiga to a more high-leverage role. While I wouldn’t doubt Cashman bets on some of the kids stepping up, look for him to add one more reliever on a team-friendly deal.
What are your thoughts on the Yankee bullpen? Let us know in the comments or tweet me @ncostanzo24