TAMPA, Fla. — Leave it to the typically candid manager of the Toronto Blue Jays to perfectly synopsize the hopes of just about every Yankees fan.
“There’s not a better bullpen out there,” John Gibbons said one morning during spring training. “That’s for damn sure.”
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Of all the story lines surrounding the 2016 Yankees, one hovers above the rest: the potential of the bullpen to be historically good.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my career,” Chase Headley said. “You don’t have three arms like that on any team. No team that I’ve ever seen.”
The three power arms, of course, belong to Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and new closer Aroldis Chapman.
The latter arrived via a trade with the Reds in late December. He was available at a relatively low cost — four minor-leaguers — because of an alleged domestic-violence incident last October that resulted in an MLB suspension for the first 30 games of the regular season.
Once together, there’s no reason to expect the trio to be anything but dominant. It appeared as if the Yankees might be without two-thirds of the group to start the season when Miller took a comebacker off his right hand Wednesday and sustained a chip fracture, but he vowed to pitch.
“I don’t see why not,’’ he said. “It’s my right hand, I’m a left handed pitcher.”
All routinely throw in the high 90s, and Chapman — who went 33-for-36 in save chances with a 1.63 ERA last season — is capable of throwing 103 mph. The lefthander’s fastball averaged a league-high 100.0 mph, according to MLB’s Statcast computer system. According to the same system, Chapman threw the 77 fastest pitches of 2015, topped by a fastball to the Twins Brian Dozier on June 29 that came in at 103.92 mph.
“If he’s in the game,” Gibbons said, “they’re probably going to win.”
The same very well could be said of Betances and Miller. The 6-8 Betances followed a stellar 2014 (1.40 ERA in 70 appearances) by posting a 1.50 ERA in 74 appearances last season. The 6-7 Miller went 36-for-38 in save chances with a 2.04 ERA in 2015.
Like strikeouts? Chapman struck out 116 in 66 1⁄3 innings, Betances fanned 131 in 84 innings and Miller struck out 100 in 61 2⁄3 innings.
“They’re three of the top pitchers in the game and we have them on our team,” catcher Brian McCann said. “They’re all proven pitchers and they’re all dominant. It’s a nice weapon to have.”
While the back end of the bullpen looks impenetrable, there are questions about the middle innings, questions that became more pronounced when Bryan Mitchell suffered a fractured left big toe covering first base Wednesday. Mitchell, likely to be out at least a couple of months and perhaps more, was electric all spring (0.57 ERA) and was in line to fill the swing man role executed so well last season by Adam Warren. Warren was sent to the Cubs in the Starlin Castro deal and lefty Justin Wilson, a late-inning stalwart last season, was traded to the Tigers for minor-league starters Chad Green and Luis Cessa. The latter impressed the Yankees and opposing team scouts this spring to put himself in the bullpen mix.
Warren, the swingman, had a 3.29 ERA in 43 games (17 starts). Wilson was solid all year with a 3.10 ERA in 74 outings and 66 strikeouts in 61 innings.
And there’s this incontrovertible fact: It will be difficult for the 2016 Yankees’ bullpen to be dramatically better than last year’s edition. Why?
Because last year’s was historically good in its own right.
Yankees relievers set a single-season record with 596 strikeouts, with Betances and Miller ranking first and third, respectively, in reliever strikeouts.
The unit played a significant role in the Yankees being an AL-best 66-3 when leading after six innings, 73-2 when leading after seven and 81-0 when leading after eight.
“There’s some really sexy names, clearly, that have been collected there, the last three names,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “But it’s still going to be hard-pressed to achieve what we did last year.”
As Cashman knows well, and is fond of saying, bullpens can be “volatile” from year to year. What seems like a sure thing in this sport sometimes is and sometimes isn’t.
“You have to stay healthy and you have to have tremendous performance, and for the most part, that’s what we had last year,” Cashman said. “So I’m hopeful we’ll have that again this year, but even if we have all that, it’s still going to be tough to repeat last year because that was pretty special. We blew the lead once, maybe twice, after a certain part of the game. That’s pretty special stuff. It’s hard to upgrade on that.”