TAMPA, Fla. — It wasn’t a full rollout of what many in the sport believe will be baseball’s best bullpen in 2019. But a sizable portion of the arms expected to comprise the unit were on display in some form Sunday at Steinbrenner Field.
Before that afternoon’s game, Chad Green and Zack Britton threw bullpen sessions.
Then, in the Yankees’ 6-5 split-squad victory over the Pirates at Steinbrenner Field, Aaron Boone deployed Adam Ottavino, Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Jonathan Holder and Tommy Kahnle.
Four of the five performances ranged from good to excellent, with only Betances struggling. The 6-8 reliever allowed two runs, two hits and two walks in one-third of an inning, but he chalked up the rough outing to being tired, having worked for the third time since Tuesday.
But otherwise the afternoon was a tantalizing look at what is likely to come for Yankees fans throughout 2019.
“I anticipate it being fun to watch,” said lefthander J.A. Happ, who started Sunday.
Ottavino and his killer slider were the highlight of the afternoon.
The righthander, a New York native who signed a three-year, $27 million deal in the offseason and who has made many of his teammates look silly in live batting-practice sessions in spring training, took over for Happ in the fifth.
Ottavino quickly struck out the side (two swinging) as the three Pirates batters — Jason Martin, Starlin Marte and Jung Ho Kang — looked as if they would have liked to have been just about anywhere other than the batter’s box.
“His stuff is disgusting,” said Betances, also a New York native, who has known Ottavino since they played in the same area summer league as teenagers. “I was [telling] some of the guys, I kind of went for a bathroom break and the next thing you know, he’s already done, struck out the side. I’m like, ‘This is pretty insane.’ ”
Said Boone: “That was pretty lights-out. Guys on defense were running off [the field] talking about it, like ‘that’s not fair.’ When you see the highlights of Otto, you can add that one to it. That was a pretty showy performance.”
Chapman came on for the sixth and went 1-2-3 with one strikeout. After Betances struggled, Holder relieved him with the bases loaded and ended up allowing an inherited runner to score but was otherwise fine, allowing no runs, no hits and a walk in 1 1⁄3 innings.
Kahnle continued an impressive camp, allowing two hits and striking out one in 1 1⁄3 scoreless innings. He has not allowed a run in four appearances.
“I feel like they’re all in a pretty good place,” Boone said. “Obviously, we need to keep building Dellin up, but that’s not something we’re overly concerned about it. Tommy had another encouraging outing, pounding the zone with all three of his pitches. Britton and Greeny had really good pens and Chappy was good today. Overall, a pretty good day for our guys.”
Signs continued to point toward this year’s bullpen outdoing last year’s, which would be something. The group in 2018 ranked first with a 9.7 WAR, per FanGraphs, and had four of the majors’ top 17 relievers in strikeouts — Betances (third with 115), Green (tied for 11th with 94), Chapman (tied for 14th with 93) and David Robertson (17th with 91).
Robertson, whom the Yankees didn’t try to re-sign, went to the Phillies and was replaced by Ottavino, who struck out 112 in 77 2⁄3 innings with the Rockies last season.
“It does go on and on, which is nice,” Happ said of the number of quality arms in the bullpen. “I never really want to come out of a ballgame, but when you’ve got the quality that we have coming in behind you, that certainly feels good.”