Teams with deep, flexible bullpens are rare and the envy of other teams, and those units provide an unquestioned advantage during the grind of a 162-game regular season.
For the upcoming 60-game season?
“[It’s] even more of an advantage,” one American League talent evaluator said.
And few teams have a bullpen as deep or flexible as the Yankees'.
With spring training cut to three weeks from the usual six because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no chance that starting pitchers will be adequately stretched out for the regular season, which is scheduled to begin for the Yankees on July 23 in Washington against the defending champion Nationals.
Starters, therefore, likely will able to go only four innings or so in the beginning stages of the season, forcing teams to dip into their bullpens sooner. That, along with the inevitable plague of injuries caused by the sudden restart after more than three months of quarantine — not to mention players testing positive for COVID-19 during the season — will require teams to have more quality arms than ever.
And when it comes to quality bullpen arms, the Yankees are as well-positioned for success as anyone.
Though Yankees relievers had a 4.08 ERA last season — their highest since a 4.37 ERA in 2007 — the group ranked fifth in strikeouts (750 in 664 2/3 innings), three short of the franchise record set in 2018. Looking at it another way, the bullpen struck out 26.4% of the batters it faced, third-best in the big leagues.
There’s no reason to think the strikeout totals won’t be similar this year and that the ERA will be a notch lower.
The unit is headlined by Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Chad Green, who served as an opener 15 times last year but likely is headed back to a more traditional reliever role this season.
Chapman, coming off a 2019 season in which he went 37-for-42 in save opportunities with a 2.21 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 57 innings, said he has liked what he’s seen early on in this rebooted spring training.
“I have to say, being here and seeing every single guy that’s in that bullpen and seeing how ready they look, it shows how much they worked out during the quarantine,” Chapman said through his interpreter. “Understanding it’s going to be a short season, only 60 games, I think it’s definitely going to be an advantage for us.”
Ottavino struggled the last month of the 2019 season and carried those troubles into the postseason but was terrific overall, posting a 1.90 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings. Britton and his sinkerball had a 1.91 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings. Although Green's ERA ballooned to 4.17 last season, he struck out 98 in 69 innings.
The hard-throwing Tommy Kahnle bounced back from a rough 2018 to post a 3.67 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings in 2019. Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga, two more power arms, will start the season as swingmen, capable of providing length in the middle innings if need be or spot-starting (Cessa has not yet arrived in camp as he tested positive for COVID-19).
Jonathan Holder, who had a down year in 2019 after being solid to good in 2017 and ’18, has his fans in the organization, as does Ben Heller, who appeared healthy during the first spring training after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2018.
Non-roster invitees Tyler Lyons, Dan Otero and Nick Tropeano (West Islip, Stony Brook University) had good moments in spring training before it was suspended. And there are a slew of touted prospects knocking on the door to the big leagues who, in this oddest of seasons, could end up contributing in one role or another. Among them are Deivi Garcia (21 years old), Clarke Schmidt (24), Mike King (24) and Nick Nelson (24).
“All you see [top to bottom] in their system,” one National League scout said recently, “is quality arms.”