During this pandemic-induced baseball hiatus, we examine the Yankees position by position. We already covered first base, second base, shortstop, third base, catcher, centerfield, leftfield, rightfield and the rotation. To conclude, the bullpen.
The relievers: Yankees relievers had a 4.08 ERA last season, ninth-lowest in the major leagues but their highest since a 4.37 ERA in 2007. A down year in some respects, at least compared with what the unit had been in previous seasons, but that's not a complete picture.
That's because the relief corps ranked fifth in strikeouts (750 in 664 2/3 innings), three shy of the franchise record set in 2018. Put another way, the bullpen struck out 26.4% of the batters it faced, the third-highest percentage in the big leagues.
With Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton headlining the group and Chad Green likely to be used primarily as a reliever after serving as an opener 15 times last season, the strikeout numbers again should be high and the ERA should be considerably lower.
Talk to opposing team scouts about the Yankees’ bullpen and a form of one phrase inevitably comes up: “They have four guys with closer stuff.” That would be the aforementioned quartet of Chapman, who is the closer, Ottavino, Britton and Green.
Chapman is coming off a season in which he went 37-for-42 in save chances with a 2.21 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 57 innings. Ottavino struggled down the stretch and into the postseason, but he had a 1.90 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings. Sinkerballer Britton had a 1.91 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings. Green's ERA ballooned to 4.17 but he struck out 98 in 69 innings.
Throw in Tommy Kahnle — who had a solid bounce-back 2019 (a 3.67 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings) after a rough 2018 — and likely the power arms belonging to Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga, who also can be called upon as spot starters, and there shouldn’t be a deeper, more powerful bullpen in the sport.
Which will be especially vital this season, if there is one. Starters, particularly at the beginning, likely won’t be stretched out enough to go more than a few innings because of a significantly trimmed- down second spring training.
Other options: Jonathan Holder, solid to good in 2017 and ’18 but less effective last season, was in the mix for a spot when baseball officially shut down March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So was Ben Heller, who at last seemed healthy after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2018. Non-roster invitees such as Dan Otero, Nick Tropeano and Tyler Lyon flashed some positives during spring training before it came to a halt.
Touted prospects — and this list is by no means complete because of the sheer number of them the Yankees have in the minors — such as Deivi Garcia (21 years old), Clarke Schmidt (24), Mike King (24) and Nick Nelson (24) all project as starters but could make an impact in the bullpen in 2020.
The future: With the Yankees and their system, it’s power arm after power arm “from the lowest levels to the highest,” an opposing team scout said. Garcia, Schmidt, King and Nelson are among those closest to the majors, but there is much more coming.
Among those most often mentioned by rival evaluators who cover the Yankees’ system: Roansy Contreras, a 20-year-old righthander who finished last season with low Class A Charleston; Luis Medina, a 21-year-old righthander who pitched in 2019 with high Class A Tampa; Luis Gil, a 21-year-old righthander who finished with Tampa; Miguel Yajure, a 22-year-old righthander who finished 2019 with Double-A Trenton; Yoendrys Gomez, a 20-year-old righthander who finished with Charleston; T.J. Sikkema, a 21-year-old lefthander who was with short-season Staten Island, and Alexander Vizcaino, a 23-year-old righthander who finished with Tampa.
Pretty much all are considered starters. Realistically, given the general difficulty that all organizations have in developing starters, the majority of them, if they have extended careers in the majors, likely will be bullpen pieces of some kind.