After another dominant season from the bullpen, the Yankees now have to see if it’s worth keeping the group together.
While one would have expected a dropoff after Mariano Rivera’s retirement, the Yankees’ bullpen has remained steady. They’ve been either first or second in relief WAR every year since 2013, according to FanGraphs, and finished just 0.1 behind the Rays in 2019.
The bullpen mostly relied upon five arms: Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton (with a K!), Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green. Any stats from this season are thrown off slightly by Green pitching as an opener on 15 occasions. That fivesome was dominant and pitched almost all the important relief innings for the Yankees; They combined for 315 innings and 412 strikeouts with a 2.80 ERA weighed down by Green’s poor April.
The Yankees could easily bring back those five pitchers and call it a day. Heck, every player but Joe Harvey, David Hale and Ryan Dull is still under contract, so reuniting the band is easily possible. All but Chapman are under control for another season.
Chapman’s opt-out looms over everything the Yankees do this offseason, bullpen or otherwise. Even with a qualifying offer attached, the 31-year-old southpaw can exceed the $30 million owed to him over the next two seasons if he hits the open market.
New York could simply let him go. His $17.2 million AAV and $86 million overall was the largest contract for a reliever. If he opts out and isn’t re-signed, the Yankees would carry a $4.2 million competitive balance tax hit because the initial deal was frontloaded by $1.4 million a season.
Without Chapman, the Yankees could slide Britton into a familiar closing role and have Ottavino and Kahnle match up in front of him while Green fills in as the multi-inning fireman. In house, the Bombers have Jonathan Loaisiga as a potential impact reliever if they move him to the bullpen full-time. Beyond him, Luis Cessa figures to return as the long man, while the Scranton shuttle should still be the eighth reliever.
(If you’re worried about Ottavino after October, I’d point you to Dellin Betances in 2017. He was unpitchable in October that year, then came back better than ever in 2018. As rough as Otto had it in the postseason, he should be himself come March.)
Chapman, on the other hand, is still an elite reliever, so keeping him at age-32 and 33 might outweigh the decline he’ll have in an extra year tacked onto his current contract.
The free agent market gives the Yankees an opportunity to upgrade the current squad, or to replace Chapman. Dellin Betances should be the first name in mind. The Bombers could bring him back on a pillow deal and reap the reward of an elite reliever, yet his health and age make him a risk.
Ideally, the team would add a multi-inning reliever, or a rubber-armed Yusmeiro Petit-type. Those pitchers don’t grow on trees, and the Athletics have an option on Petit, so he’s not likely to be on the board. If the Yankees don’t want a high-priced reliever like Will Smith — more on him tomorrow! — they could try for a starter-turned-reliever on the cheap like Drew Pomeranz, who dominated in his short Milwaukee stint.
As the Yankees attempt to build out the bullpen, they’ll also have to factor in their own abilities with development. The franchise churns out solid relievers and may not need to look outside. Ben Heller has shown glimpses, and the team has more arms in the Minors. Whomever their new pitching coach is could be a part of the puzzle of unlocking players already under contract rather than seeking outside supplement.
Even if they bring back the basic group from 2019, New York could experience a mild downgrade in the bullpen next year simply from aging and the inevitable off-year from a reliever. It’s worth noting the remarkable health from the Yankees’ relievers last season, which is unlikely to be replicated despite the Bombers’ careful usage plans.
However, if the Yankees make upgrades to the starting rotation, a slip in performance from the top relievers would become more or less moot. Taking some key innings away from them and giving them to a high-end free-agent starter — or a healthy Luis Severino — would make a world of difference in both the regular season and October.
Whether or not Chapman returns, or if they sign Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, the bullpen should still be a significant asset next season. That doesn’t mean the Yankees shouldn’t ponder changes or reconsider their usage patterns. Any year you come up short of the World Series requires significant reflection, and the bullpen’s status should be near the top of considerations.