Spring Training Competition: Back of the Bullpen

As Bobby noted in his 26-man roster projection yesterday, expect the Yankees to carry eight relievers to start the regular season. Six of those eight spots are pretty well set barring injury, leaving two openings up for grabs. Here’s how things shake out:

  1. Aroldis Chapman
  2. Zack Britton
  3. Chad Green
  4. Adam Ottavino
  5. Tommy Kahnle
  6. Luis Cessa
  7. ???
  8. ???

Bobby predicted that Jonathans Holder and Loáisiga will travel north come opening day. Let’s take a look at those two’s candidacies along with the rest in competition.

The favorites

Not only is Loáisiga in the mix here, but he’s also an option for the fifth starter role. The 25 year-old’s stuff will play regardless of role, though his durability and control seem to make relief more sensible. One more thing that may be construed as telling for Loáisiga’s status was that Aaron Boone called him on in relief in the 10th inning of Game 2 of the 2019 ALCS with the score tied. Basically, all Boone had left was Cessa, Loáisiga, and JA Happ. That Loáisiga was above Cessa in the pecking order in that situation could be an indicator of his status, especially with Cessa all but a lock in this year’s bullpen.

Next is Holder, who had a rough 2019. Ineffectiveness eventually resulted in a demotion to Triple-A, and later, he ended the year on the injured list because of shoulder inflammation. It was a big step back from his prior two years during which the 26 year-old righty pitched 105 1/3 innings and posted a 3.42 ERA and 3.25 FIP.

After a down season ended with injury, it seemed like Holder was on the 40-man chopping block. Instead, the Yankees kept the first-time arbitration eligible reliever and settled for $750,000. Considering that vote of confidence and past success in the big leagues, Holder figures to be a very strong candidate for one of the last two spots. One thing that could go against him is that he still has a minor league option remaining, though so do a number of others discussed in this post.

Non-roster invitees who could fit as a longman

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It’s pretty clear that the front office is a fan of David Hale, who’s back again this year as a non-roster invitee. He’s been with the organization since 2018 and was quite effective in the big leagues last year. In 20 games and 37 2/3 innings, Hale recorded a 3.11 ERA and 3.32 FIP. Unfortunately, he went on the injured list with a lumbar spine strain at the end of July and didn’t return.

Bettis came aboard over the weekend. Before joining the Yankees, Bettis mostly worked as a starter for the Rockies (except 2019). He hasn’t been very good since 2015 or 2016. That said, his 60.8 percent ground ball rate last season is intriguing. Bettis also might be someone who would thrive by throwing more curveballs. Last year, he threw his yakker just 12 percent of the time in spite of an exception whiff rate (40.1 percent) and high spin (2,539 RPM).

Both Hale and Bettis can provide length in relief should they need it. We know Bettis has spent a good deal of his career in the rotation, meaning that he’s used to being stretched out. Meanwhile, Hale has also started quite a bit. Hale has made 18 starts for Scranton since 2018.

I suppose Cessa is the true long man on the roster at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be two especially in April when managers tend to be more careful with starters.

Prospects on the 40-man in the running

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If ZiPS had its say, Ben Heller (projected 108 ERA+) and Brooks Kriske (101 ERA+) would be in the Yankees’ bullpen coming opening day. Nonetheless, the odds of either righties making it don’t seem great, though I wouldn’t say that they’re longshots either.

Heller, who missed all of 2018 because of Tommy John Surgery, finally made it back toward the end of last season. He was dominant in 11 Triple-A innings (0.82 ERA) and 7 1/3 major league frames (1.23 ERA). This is really the first time the 28 year-old has been in position to get an extended major league look. He’s not all that different from Holder, who I noted as a favorite, but Heller may need a little more game action in Triple-A.

Kriske, 26, is new to the 40-man roster. He was downright fantastic in 60 2/3 minor league innings last season (split between High-A and Double-A). The righty struck out 80 batters while posting a 2.08 ERA and 2.69 FIP. Never say never, but Kriske will probably get a look at Triple-A hitters before getting to the majors.

Unlikely Non-roster invitees

The new three batter minimum rule is going to make it tough on Luis Avilán and Tyler Lyons. Both are pretty classic lefty specialists whose values have been hurt by MLB’s rule change. I just can’t imagine the Yankees going north with either of them.

Dan Otero, Tony Zych, and Domingo Acevedo are also in camp as NRIs, but with slim odds of wearing pinstripes. Otero’s been pretty bad in each of the last two seasons in Cleveland. He doesn’t miss bats and gives up a ton of homers. Zych hasn’t pitched since 2017 and has been hurt quite a lot in his career. Finally, the Yankees surprisingly invited Acevedo to camp. Once one of the Yankees’ better prospects, Acevedo has fallen from grace as stuff has diminished. The Yankees actually pulled a release-and-sign with him last summer to make room on the 40-man roster. Hard to picture him with the Yankees unless he regains his stuff.


As I noted in the favorites and as Bobby predicted, Holder and Loáisiga are the early frontrunners. That said, there are a number of permutations these last two spots can take, unexpected injuries aside.

Heller and/or Kriske could be deemed as better middle relief options than Holder. The Yankees are pretty set from the sixth inning on in relief, so it really could just come down to who has the best spring training here.

I also could see Hale winning a spot over Loáisiga. And not necessarily because Loáisiga isn’t deserving, but rather, because the Yankees may want to give him another shot as a starter and thereby keep him stretched out in Scranton. Plus, Hale was pretty good last season and has obviously had fans in the organization for a few years.

Regardless of the outcome, we’ll probably see quite a bit of shuffling with these last two spots as long as the bullpen is at full strength. Being on the opening day roster is neat and all, but it’s more ceremonial than anything. In all likelihood, it’ll be another season of the ol’ Scranton Shuttle getting its run.

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6 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    The season is a marathon, and that means maintaining bullpen depth is critical. The Yankees will likely do what they need to to maintain that depth. A player with an option is going to be in danger of starting the season in AAA compared to a player without. If Hale looks good, he’ll make the roster. Just a guess.

  2. bardos

    If Judge’s shoulder is barking now after a whole offseason of rest, this portends a traumatic 2020 season

    • DJ Lemeddardhieu

      It’s already starting. First Paxton and now Judge. They did a half measure making Stevie Donahue a ceremonial trainer but they needed to just get rid of the entire medical and training staffs. They don’t keep any of these guys healthy. We didn’t have these problems under Geno. He’d put out a bucket of green pills and everybody just stayed healthy.

    • chip56

      I agree, I have a bad feeling about this.

    • RetroRob

      Likely wasn’t resting it for the off season. He’s been working out. After last year, I can see why Yankee fans are a little nervous, but I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in early aches and pains in Spring Training.

  3. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    Lasagna will definitely be in the pen, Bobby. He just has too much talent to keep wasting away down in Scranton. And he was good in the postseason last year so you know he can handle the big moments. I thought he was far more effective than Ottavino. I’d use him as a multi inning Ramiro Mendoza type guy who can come in for 2-3 innings in the 6th-8th innings when the other guys need a rest. Use Green as a 1 inning guy so he doesn’t get tired in October like last year.

    I guess I’d go with Holder by default for the last spot. He’s awful but he’s the best of an awful bunch. Maybe he can have a decent season if he doesn’t get off to such a bad start. He, along with Cessa, should only be mop up guys.

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