Last week, Aaron Boone told the media that he envisions one or two bullpen openings on his ballclub. Yet, unless that means Jonathan Loaisiga’s spot is in jeopardy, or the team will carry four starters until a fifth one is needed (April 7th), there’s really just one spot up for grabs.
At the outset of spring training, Albert Abreu looked like the odds-on favorite. We went all offseason assuming that Abreu was out of minor league options. If the Yankees didn’t want to keep him in the Bronx, he’d have to pass through waivers before getting to Scranton. Given his tantalizing 100 MPH fastball and nasty secondaries, there was no way he’d go unclaimed. Not even his poor control would prevent another team from nabbing him. However, it’s apparent that the assumption that he’s out of options was incorrect, as noted in last night’s notes.
It’s a bit unclear how Abreu (and others) has an option remaining: either he qualified for the mysterious fourth option year or the 2020 option didn’t count. Regardless, his updated roster status significantly levels the competition. It also means that the Yankees could keep trying Abreu as a starter.
Enter Nick Nelson, Brooks Kriske, and a collection of non-roster invitees.
Nelson and Kriske are optionable relievers who we’ll probably see aplenty in 2021. The former in particular, who logged 20.2 innings in pinstripes last year. Kriske had a cup of tea (4 games, 3.2 innings) himself and Abreu pitched twice (1.1 innings). It’s not hard to imagine this trio boarding the Scranton shuttle often in the coming months.
Like Abreu, Nelson is a starter by trade. Kriske is the only pure reliever of the group. In that sense, Kriske has a little less value given the Yankees’ abundance of dominant short relievers already. Then again, the Yankees already have two relievers capable of multi-inning appearances: Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga. It’s likely better for Loaisiga to air it out in one inning bursts, but that’s a story for another day.
There’s also a mix of major league veterans and prospects in big league camp as NRIs, but don’t expect any of them to make the Yankees. Arms like Adam Warren, Kyle Barraclough, or Addison Russ fit better as injury replacements. Plus, the team would need to open up a 40-man spot to add them. That said, the front office could place Clarke Schmidt on the 60-day injured list to create room. Even then, I’m not confident that any of the NRIs are better choices than Nelson, Abreu, or Kriske.
If there’s any case for rostering one of the NRIs, it’s this: Nelson, Abreu, and Kriske stand to benefit from consistent innings in Triple-A. That’s no certainty as the last man in the bullpen in the Bronx. Of course, now that the Triple-A season has been delayed, there’s no other location for game action other than the majors. That in itself may have hurt the NRIs chances.
Now, if this was PECOTA’s decision, the Yankees would take a number of NRIs before even considering Abreu, Nelson, or Kriske:
Personally, I prefer Nelson over the rest of the litter. He’s far down PECOTA’s list, but I love the stuff he brings to the table.
He throws hard, like the rest of the pitching world nowadays, but it’s hard not to like his three other offerings. The changeup is his favorite secondary (24.6 percent usage last year, 32.8 percent whiff rate), but his slider and curve were pretty darn effective last year too. Those breakers combined for a 38.5 percent whiff rate last season and have above average spin rates nearing 2,700 RPM. Sounds like a starter’s arsenal, right? Well, Nelson does have a hard time throwing strikes, as evidenced by his 12.2 percent walk rate in 2020. He’s posted walk rates north of 12 percent at multiple levels in the minors.
Abreu has better stuff than Nelson, but arguably has worse control. That, along with some of Nelson’s success at the big league level, makes me feel more confident in Nelson in the early going. As for Kriske: he’s got the necessary swing-and-miss stuff, but I simply like Nelson (and Abreu) for their multi-inning versatility. Lastly, with the Triple-A season delayed, I don’t really see any advantage of choosing non 40-man pitcher. I’d rather see one of Nelson, Abreu, or Kriske get the work in the majors.
Frankly, who wins this job out of camp doesn’t matter all that much. I exhausted around 800 words just to come to that conclusion, huh? The reality is: rarely do any spring training competitions matter all that much. No roster stays the same all season, and in this case, the last spot in the bullpen will be a revolving door all summer. Many of the aforementioned pitchers will spend ample time in Scranton and the Bronx in 2021.