There’s no denying that the Yankees have done a helluva lot of work to reload their team this offseason. They’ve spent over half a billion dollars in contracts, both in large amounts and small, to upgrade their rotation, lineup, and to a very small degree their bench. One roster area that hasn’t harvested the fruits of that half-billion dollar labor is the bullpen. To date, the Yankees’ only addition of significance to the 2014 ‘pen has been Matt Thornton, a 37-year-old lefty specialist who, while still effective against same-side hitters, is at the point in his career where his best days are behind him.
This singular signing in response to the loss of Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and some guy named Mariano Rivera has put the Yankee ‘pen in a state of uncertainty, one that the free agent market is no longer as well equipped to resolve as it was a few weeks ago. As we move below the 3-week threshold until pitchers and catchers report to spring camp, it’s time to look at what the Yankees could do to fill out and fortify their bullpen.
This post assumes that the Opening Day bullpen will consist of 7 pitchers. It also assumes that 4 of those spots are going to be taken by David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Thornton, and Preston Claiborne. The other 3 spots are up for grabs and there are a number of different directions the Yankees could go. One of the 3 remaining spots is going to be reserved for a long man, most likely Adam Warren or David Phelps. Those 2 have proven to be very valuable in that role over the past 2 seasons and I’m sticking to my belief that they’ll be positioned behind Michael Pineda during this spring’s 5th starter competition. Phelps has some experience working as a short reliever as well, so it’s not too far-fetched to think that both he and Warren could be out there if they don’t get picked to be the 5th starter.
If the long man is the 5th spot, that leaves 2 more to be decided and the Yankees’ offseason strategy suggests they might try to find another one of their undervalued, unsung heroes to fill at least 1 of them. What they haven’t done on the Major League FA agent they’ve attempted to make up for by signing a handful of players to MiL deals. Guys like Matt Daley, Jim Miller, Brian Gordon, and Bruce Billings have all been signed in the last few months and will all likely get an invitation and at least a quick look in Spring Training. Daley is the one from that group with the best chance of snagging a Major League job, but don’t sleep on Robert Coello and his nasty forkball. The 29-year-old righty pitched very well for the Angels last season and fits the mold of undervalued relievers that the Yankees are known for finding and turning into useful pieces.
If the Quad-A crop doesn’t cut the mustard, there is a promising group of young prospects that could get a long look in ST. Dellin Betances headlines the group, although he’s far from promising at this stage in his career. He looked better in late 2013 than he did in his 2011 debut, but his command is still a huge question mark. Jose Ramirez was a coaching staff favorite last spring and his future looks more and more like it’s going to be in the ‘pen, Cesar Cabral looked very good as another lefty matchup option in his limited work in 2013, and Vidal Nuno is still there as a potential multi-use left-hander, something that’s rare in today’s game. Diving further down off the 40-man, the Yanks also have Chase Whitley and Mark Montgomery stashed in Triple-A. Another ST injury outbreak could push them into consideration.
The best option to address these open spots is still probably the Major League free agent market. Guys like Fernando Rodney, Luis Ayala, Rafael Betancourt, Francisco Rodriguez, and Joel Hanrahan are still out there and should all come on team-friendly 1-year deals. Moving them into the mix would push Claiborne down into a lesser role, something he’s probably better suited for. For that small a commitment, the Yankees should try 1 or more of those options before dipping into the Quad-A or prospect wells. If it doesn’t work out they can always cut bait and move on. The Yankees missed the boat on the bigger, better bullpen arms this offseason, but they’ve still got time to address their need before camp starts.