Reassessing The Yankee Bullpen At The Break

Joba Chamberlain

While the lineup tries to keep its head above water and the rotation experiences its peaks and valleys, once again the Yankee bullpen is doing the job in 2013.  Their 3.33 ERA and 3.56 FIP are both top 10 MLB rankings, their K and BB numbers are both top 5, and they rank 4th in strand rate (80.7%) and fWAR (3.4).  It's almost par for the course at this point, and the formula they've followed for years - greatest closer of all time, dominant R/L setup men on the back end, hard-throwing middle relief, quality depth - is playing out perfectly.  While the performance may remain the same, there have been some shifts in role and recent trends that have shuffled the deck a bit in the hierarchy.  As the Yanks come to the ASB and approach the 2 week mark until the trade deadline, have these changes put them in the market for a reliever?

Mo still rules the throne in the 9th inning with D-Rob backing him up in the 8th.  Both were worthy All Star candidates, and although Robertson came up short in the fan vote for the final spot it's hard to name a late-game pair better than these 2.  Boone Logan, despite a regressed performance against lefty hitters, has been solid as the 6th-8th inning situational lefty and occasional late inning closer type when Mo needs a day off.  Behind those three in the middle relief group is where things have changed.  Shawn Kelley, after a brutal start to the season, has pitched lights out since early May and now appears to have locked down the 7th inning role.  The former owner of that role, Joba Chamberlain, has been a glorified BP pitcher since coming off the DL at the end of May and has been relegated to "blowouts only" duty.

Compounding the problem with Joba's nosedive is Preston Claiborne's hard regression to the mean over the last few weeks.  His June wasn't nearly as strong as his May (4.37 FIP compared to 2.46), and he's given up 6 hits and 4 ER in his last 2 appearances.  Combine that with Joe's infrequent use of Adam Warren, who's pitched just 5 times since May 29th, and suddenly the back end of the 'pen isn't looking so strong or deep.

Is it a cause for concern?  Somewhat.  As a team that plays in a lot of close games, the Yankees can't afford to have guys in the mix who can't get outs and keep runs off the scoreboard consistently.  They probably don't want to run Mo and D-Rob into the ground just to make the postseason if they don't have to.  They could dip into the Triple-A well to find a fresh arm, but right now the only healthy reliever who would make sense down there is Dellin Betances.  Would his expected performance in the Majors be any better than Joba or Claiborne's right now?  I don't know.

So do the Yankees take a look around for a capable arm at the deadline?  It's something they've done in the past and they usually do it well (hello, Kerry Wood in 2010).  The Yankees's only involvement in the bullpen trade market so far is as a seller and justifiably so.  The number of teams linked to Joba Chamberlain is growing, and it would be wise to pursue opportunities to move him for something useful.  With the way he's pitching right now though, it's going to be hard to do that, no matter how much Cash "aggressively pursues" it.  And moving him still leaves an opening in the middle relief corps.

The Yanks' obvious first, second, and third priorities at the deadline are finding bats.  If things continue to go poorly for Joba and Claiborne the rest of this month, they may have to think about an arm for the 'pen too. The most likely scenario is the team making a small move later in August and then waiting until rosters expand in September to try to find something good there, especially with the Steinbrenners not wanting to add payroll and limiting Cash's trade options, but by then it could be too late.  The Yanks need more than just the 8th and 9th innings covered and they could use some insurance against a 2nd half injury to one of those late-inning guys.  Moving Joba at the deadline solves one problem but it creates another, a problem that still needs to be solved if the Yanks are serious about contending for the playoffs.  In order for this group to continue their first half success down the stretch, an upgrade might need to be made.

(Photo courtesy of the AP)