As lots of folks are noting, the 2017 Yankee bullpen looks strong – but lacks the traditional lefty one-out guy, or LOOGY On the free-agent market, lefty relievers aren’t coming cheap: a declining mediocrity like Mike Dunn signed for $19m over 3 years; old Yankee friend Boone Logan should comfortably exceed his prior 3-year, $16.5m deal.
But with their overall bullpen strength, the Yankees don't need to pay $20m for a guy like Dunn or Logan who can throw multiple innings to both-handed hitters. They just need a guy whose leftiness gives him better odds of, say, getting Chris Davis or Andrew Benintendi out with runners on in the sixth or seventh. Any southpaw with a strong platoon split will do, even if he hasn’t been a LOOGY, or even a reliever.
Last April, Jorge De La Rosa celebrated his 35th birthday, pitched the Rockies’ opening-day start, and then abruptly collapsed from a #2-#3 starter to a sub-replacement dumpee from even the Rockies’ weak rotation. After averaging about 3 WAR/yr from 2013-15, De La Rosa lost his rotation spot with a horrid start to 2016 and then, after a sentence to bullpen purgatory, recovered enough to raise his season total to exactly 0.0 WAR.
So why would the Yankees reduce themselves to reclaiming a guy the pitching-poor Rockies shipped off to the old pitchers’ retirement home? For four reasons, he’s a good bet to try as a LOOGY.
(1) He’s killed lefties - more than other lefty starters. His career OPS allowed split is .801(RH)/.655(LH). Not all failed thirtysomething lefty starters have that kind of huge split. A nice comp is Jon Niese, who's a bit younger (30) but has declined out of a rotation spot just as clearly: he’s many moons removed from his strong 2012 (3.4 WAR), and after back-end-of-rotation performances in 2013 and 2014 (1.7 and 0.7 WAR), he’s been replacement-level for the last two years (0.2 WAR in 2015, 0.0 WAR in 2016). That sad path downward is much like De La Rosa's - but unlike De La Rosa, he’s not a promising LOOGY, because lefties’ OPS (.738) isn’t much different from righties’ (.760) against him. If anything, De La Rosa is unusual among lefty starters in how, even when he was good, righties hit him pretty well, and he made up the difference by owning lefties.
(2) His K rates and velocity haven’t cratered. His decline stemmed largely from bad command, as his last four years of BB/9 rates show: 3.3, 3.3, 3.9, 4.2. His K/9 rate in 2016 was 7.3, not far from his career rate of 7.5. His velocity has declined, but not horribly: his two higher-velocity pitches, his fastball and cutter, have had these velocities since 2014: 92.3 & 88.1 (2014); 91.4 & 87.0 (2015); and 90.2 & 86.3 (2016). So his decline doesn't appear to be a complete loss of his stuff.
(3) He’s shown he can relieve - and in that role could regain command and velocity. When the Rockies yanked him from the rotation, De La Rosa logged 8 IP as a reliever – where he had a 1.13 ERA with 0 BB and 10 K. That's a small sample size, but it shows he’s not the sort of old-dog-new-tricks aging starter who can’t adjust from a starter’s multi-day routine to no-advance-notice relief duty. In those relief stints, he ramped his fastball up to 91-92 regularly -- the level of his prior, more successful years. That combination of increased velocity and zero walks as a reliever hint that 2016's badly decreased command and slightly decreased velocity may improve if, as a full-time reliever, his aging body doesn’t need to trudge through 100 pitches.
(4) He should be dirt cheap. It hasn’t been a Happy New Year for De La Rosa, who has no reported Major-League offers. Likely he can land a cheapo one-year deal to marinate in AAA for some low-end team like the Padres or Angels. But assume he's at all realistic about how little chance there is (a) that his life features more than a half-dozen more big-league starts (with 0 more likely than any number above 4-6), and (b) that he'll get any shot with any non-bottom-barrel team: wouldn’t he be intrigued by a Yankee offer of, say, two years and $2-3 million – and wouldn't the Yankees be intrigued by a LOOGY costing 80-90% less than Boone Logan would?