There have been rumors for weeks that the Yankees were having conversations with teams about Andrew Miller. A lump built in my throat. What!? Rumors fly around all the time so I did not take it all that seriously. And then there was this sentence from Buster Olney in his ESPN blog (behind a pay wall): "The Yankees got very deep into conversations about Andrew Miller with the Houston Astros, before Houston’s acquisition of Ken Giles." Very deep into conversation seems a bit beyond a rumor. My knee-jerk, unprofessional reaction is, "Please say it ain't so!"
There is some logic behind my emotional leap. While I have often echoed a former ESPN SweetSpot leader that relief pitchers are fungible, great relievers are not. The Astros, one of the most stat driven front offices around, made it clear this winter that good relief pitchers were the big area of need after bowing out of the playoffs last year. The Royals have basically followed a Yankee (and before that, Tony La Russa) strategy to make the game a six inning game and get lots of strikeouts in those last three innings.
The one-two punch of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances was as good as it gets last year in the late innings. Betances did prove that he can close games if needed. But Miller, in his first year as a closer, was stellar. The Yankees have already traded away Justin Wilson and Adam Warren. So the sixth inning, seventh inning guys are up in the air right now. Trade away Andrew Miller and then you have the eighth inning to worry about too.
Sure, you could get lucky with a home-grown guy or with a spring training invitee. If this is about money, Miller's $9m salary is not that big of a deal--or at least it shouldn't be. And yes, we've been hearing that 2016 is a transition year and you don't really need two great relief pitchers for that. I don't see a whole lot of separation in the AL East, so competing is not out of the question. If the Yankees fall hard, then the trade deadline can revisit the idea.
But if there is a chance to compete--and I believe there is--then having a strong bullpen is essential these days. And by a strong bullpen, I mean guys who can miss bats regularly.
Perhaps it can be stated that Betances deserves to be able to take the next step. I do not think the "closer" title is as important as it was even a couple of years ago. Plenty of non-closing relievers have been picking up nice paychecks lately. Darren O'Day is just one example this past week. Betances, to his credit, has not made such demands. But it goes even beyond this reasoning.
Many thought that Dellin Betances was the Yankees' MVP the last two seasons. It is scary to think of where the Yankees would have finished the past two seasons without him in his role. He wasn't the closer. Similarly, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera have shown the value of relief pitchers not labeled as closers. A point can even be made that Davis, Herrera and Betances were more valuable than the closers. Let's look at that for a second.
In 2015, Dellin Betances pitched in 39 high leverage situations and 21 medium leverage situations. Miller (in fairness, he did miss some time) pitched in 30 high leverage situations and 15 medium leverage ones. There is a stat called RE24 which is runs saved in bases occupied situations. Betances had a RE24 of 24.7 and Miller was at 16. Betances had an 11.8 WPA score and Miller a 9.
There are two observations you can make about those numbers. First, Betances in his role was every bit (and perhaps more) important as the closer. Moving Betances to the closer position would greatly diminish the ability of the Yankees to fill his current role effectively. And his role saved a lot of forest fires.
I am not exalting Betances over Miller. Miller has earned his salary not from being a closer in the past, but by being the kind of before-ninth inning relief pitcher that Betances is. Miller's role was super important to the Red Sox and then the Orioles in what they accomplished the years Miller was with them.
What I am saying is that Miller and Betances together are a formidable duo that improves the Yankees' chances of winning significantly. And since I still believe the Yankees have just as good a shot in the AL East as their competition, keeping them intact is certainly my preference.