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  • Cary Greene

An "At The Break" Assessment

by Cary Greene

July 20, 2022

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I hope this article finds you both in good spirits about the overall state of the Yankees and more importantly, in good health as we enjoy the All-Star Break and contemplate what was, with an eye now turned to what may be! Today’s topic is an “At-the-Break” Assessment of the Yankee Bullpen. It’s a strange occurrence, bullpens never quite work out the way most fans and writers alike think they will. Relievers are very mercurial and many are here today and gone tomorrow. Most relievers used to be starters but they were converted for a multitude of reasons that range from durability concerns, to issues with consistency, to not having enough pitches they can use in any count to navigate lineups multiple times.


Perhaps a shining example of when a starter was converted to a reliever was when, during the summer of 1995, the Yankees converted then 25-year-old starter Mariano Rivera to reliever. Of course, at the time the Yankees badly needed relievers and Mariano had made three rather blasé starts (while battling a finger issue mind you). According to baseballreference.com, the numbers suggest it was a pretty great decision on the Yankees part!

Rivera’s profile as a minor league pitcher, also courtesy of baseballreference.com, is below. Two things that stand out about his Minor League profile that absolutely translated to his Hall-of-Fame Career were his control and his ability to limit runs.


Converting Mariano Rivera to a reliever was sheer brilliance on the part of then Yankees Manager Joe Torre and then Pitching Coach Mel Stottlemyre to plug Rivera into the setup role for John Wetteland and I bring it up to illustrate the importance of what today we refer to as “bridge-relievers.” Many games aren’t decided until the later innings and in close games, bridge relievers play a crucial role in creating an opportunity for a closer to save a game. Without the bridge relievers, saves couldn’t happen because opponents could tie a game or worse yet, even take the lead.


In 1995, the importance of bridge relievers was already a thing in baseball, perhaps brought on by pitch counts which were already in full-blown use by then, but the Yankees showed baseball what could happen when devastating bridge-relief combined with a lights-out closer. The combination of Rivera and Wetteland was undeniable and it led to a 1996 World Series win over the Atlanta Braves dynasty of the mid-90’s, which was rich in starting pitching and had a devastating closer of their own, Mark Wholers. What the Braves didn’t have was an answer for Mariano Rivera’s ability to lock down multiple innings late in games.


The 2022 Yankees are statistically a vastly better team than the 1996 Yankees. But getting the game to the closer remains the single biggest challenge the Yankees will face over the second-half of the season and throughout whatever playoff run they can muster. Hopefully the 2022 season ends with a World Series win for the Bombers, it will be fascinating to watch it all unfold and the playoffs this season will feel a little bit like NCAA Basketball’s March Maddness. Instead of a “Sweet-16,” baseball fans will be treated to a “Triumphant-12.” The Yankees will need great starting pitching and great relief work if they are to end the now 12-year championship drought


Presently, the effective bridge relief portion of the Yankee pen consists of lefty Wandy Peralta and righty Mike King. Both are facing the highest usage of their MLB careers to this point. Impressive Yankees rookie Ron Marniaccio was fast becoming a trusted member of the high-leverage corps until he recently went down with shoulder pain, but thankfully, it’s being reported that he may be back some time in August.


Lucas Leutge has also become a bridge reliever for the Yankees and Boone often calls on him for seventh inning work, the problem is though that the higher the stakes Luetge encounters, the worse his numbers get. Ideally, Luetge is a reliever who starts middle-innings, perhaps when a starter has gone over his pitch-count limit on a given outing. Bringing Luetge in with runners in scoring position in a big spot probably isn’t a great idea on most nights.


The Yankees also keep rolling Jonathan Loaisiga out, hoping he’ll start pitching like the electric bullpen arm he became when, much like Mariano Rivera, he was converted from starting to relieving and thrust into a bridge role in the pandemic shortened 2020 season. Loaisiga is not himself at all this year, as opposing batters are teeing off on him with regularity. Aaron Boone would like to be able to trust him, but presently the numbers say not to put Loaisiga in high leverage situations.


It may be time for the Yankees to consider returning Loaisiga to more of an opener role, which I was in favor of doing at the start of this season. My contention was that Loaisiga does seem to struggle in high-pressure situations. I remain unconvinced that he’s cut out to handle high pressure situations with regularity and I also am not convinced pitching multiple times per week is in his best interest. More on this in a moment.


The Yankees starting rotation has been very good this year, fangraphs ranks the Yankees starters as the seventh best outfit in the majors, but they face a bit of a challenge as to how best navigate the waters now that star pitcher Luis Severino has been shut down.


This offseason I was hoping the Yankees might capitalize on Domingo German’s trade value, which was at an all-time high for him prior to the start of the season. I was kind of bummed that he wasn’t traded for a high leverage reliever as a lot of teams were in the market for starting pitching at the time - and many are still! However, by keeping German, the Yankees played the depth card and now, just as he’s ready to be activated again, the Yankees happen to have a need for a fill-in starter. German could easily fill this need and then move to more of a long-man role in the bullpen, providing the Yankees don’t go to a six-man rotation which is another thing I’ve been highly in favor of since the start of the season. My fear being, that too many Yankee starters are not long removed from serious injuries. Assuming the Yankees go with German as a fill-in for Severino, the Yankees sure have a lot of internal depth they could call on to provide reinforcements.


JP Sears and Ken Waldichuk are both promising lefties and Clarke Schmidt has proved he too is ready to step into a starting rotation at the sports highest level. How many teams, I wonder, have not one, two, nor three - but four competent starting pitchers waiting in the wings if needed. Which begs the question, can any of these starters, if needed, be used in the Yankee bullpen over the second half of the season?


Personally, I’d like to see the Yankees do what they believe will work. It’s very normal for rookie pitchers to break into the majors as relievers and I use the Red Sox Garrett Whitlock as a prime example. He may yet become a starter, Boston has certainly stated this possibility publicly, but the team has a need for relievers and so he’s embraced the concept of doing whatever it takes to capitalize on his opportunity. Sears, Schmidt and possibly Waldichuk may get a similar opportunity over the second half of the season. I wouldn’t mind watching that transpire, considering Aroldis Chapman is still looking mighty shaky and Zack Britton reportedly may be available later in the season.


The time would seem to be now for the Yankees to start really leaning on all of their internal pitching depth. Miguel Castro was recently put on the DL, so the Yankees will certainly need to use their depth until they get closer to the Trade Deadline and are able to determine if making a move for an experienced, higher leverage bullpen arm makes sense.


Presently, the Yankee bullpen’s lower leverage team of Albert Abreu and Ryan Weber are getting their chances to shine and so far, each is doing a pretty admirable job. The numbers seem to reveal that Abreu may be a reliever the Yankees should keep, whereas Weber’s peripherals aren’t nearly as strong. If Aroldis Chapman continues to have problems, the Yankees may move him at the deadline, though doing that will certainly involve eating his contract because it’s unlikely any team would be interested in taking that kind of payroll given the giant question marks surrounding Chapman presently.


Hopefully, the Yankees are able to trade for an experienced reliever and no one makes more sense for the Yankees that the Cub’s David Robertson, who is both affordable and highly adept at walking high-leverage tightropes, In fact, he could be a secondary closer and a late game, multiple inning option over the second half and into the playoffs. I would bet that Yankee GM Brian Cashman is 100% aware of this and I would not be the least bit surprised if Robertson isn’t very quietly a top Yankees trade target.


Another name to keep an eye on is the Diamondbacks All-Star lefty reliever Joe Mantiply, who like Robertson, is very affordable to trade for. Brain Cashman will likely make strong offers for one or both of these relievers as we near the deadline.


Over the first half of the season, the Yankee bullpen has been one of the two best in baseball. They’ve been an elite group. Reinforcements are stacked in the minor leagues. Besides high-quality starters who all have great cases to get promoted, the Yankees have many intriguing players stashed in Triple-A, like Shane Greene, Greg Weissert, Reggie McClain and Trevor Lane to name just a few possible alternatives.


Perhaps the Yankees will want to keep their young starters stretched out in the minors, to provide insurance over the second half - or - they may decide that one or two of them are ready for lasting promotions. In any case, the Yankee bullpen is one of the best relief teams in the major leagues. Upgrading this group, while possible, will likely prove costly (in terms of prospects) and difficult because very few available relievers truly represent upgrades. Thankfully, the Yankees appear to have the situation well in hand!



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