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An Outside the Box Idea Revisited

Early September Thoughts by Cary Greene

by Cary Greene

September 3, 2023


I’ll start this piece by stating that relievers are a dime a dozen. There, I said it! That is all! There’s no point in writing anything else today. Enjoy!

“Oh Bother!” - said in my best Winnie the Pooh voice. There actually was a reason I led with that, but I seem to have forgotten it. Oh, wait, now I remember. Brian Cashman spent $17.7 million on the Yankees bullpen this season - which positionally speaking, is the seventh highest amount spent on a bullpen in MLB this season and by contrast, the Astros led the league with a $42.3 million bullpen.

This means that Cashman takes his bullpen seriously right? Well, not so fast. Let’s put the $17.7 million spend in perspective by asking, what percentage of the payroll did Cashman allocate on bullpen spending. The answer is kind of surprising so let’s put things in perspective.

This season, the Astros spent 18.3 percent of their payroll on their bullpen., but the Yankees only spent 6.4 percent of their payroll on theirs. Hmmmmm? How is it that the Astros keep making the World Series and the Yankees don’t?

Well folks, it appears that yours truly is wrong. Bullpens actually do matter and relievers, as it turns out, can be very expensive so they in some cases do cost quite a bit more than a dime per dozen.

Meanwhile, the Braves spent 18.4 percent of their payroll in the bullpen aisle this year and glancing around the 2023 playoffs landscape a bit reveals that almost all of the other 2023 MLB playoffs contenders shopped heavily in the same aisle, with the Giants (22.4 percent), Phillies (13.1 percent), Rays (16.7 percent), Red Sox (13.3 percent), Orioles (8.9 percent), Diamondbacks (8 percent) and Blue Jays (7.7 percent) all spending more on their bullpens in 2023.

In fact, only the Dodgers (2.6 percent), Cubs (2.8 percent), Mariners (3.9%), Rangers (4.8 percent) and Twins (6.3 percent) spent a lesser percentage on their bullpens than the Yankees did.

This begs the question: Why is Brian Cashman not more focused on building a top notch bullpen and if he were, could the Yankees reap any hidden benefits?

Also, why won’t Hal Steinbrenner allow Cashman to spend enough to set the Yankees up with a deep, good starting rotation? Do neither of them realize how crucial pitching is?

The answers to the questions I’m asking today might actually be solved by revisiting an outside the box idea that has been kicked to the curb by non-believers and cautious baseball pundits alike, but first, the backstory must be illuminated.

The main reason Cashman spends so lightly at filling in the rotation and building the bullpen is because he’s driven up the Yankees payroll in other areas to the point where he’s not allowed by Hal Steinbrenner to spend more. Cashman has spent heavily on a few star players like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Carlos Rodon and he’s chosen to cobble together the rest of the roster.

For their part, the Yankees bullpen did a solid job this eason and I’ve written recently that this season, the Yankees bullpen wasn’t really given leads to protect all that often. In other words, I don’t believe a vastly better bullpen would have been able to offset the dreadful performance of the Yankees starting rotation this season.

Yet, Nicolas Cage once said that, “I think that if you go about making movies to win Oscars, you’re really going about it the wrong way. It’s therefore important for the Yankees to not just try to win, but to create a roster capable of delivering the kind of performances throughout the season that makes them difficult to face in any series they play, be it a regular season one or those in the postseason. Can any Yankees fan actually say that the Yankees put forward a fearsome starting rotation in the playoffs. I certainly can’t. Other teams absolutely did, but not the Yankees.

Under Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone, the Yankees all too often don’t really put their best foot forward, it really doesn’t seem to this observer that the Yankees are truly trying to win every game and thus - consistently win every series. Protecting players at all costs is fine if you’re sitting 10-games ahead by mid July, but there’s just no justification for not consistently rolling with your best available players at every position.

Alex Rodriguez made the observation last season that the Yankees often choose to play their best players out of position, but the problem goes far beyond just that. In lock-step with A-Rod’s opinion, I too have long believed and often written that the Yankees tend to play numerous players in the wrong positions and therefore, they negate the potential impact these players could make.

For example, if you were an opposing manager, would you rather face Johny Brito, Clarke Schmidt or Domingo German as starters, or would it be a bit more uncomfortable having to face a stretched out Jonathan Loaisiga or Mike King?

Steinbrenner refuses to allow Cashman to spend to deepen the rotation and he pinches pennies with his bullpen as well, but even worse, it’s Cashman who pigeonholes pitchers with high upside by not stretching them out and using them where they’d be most impactful. He does this because he’s afraid of losing depth, because the roster he’s built is simply too thin. There’s little to no real pitching depth, all the Yankees really have is below replacement level performers to lean on in case of injuries. Steinbrenner shouldn’t have allowed this kind of situation to fester. If only he were more engaged.

The cold hard truth is that the Yankees simply refuse to maximize the arms they have right under their noses and they operate like this because they don’t spend enough on their bullpen. They’ve been doing this for years too.

Loaisiga has only had one season (2021) where he has posted a bWAR of over .6, career to date. He put up a 3.3 bWAR in ‘21 where the Yankees used him as a late inning reliever, despite him being decidedly worse in high leverage situations.

If Steinbrenner had been willing to spend, Cashman could have easily signed an experienced back end of the bullpen reliever to fill Loaisiga’s role over the past several seasons, someone like David Robertson for example. This would have freed Loaisiga up so he could build arm strength and stretch himself out.

It’s true, Loaisiga hasn’t been very durable since he came up but it’s not like the Yankees really endeavored to build him up. I firmly believe he should be a starter and just imagine if he was - that might significantly change the look of the Yankees rotation on the road to a World Series title.

Mike King is another player whose value Cashman chooses to minimize because he won’t/isn’t allowed to spend on his bullpen. He’s been a 1.9 bWAR reliever for the past two seasons. But imagine how valuable he’d be as a starter. Instead, the Yankees putz around with starters who simply aren’t that effective.

Which brings me to the point of today’s article. Are the Yankees mismanaging the talent they have and is Brian Cashman not focused enough on pitching, both in the bullpen and even more importantly, in the starting rotation? I’m going to revisit an outside of the box idea today, but before I do, please allow my stomach to turn a bit at the results Brian Cashman has settled for this season.

Examining how light Cashman has spent to fill in the rotation and build the bullpen, it’s very clear that this is a glaring issue, one of such magnitude that it’s pretty much doomed the Yankees. On top of his failures in the pitching department, Cashman has built a horrendous offensive team. Not only does the rotation fail to give enough leads to the bullpen, but the offense fails in this endeavor as well as Yankees starters simply don’t get very much run support.

Positionally, Cashman has allowed the likes of below replacement level stopgap players to block his prospect flow and he’s wound up trading away perfectly good home grown players for next to nothing in return - imagine if Thairo Estrada and Ezequiel Duran were still around to provide some spark. Instead, Cashman let Estrada and Duran go for literally nothing, only to trade for Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Josh Donaldson? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot with your own gun.

This season, the Yankees only have two players, Judge and Torres with a wRC+ over 103. Keep in mind, a wRC+ of 100 is League average. Meanwhile, down on the farm, the Yankees had Estevan Florial (127), Jamie Westbrook (135), Jasson Dominguez (179), Everson Pereira (131) blocked in the minor leagues all season as Cashman was extremely slow to promote anyone. Only now, when the season is all but completely lost, does the non resourceful Cashman choose to give his rookies some playing time. Cashman’s mismanagement of the Yankees has been hard to stomach this season.

With the venting out of the way, here’s the outside the box idea that’s worth revisiting. The Yankees need to figure out their starting rotation. If Steinbrenner won’t spend, then it’s time to build both Loaisiga and King up and transition them both back to starting pitchers, where they belong. As for the rest of the offseason plan?

1. If Steinbrenner will spend, sign two, if not three lefty starters, targeting Julio Urias, Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery. In which case, leave King and Loaisiga in the bullpen.

2. Increase spending in the Bullpen isle this offseason, bring in several quality relievers, starting with lefty closer Josh Hader. Re-up with Wandy Peralta and target Mat Moore, Brent Suter and even David Robertson

3. Target the Pirates David Bednar and look to pull off a trade. Offer Clarke Schmidt straight up.

4. Spend to fortify the middle of the batting order. Bring in Cody Bellinger (143 wRC+ this season) to replace Harrison Bader.

5. Also add two proven bats like J.D. Martinez (126 wRC+ this season) and Joc Pederson (115 wRC+) and platoon them both at DH

6. Trade Giancarlo Stanton as the top priority of the offseason, or DFA him if it can’t be done. He’s never been a fit at DH and he can’t stay healthy, it’s time to cut bait.

7. Roll with the kids. Promote Jasson Dominguez and Everson Pirera to start the season. Look to Austin Wells and Trey Sweeney too if possible.

8. Return DJ LeMahieu to second base where he belongs. With Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza around, the Yankees need LeMahieu to be a super utility player like they need a hole in the head. That means Torres gets converted to third base, where he arguably belongs and then, when Sweeney is ready to come up around the All-Star break, Torres is potentially dealt. The Yankees have $45 million committed to LeMahieu over the next three seasons. Let Oswald Peraza push him for playing time at the Keystone.

1 comment

1 Comment

Alan B.
Alan B.
Sep 03, 2023

Great article Cary, but I think the first thing that needs to happen is fix or drastically change the methods and processes. Oh, and I'm keeping Lo in the pen.

I understand that everyone has analytics in today's world. But the Yankees need to stop using analytics as the basis for coaching and game management decisions. They can be recommendations, but what is going on in the game need to come first rather than pre determined moves. Then they need to teach to the starters pitch sequences, and location, location, location. Plus add some change of speed stuff too. Like throwing your FB at 94 at times instead of all the time at 98. Change patterns. But if you blo…

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