Finding Bullpen Help from Within
Now that the Yankees have addressed their most pressing concern by adding Gerrit Cole to the top of the rotation for most of the next decade, the Yankees have shifted their sights to filling other holes. During the Winter Meetings last week, it was reported that the Yankees were kicking the tires on Josh Hader, one of the best relievers in baseball over the past 3 seasons. As I discussed in yesterday’s Mailbag, the cost to acquire Hader will likely be high enough that the Yankees should probably stay away from such a deal. While acquiring a high-end reliever for the bullpen would certainly grab headlines in much the same way as the Cole signing, I think that the Yankees have enough pitching on the 40-man roster to fill out the bullpen in 2020.
I think that some of the younger starting pitchers at the bottom of the 40-man roster might be best used as Major League bullpen arms in 2020. For some of the pitchers I am about to talk about, the role change should probably be permanent. For the others, the change in role is a way to get young pitchers who can help the Yankees on their quest to win the World Series in 2020 some innings and experience getting big league hitters out even if they are not yet finished products. With that in mind, I think that Chance Adams, Jonathan Loaisiga, Nick Nelson, and Deivi Garcia can all be assets in the bullpen on the 2020 Yankees.
To-date, both Chance Adams and Jonathan Loaisiga have under-performed at the MLB level despite their prospect statuses. To varying extents, both have had injuries somewhat derail their careers. Both Adams and Loaisiga have ridden the shuttle between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and New York without truly establishing themselves as permanent fixtures at the MLB level. Lastly, both guys have trained each of the last few off-seasons to come to camp as starting pitchers. I think it is time to see what Chance Adams and Jonathan Loaisiga can do if they train to be 1-2 inning relievers full-time.
Chance Adams has not been the same guy since off-season surgery following his sensational 2017 season. While Adams has been relatively healthy since the procedure to remove a bone spur from his elbow, his stuff took a step backwards. Most importantly, Adams lost a tick or two off of his fastball. As a guy who lived off of his fastball to set-up his breaking ball, losing velocity has been the number one reason that Adams has lost his prospect shine. Further denting Adams’ reputation is the fact that he struggled mightily in both AAA and the majors in 2019. Despite those struggles, the Yankees have protected Adams’ place on the 40-man roster (for now). There are, I think, a couple of reasons for this. For one, despite the loss of velocity and poor MLB performance, Adams still has some of the best spin rates on his fastball and breaking ball in baseball. Check out his rankings, according to Baseball Savant:
Chance Adams’ Velocity and Spin Rankings, Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Despite the fact that Adams has below-average velocity, his high spin rate should allow his fastball to play up. I am sure that Adams is one of the players that new pitching coach, Matt Blake, will look to work with this off-season. If Adams can find a way to tap into even enough velocity to be average, Adams could see a real spike in performance. Through working with Matt Blake and with a move to the bullpen full-time, I think it would be realistic for Adams to add velocity next season. Adams was drafted as a reliever and converted to starting. It may be time to undo the switch, and see if Adams can be part of the bullpen solution.
Jonathan Loaisiga is at a similar crossroad, albeit without the concerns regarding fastball velocity. Loaisiga has lost so much development time due to injuries, that it may not be worth it to continue trying to develop Loaisiga as a starter. Loaisiga has managed to plow through the minors mostly on stuff, but injuries have hampered him since his Major League debut in 2018. Due to durability concerns, it may be prudent for the Yankees to extract whatever value they possibly can out of Loaisiga before injuries diminish his stuff. Don’t forget: Loaisiga’s stuff is electric. Check it out:
Jonathan Loaisiga’s Velocity and Spin Rankings, Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Quite simply, Loaisiga is electric, but he probably doesn’t have the durability or the command to start long-term. I can remember a guy the Yankees had who had a similar, albeit healthier, scouting report: Dellin Betances. I really believe that if Loaisiga just lets it fly for one inning with an off-season of training for the role, he could be truly dominant.
The Minor League Pitchers Breaking In
Prior to the early 2000s, it was very common for pitchers to break into the Majors in relief roles prior to earning a spot in starting rotations. Obviously, it is important to ensure that pitchers build up innings and pitch counts over multiple years in the minors to prepare for the workloads that Major League starters endure, but there is also value in learning how to get big league hitters out, as Luis Severino proved during his cameo as a reliever in 2017. I think that both Nick Nelson and Deivi Garcia would benefit from riding the shuttle between AAA and the Majors this season, building up innings in AAA while throwing some important bullpen innings in the Majors.
Nick Nelson is a solid starting pitching prospect with huge strikeout numbers, developing control and command, and 2-3 MLB quality pitches, led by his plus-plus fastball that sits in the high-90s. Nelson should certainly begin the season as a starter at AAA, learning how to navigate upper-level lineups multiple times. However, on stuff alone, his fastball, curveball, and splitter are all MLB quality pitches that could be devastating out of the bullpen during the stretch run in 2020.
Deivi Garcia falls into the same category, albeit with better prospect status. I wanted to see Garcia in the bullpen during the stretch run in 2019 due to his electric stuff, but 2020 should be the year that Garcia makes his debut. Garcia will build innings in AAA during the year, and I think that he will start some games for the Yankees this year. Most importantly, I think that the Yankees could add him to the bullpen in mid-August to prepare him for a major role in the bullpen during the playoffs, much like the Rays did with David Price more than a decade ago.
While the opportunity may arise for the Yankees to make a splash by acquiring a big-time relief arm, I think that there are enough interesting arms on the current 40-man roster to maintain the bullpen’s status as one of the best in baseball in 2020.