If I Were the GM: Looking Ahead to 2019 – The Bullpen
Throughout the course of the off-season, I’ll share my vision for the 2019 Yankees. This article is the seventh in this series. You can see the other articles here:
As this series begins to wind down, I come to one of the last positions on the team that offers any sense of intrigue (my designs on Center Field, Right Field, and Designated Hitter will all be pretty obvious). What I would do for first base is also not all that earth-shattering or revolutionary. I think my designs all make a lot of sense, but, going forward, especially after this article, there won’t be many more surprises.
Also, much of this series ran while we were investigating the best way to host reader comments on the site (and updating the comments to be specific to Start Spreading the News and not It’s About The Money). As such, I will summarize the moves I already discussed at the start of this passage and open up the comments on my plan to date, including, of course, what follows in this passage:
My 2019 Yankees as reported in this series thus far:
MGR – Aaron Boone
SP – Cory Kluber or Carlos Carrasco or James Paxton, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Patrick Corbin, C.C. Sabathia, plus one of J.A. Happ, Yusei Kikuchi, or Dallas Keuchel to be “C.C. Sabathia insurance.”
C – Gary Sanchez/Brian McCann
2B – Scooter Gennett
SS – Gleyber Torres
3B – Miguel Andujar
LF – Bryce Harper
Ok, on to the bullpen:
I understand the desire of teams to have deep (deep, deep) bullpens. I get it. This is the world in which we now live. The eight man bullpen is a thing of today that I have to get used to. I don’t necessarily like it. I think it encourages too many pitching changes and vastly weakens the team’s bench and flexibility in every other position, but it’s a thing, and in my plan I have to recognize that reality.
If I was really the GM, I’d probably try to get by with a six or seven man bullpen, but I’m not going to go that far with this exercise. Instead I’ll just abide by the reality and explain how I would fill all eight bullpen spots.
We can begin by looking at the spots that are simple to fill because the Yankees already have the players to fill them. I would, absolutely, and most certainly, bring each of these players back in 2019 believing that this core, in and of itself, is a high quality collection of pitchers that, just by themselves, makes the Yankees bullpen exceedingly strong:
With these four pitchers, I have the core of my pen. But, to round out the pen, I still need four more pitchers. This is how I would fill the last four spots:
The bullpen as constructed above is very strong but it is bereft of left-handers. The only lefty the team has in this scenario is Aroldis Chapman. If one recalls from my plan for the starting pitchers though, I advocate for the Yankees to seriously pursue Yusei Kikuchi. In a perfect world, he would be the Yankees’ sixth starter/long man in 2019. Since C.C. Sabathia is penciled in as the Yankees’ fifth starter, they have to plan for him to miss a percentage of his starts. That is part of what Sabathia brings as an older pitcher with injury and durability concerns. Sabathia is, most times, a five inning starter. In my scenario, Kikuchi would spend 2019 as Sabathia’s caddie, pitching the second half of C.C.’s five (or fewer) inning starts and being the starter whenever Sabathia has to miss a start due to fatigue or injury. This would be a great way for Kikuchi to assimilate to Major League Baseball. Since 2019 is Sabathia’s last year, Kikuchi would also know that he’d be penciled into the starting rotation in 2020. With this plan, I see Kikuchi having no fewer than 12 starts and I see him throwing at least 130 innings, many out of the bullpen. This would be a great way to transition to American baseball. If Kikuchi can’t be had, my original plan was to try to fill this spot with a different solid left-handed pitcher like J.A. Happ, hoping that he’d still be around in late January. That doesn’t seem likely as there seems to be a growing market for him. As such, if Happ isn’t available, I’d look to fill this spot with the likes of a free agent looking for an offer late in the off season. Francisco Liriano is a pitcher who might fit that bill. In short, I’m looking for a left-handed spot starter. If none can be had, my hope would be that Jordan Montgomery can fill this spot in the mid-summer as he hopefully comes back from Tommy John surgery. The negative part of this plan is that I’d have a pitcher in the bullpen that would really only be available once or twice a week when C.C. Sabathia starts (or would start as this pitcher would be filling in on the occasions when Sabathia cannot pitch). This is the negative aspect of bringing Sabathia back in 2019. I believe, absolutely, that the Yankees need some quality C.C. insurance like this.
As noted above, this bullpen does not have a left-handed specialist. It needs a lefty reliever of some sort that also isn’t tied to C.C. Sabathia’s starts. I think this is an area where the Yankees have to take a flier – there is no sure thing available for what I am willing to pay. (If one were to read my overall plan, I have the Yankees spending big dollars to get Bryce Harper and Patrick Corbin. I also advocate to spend a bit on the back-up catcher and to bid competitively for Kikuchi.) As such, I believe the Yankees have to round out the rest of the squad, including the bullpen, at bargain basement prices. The lefties I would target would have to come via trade or free agency. In free agency, I’d look to a buy-low candidate. Any of Jerry Blevins, Boone Logan, Hector Santiago, Tim Collins, or Jorge DeLaRosa all fit the bill. These were all left-handed relievers whose 2018 WAR was 0.0 or worse. Relief pitchers have up-and-down careers. A bad pitcher one year can sometimes be an effective pitcher the next year. I think the upside of acquiring all the talent I’m trying to acquire is that the Yankees have to look for a diamond in the rough for their second lefty in the pen. Anything can happen here. Sometimes, even while spending lavishly, a team needs to rely on a (left-handed) wing and a prayer. In this case, they need to hope for a small miracle here.
In my “spend less for the last bullpen spots scenario,” I also have to forgo offering a contract to David Robertson and Zach Britton. I think both players will just be too expensive. I’ve always loved D-Rob. He’s been a great Yankee, but I also think he’s on the downside of his career now, and, all sentimentality aside, I just don’t think he’d be affordable in my plan. I also believe that the Yankees can easily cover the final two bullpen spots from within with their plethora of right-handed pitching talent. The Scranton/Wilkes-Bare Shuttle will be active in my plan as the final two bullpen spots will all be the higher end Yankees young talent. The pitchers that will fill these spots will be led by Jonathan Loaisiga. To me, he’s the best talent out there. I’d still be careful with how much I tax his arm in 2019, but he’d be a core component of my pen. The other pitchers to fill this role are all on the 40-man roster: Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Chance Adams, Luis Cessa, Domingo German, Ben Heller, and Tommy Kahnle. I also hold out hope that young lefty Stephen Tarpley can surprise and be a contributing member of the bullpen in 2019. If he can, especially as a left-hander, the Yankees will be in great shape.
Finally, I trade (or release) A.J. Cole because I don’t believe he can be relied upon. I also believe that Aaron Boone trusts too much in him so I send him away to eliminate the temptation of using him in a big spot. Every manager seems to have a fringe relief pitcher he irrationally falls in love with. A.J. Cole seemed to be that man for Boone in 2018.