The Yankees' Closer - 2023
By Cary Greene
November 20, 2022
A week or so ago, my short answer to this question of who should the Yankees closer next year be, was that based on the class of available free-agent relievers being underwhelming, now that Edwin Diaz has signed a record contract for a reliever that was offered by the Mets, I think it would be very prudent for Brian Cashman to walk-the-talk and finally take a look at his “process” for evaluating internal pitching talent and make some wholesale changes to it because the results frankly stink.
I think if the current Yankees bullpen can come back healthy for 2023, there’s enough in the cupboard to put a unit together with multiple high-leverage options.
Ultimately Clay Holmes would be poised to begin the season as the closer, but over the course of another full season, he may revert more towards his Pittsburgh Pirates form than the flashes he’s shown as a Yankee to date. That’s fine because at worst, he’s an excellent situational-reliever to bring in against tough stretches of right-handed hitters and that’s really what Cashman had in mind when he traded Diego Castillo and Hoy Park for Holmes in advance of the 2021 Deadline. We all know what his ceiling is though so there is hope that, if healthy, he could be a good closer.
There are actually other options. The Yankees could look to Mike King if he can come back healthy and there’s always the chance that Jonathan Loaisiga could do the job as well. Not many teams have internal options like the Yankees do. I say roll with them and focus more on the internal “Process” that Cashman’s been using to identify internal minor league talent (and keep it) which is obviously dreadfully bad.
Why would I insinuate that Cashman needs to examine his “process” which he touts as outstanding but that is obviously dramatically flawed to even the most casual of baseball observers? I’ll use a single example to illustrate why Cashman has a dreadfully bad “process” that he uses to evaluate internal pitching talent.
I only wish the Yankees wouldn’t have flushed J.P. Feyereisen to the Brewers back in 2016. He’s developed into a top-flight closer and is now with the Yankees top division rival - the light spending Rays. This season, Feyereisen only allowed a single run across 24.1-innings, before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury, resulting from a pinched nerve.
Will he make it back? One would have to err in his favor because there’s no structural elbow damage or anything like that with this injury. There’s probably a good chance he’ll not only make it back, but we could be looking at an All-Star level closer in the making here, or close to it.
Feyereisen has worked 61-innings for the Rays since they acquired him, pitching to a sparkling 1.48 ERA and he’s very capable in high-leverage innings. Clearly, he’s no flash-in-the-pan and certainly, his talent is undeniably obvious.
Fans may remember that the Yankees originally acquired Feyereisen along with Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield when they dealt Andrew Miller to the then Indians and now Guardians, the previous season, in 2016. Trading Feyereisen away was a pretty significant “pre Rule-5 Draft” blunder that Cashman has become increasingly well known for making.
Cashman didn’t find a way to make room for Feyereisen and the rest is history. He simply dumped the player who turned out to be the best return-piece in the Miller deal, thus cementing the trade quite firmly as a significantly bad failure on his part.
The question, How Should the Yankees Handle the Closer Role in 2023?, demands me to start with the Feyereisen blunder as part of a larger issue that I believe may answer the question.
Here’s why I note this - if the Yankees don’t improve their ability to recognize the talent in their own system and start translating it, they’ll continue to function as a talent pipeline for not only Division Rivals, but other MLB teams who do run leaner and can fit younger players onto their rosters.
Being a feeder system for other teams because you have a bloated roster of largely undesirable, more experienced players who block prospects is a very cancerous way to operate. It fattens the payroll into a 20lb Butterball Turkey and prevents the Yankees from putting anything except squash and cranberry sauce on the holiday table. Wouldn’t it be nice to save some of that coin and have some stuffing, gravy, appetizers and other trimmings – along with a superstar free agent or two?
If the Yankees used their youth more, it would also free up payroll to spend on high-end free agents. It would also create better sustainability and long-term stability. Most promoted rookies are under team control for at least two or three seasons before they’re even arbitration eligible and then, for another four years of arbitration. Why not capitalize on what are likely the best years of a prospects career, instead of overpaying veterans who aren’t that much better than replacement level?
Yet, the Yankees spend $20-million a year on declining players like Josh Donaldson so I wonder, what promising young pitcher(s) will Cashman give pre-Rule-5 or Rule-5 Draft “swirlies” to this offseason, before he flushes them into some other team’s system?
In 2022, Brian Cashman allocated $28.9-million to field a Bullpen this past season, which was more than Orioles' or A’s entire active-payrolls. He also spent $84.7-million on pitching overall, which is more than the Pirates, Guardians, Orioles or A’s entire active-payrolls. Why is Brian Cashman spending like this, when a team like the Guardians can field a better bullpen for only $6.1-million? If Cashman could operate similarly, he’d have saved almost $23-million!
Let’s first examine what went wrong with the Yankees assessment of Feyereisen’s skill-set, because I do believe that Cashman’s process, which translates into a lack of ability on his part to recognize the talent the Yankees have in the pipeline, is the real problem here. A GM better equipped to make pitching decisions would very likely have the Yankees bullpen in far better shape than it’s presently in.
Over the 2019 season, J.P. Feyereisen logged 61.1-innings for Scranton, pitching to 2.49 ERA with 13.8 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9 rates. The strikeout ability was there, but he lacked fine-tuned control. Is the reason Cashman decided to throw in the towel? Feyereisen’s BB/9 trended up to 4.5 from 3.9 - did Cashman assess that Feyereisen just didn’t have the control necessary, after three tours of duty in the Yankees system, to be a high-leverage reliever on the big-stage?
We’re talking about a three-pitch (fastball-slider-changeup) reliever here who owned a collective 3.12 ERA and a 195-to-76 K/BB ratio over a total of 164.2 minor-league frames. This was a guy who’s fastball had done nothing but climb in velocity since he was acquired and at the time of the trade, he was touching 96-mph pretty regularly.
Scouts at the time of the trade wanted to see Feyereisen throw his breaking ball for strike-one. This was largely “knock-number-one” on him. Other qualified baseball folks like Scottsdale Scorpions manager Tom Goodwin, who saw Feyereisen in the Arizona Fall League saw something more though. Goodwin said, “Good presence out there. He wants the ball in any situation and those guys don’t grow on trees.”
Two Feyereisen media quotes always stuck with me. He once said, “I don’t give hitters credit.” “I think I’m better than whoever is in the box, no matter who it is. I like to throw my fastball and I like to challenge guys and see how good they are.” Another time, he said, “If they asked me if I wanted to start or go in the bullpen, I wouldn’t even think twice.” “I love the bullpen, games are won in the ninth-inning.” These quotes verified his DNA and Goodwin was right. These types of prospects really don’t grow on trees.
Relievers are a dime-a-dozen, it’s true. But potential closers with All-Star ceilings, they are very rare indeed. It seemed clear to those in the know, like Goodwin, that Feyereisen was a special prospect but meanwhile, Yankees analytics folks chose to ignore Feyereisen’s budding fastball and impressive punch-out abilities and instead hone in on his command of his offspeed pitches.
Somewhere along the line, the key development arc in Feyereisen’s growth was entirely missed by the Yankees. At the beginning of Feyereisen’s rise to being a top prospect, he had gone from being a good high school player to the top Division III player in the 2014 Draft. He came in at 180 pounds throwing mid-80’s and he left at 215, throwing low-90’s. He’s done nothing but grow as a pitcher ever since.
This past season, Feyereisen turned the corner from being really good to being light’s-out. He’s now a legit, lock down Closer. He decreased his fastball usage slightly and increased his use of his change-up, which sure enough, he began throwing for strikes in any count. His strikeout-rate was 29.1% and his walk-rate was 5.8. League-averages are 22.1% and 8.4%. The Rays were able to tap into his mentality and help him become able to throw his breaking balls for strikes. On the other hand, the Yankees gave up.
Opposing batters posted a .112 wOBA against Feyereisen this past season. The league average for a pitcher was .316 and I point to this stat to illustrate how, if Cashman were better at recognizing his talent and if Cashman relied more on actual baseball people for advice and less on analytics people, the Yankees might have Feyereisen as a possible solution this season.
My answer to this week’s question is that, please, for the love of God, I’ve been wanting this for years-on-end now. For starters, I'd like the Yankees to just get better at recognizing the makeup, the stuff, the potential and the ceilings of their own pitching prospects. I’d like for Cashman to stop blowing money on expensive relievers and to begin sticking with his promising young arms who show both through their mound presence and their demeanor that they have higher than normal ceilings.
How would a bullpen that included Feyereisen, Garrett Whitlock and Trevor Stephan look right about now? All three are tigers on the mound. They want the ball. They lock innings down. They suppress runs. Didn’t a scout anywhere in the Yankees organization recognize that all three had the makings of a higher leverage reliever? How could Cashman have whiffed this substantially and simultaneously supplied teams the Yankees compete against year in and year out in the postseason?
How many times in the next few years will Yankees fans have to watch their own prospects make life difficult on a roster full of pinstriped free agents? I need more cowbells here. I need more impact from the Yankees farm system.
Since all of those doors are shut, here’s what I want. I want this cycle of shooting yourself in the foot to end. I want Cashman gone, but that won’t happen, so I want the impossible. I want him to finally change his process. It clearly stinks.
The Yankees have a number of internal arms they can use to form a bullpen, the core of a solid bullpen is there. Relievers like Ron Marinaccio and Clay Holmes all have promise. If healthy, there exists some pretty formidable arms. They also have pitchers recovering from injuries like Mike King and Stephen Ridings. Clearly, Cashman needs to replace Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton as well, but he can do that with internal options, instead of squandering them away.