The Yankees Do Not Need Another Big Bullpen Arm
Besides the looming $300 million elephants in the room, much of the current chatter around the Yankees is regarding the big bullpen arms available on the Free Agent market. It is no secret that the Yankees are interested to varying extents in David Robertson, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, and Andrew Miller. Each of these pitchers will cost a minimum of $10 million per year against the luxury tax calculation. Based on current estimates, the Yankees are approximately $7 million (when taking likely arbitration figures into account) shy of the luxury tax threshold. The Yankees will likely clear additional space when they find a taker for Sonny Gray;s projected $9.1 million salary, but it will still leave the Yankees with very little breathing room under the luxury tax threshold to adequately fill the hole left by Didi’s absence. It remains unclear whether the Yankees are willing to exceed the luxury tax threshold for any player that is not Harper or Machado, and if the Yankees lose out on either player, I am not sure that the Yankees will be willing to sign any of the aforementioned big bullpen arms. Much as I disagree with a path forward in which the Yankees do not exceed the luxury tax threshold this year, it is a real possibility. That being said, the Yankees can still form a formidable bullpen even without signing one of big free agent bullpen arms.
The Current 2019 Bullpen
For the sake of this exercise, we will assume that the Yankees will again utilize an 8-man bullpen (much as the 8th man is usually a waste, but I digress). Here are the locks for this year’s bullpen:
4 spots to fill. Realistically, there will be a need to acquire at least one guy from the outside. Since the goal of this exercise is to stay under the luxury tax threshold, there are plenty of interesting bargain arms out their for middle relief. Domenic Lanza at River Ave Blues took a look at a few of those options the other day. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it. Each of the pitchers Domenic lists are low-cost acquisitions that would keep the Yankees beneath the luxury tax threshold. I think that Joakim Soria would be a great pickup that could very well end up producing almost as well as some of the top free agent arms.
The Internal Candidates
For the time being, I will not list pitchers who are likely to begin the season as AAA starters, namely guys who we can still consider legitimate prospects. That means no Jonathan Loaisiga, Chance Adams, Mike King, or Domingo Acevedo. Internally, here are the candidates to fill those spots (in no particular order; *out of minor league options):
5 of the 6 options listed above are out of minor league options. All players out of minor league options must be offered to every other MLB team on waivers prior to being able to send that player to a minor league affiliate. I think that it is very unlikely that any of the 5 guys above would pass through waivers. Understanding that whoever does not make the final cut will likely be lost on waivers (save for Tarpley, who has multiple options left), let’s take a deeper dive into each player:
To me, German is one of the most interesting young pitchers on the Yankees’ staff. German had very little development time in the minors due to injuries, he’s had some success at the big league level, but has not succeeded enough to justify a guaranteed spot on the roster. German has a big fastball and a wipe-out slider, but he struggles with command, and has only flashed a change-up on occasion. While his statistics as a starter were mixed at best, his numbers in his relief appearances were surprisingly good in 2018:
Statistics compiled using Baseball-Reference.
The sample-size is admittedly very small. However, German has long intrigued scouts, and his truncated development time has probably significantly impacted his ability to start at the big league level. If he drops the change-up and focuses on his fastball/slider combination, he could become a weapon out of the bullpen.
It feels like Luis Cessa has been around forever, but he made his debut for the Yankees in 2016. Cessa has been bounced back and forth between starting and relieving at the big league level, while working almost exclusively as a starter in the minors. Cessa works with a 4-pitch mix, although in recent years, his curve has become more of a “show-me” offering in lieu of his slider and change-up. While Cessa has had success as a starter in the minor leagues, he has not shown any ability to succeed consistently in the majors as a starter. However, there is reason to believe that Cessa could be a great reliever. For one, Cessa’s velocity ticked up at the end of 2017 noticeably, and he has roughly maintained that velocity gain:
Chart Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net
While there were some noticeable velocity dips for Cessa this year, he battled injuries and was forced to bounce back and forth between spot starts and bullpen work. Cessa also started to work with more of the typical Yankee anti-fastball approach near the end of the year:
Chart Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net
This approach gave Cessa solid whiff rates on his slider, hinting that Cessa could have more to offer the Yankees. While I don’t think Cessa will be able to put the pieces together as a starter, he could certainly use his high octane fastball and solid secondary offerings to become a useful bullpen arm
AJ Cole is a former consensus Top-100 prospect who was acquired from the Nationals near the beginning of last season. Cole inhabited the dreaded long-relief role, usually performed by a low-quality arm that can soak up innings. Unfortunately for all involved, manager Aaron Boone never got the memo that Cole was not supposed to pitch that often, and seemed to turn to him to throw innings when the Yankees only trailed by a couple of runs. Cole could not put the pieces together as a starter early in his career, and has not shown that he can be a solid relief arm either. While he is capable of soaking up innings, the Yankees can do better.
I wrote a much more in-depth piece on Bridwell here. In short, Bridwell is an interesting arm who has struggled with injuries. Bridwell also gets much better results facing an order once as opposed to multiple times. Bridwell, if healthy, could fill the 2018 AJ Cole role and possibly be more than that.
Tommy Kahnle went from 2017 playoff hero to a sad sight in 2018. It is possible that 2017 just took everything Kahnle had. Check out the drop in velocity:
Chart Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net
Kahnle’s velocity was down across the board, and while velocity is not everything, Kahnle lost enough to make him totally ineffective at the Major League level. If Kahnle is able to take the offseason to rest, get healthy, and rediscover some velocity then I think he could again be a high-octane reliever capable of pitching in any situation for the Yankees. If the velocity does not return, and it likely never will, then Kahnle’s time in pinstripes will sadly end.
Tarpley exploded onto the scene in 2018, rising steadily from AA to the majors. While his time in the majors was a brief cup of coffee in September, Tarpley struck out more than one batter per inning, while limiting contact. He also struggled with allowing walks, but he did not struggle with walks to that extent in the minors. Tarpley has two minor league options remaining, and it is tough to judge his true ability from facing September competition with expanded rosters diluting the talent pool. He will definitely pitch at the Major League level at some point this year, but it may be best to stash him at AAA to begin the year.
Based on my plan, here is how the Yankee bullpen would look at the start of 2019:
I included an asterisk next to Bridwell, because if Kahnle comes back in Spring Training throwing 98 MPH, I am all-in. Otherwise, every other reliever mentioned is lost, while Tarpley begins the year in AAA waiting for the first blowout loss that kills the bullpen or the first injury, whichever comes first. Based on track records and pure stuff, I think that this is a bullpen that could be one of the best in baseball. Multiple pitchers on this list can throw multiple innings; all except Soria, Bridwell, and Holder have big velocity and stuff; and young guns like German and Cessa could take big steps forward in shorter outings with defined roles. With this talent pool, the Yankees can afford to miss out on the top bullpen arms if the goal is to stay under the luxury tax threshold.