With two weeks left in spring training, one of the only remaining areas of uncertainty on the Yankees’ roster is the bullpen. Rob Refsnyder has more or less sown up the last bench spot. Austin Romine has likely hit his way into the backup catcher job. If he’s healthy, there is no way anyone other than CC Sabathia occupies the fifth slot in New York’s rotation. Joe Girardi can say he’s taking his five best starters north all he wants, but there is no way CC starts the year in the bullpen. They’ve kept him in the rotation through the last three miserable years. What’s changed? The team’s decision makers are unwilling to call the $50 million owed to Sabathia (assuming his 2017 option vests) a sunk cost. That leaves the bullpen as the only truly contested section onthe 25 man roster.
When asked about the bullpen during Saturday afternoon’s rain delay,Yankees GM Brian Cashman told Meredith Marakovitz, “We want to gravitate towards the obvious.” At this point, there is nothing more obvious than having Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances handling the late innings for New York. Beyond them things get more interesting. The team’s biggest offseason acquisition, closer Aroldis Chapman, will also have a seat waiting for him when he finishes serving his 30 game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. Until then, the team has an additional bullpen job to fill.
All signs point to Ivan Nova being used as the long man to start the year. He has no minor league options remaining, and if the Yankees wanted to deal him they had plenty of opportunity this winter. He provides valuable starting depth for the club’s fragile rotation. In addition, he seems like a good bet to find success as a short reliever. Nova is basically a two pitch starter, throwing his fastball and hammer curve 95% of the time in 2015 according to Fangraphs. He’s abandoned the slider he toyed with earlier in his career and rarely throws his change. His average fastball last year was 93 MPH, which is almost exactly his career mark. Moving to the bullpen could potentially bump that up a tick or two. He wouldn’t be the first fringy starter to become a nasty reliever.
The final player who appears to be more or less certain to open the season with the big league team is Chasen Shreve, who posted a solid 3.09 ERA in 58.3 IP for the team last year. That number was considerably lower (1.89) before a disastrous September in which he walked seven batters and allowed four home runs in 5.2 innings. His peripherals indicate that his early season run prevention may have been something of a mirage. His DRA (Deserved Run Average) of 4.35 and FIP of 4.89 point to more average results going forward. That said, he seems to have earned the trust of both the manager and front office during his excellent five months of 2015 based on the comments we’ve heard this spring. In combination with his strong performance in Grapefruit League play (No earned runs and 6 Ks in 5.1 IP), that remaining goodwill should be enough to assure him one of the four open bullpen spots.
Even after removing the 10 pitchers during the first two rounds of roster cuts, New York has 12 relievers remaining in camp competing for the remaining three open spots. On March 13, the Yankees assigned Jacob Lindgren, Tyler Webb, Brady Lail, Chad Green, Domingo German, and Kyle Haynes to minor league camp. Today, they were joined by Tyler Cloyd, Richard Bleier, Mark Montgomery, and Vinnie Pestano. Out of these, only Lindgren was a real contender to make the team. The New York’s first selection in the 2014 draft is the only pitcher on the 40 man roster to have been demoted thus far. Lindgren dealt with control issues early in camp, walking four batters and hitting another in 0.1 IP in his first appearance. After missing the second half of the season following elbow surgery, the team may have felt he’d be better served rehabbing in the low pressure environment of the minor league complex.
Ten of these remaining 12 relievers have a 40 man roster spot, so the two who do not, Diego Moreno and Anthony Swarzak, are at a severe disadvantage. New York has no space remaining to add players so they’d need to designate someone for assignment in order to keep Moreno or Swarzak. Given the team’s depth, that seems unlikely. Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa also may be handicapped by Ivan Nova’s presence as long reliever. With all of the fragility in the rotation, it makes sense to keep both stretched out as starters down in Triple-A, especially because neither is significantly better than their competition.
In terms of Grapefruit League performances, Johnny Barbato and Branden Pinder stand out as two guys who have done the most to secure a spot. Making roster decisions based on spring training results is not a great practice because of the sample size involved, but because most of these guys are likely to get a shot throughout the season, it makes sense to take the hot hand to start the year. Here’s a look at how the candidates have fared thus far:
With two weeks of games left to play, this is still a wide open race. If the Yankees were making the decision tomorrow, they would probably take Barbato, Pinder, and Rumbelow. The team liked Barbato enough to add him to the 40 man this winter, while Pinder and Rumbelow were arguably the best of the Scranton Wilkes-Barre shuttle relievers in 2015. With Shreve and Miller, New York doesn’t have a pressing need for another lefty reliever, although if Olson or Pazos has a strong finish to the month I don’t think that would hurt their case. Like last year, expect the Yankees to take advantage of all of these talented young options by cycling fresh middle-relief arms into the last spot or two in the bullpen. Ideally however, one or two of these guys will force the issue over the next couple of months and make themselves too indispensable to the team that he earns a permanent late inning role, making a strong relief corps even stronger.