When it was firing on all cylinders, the bullpen was easily the strongest part of the 2015 Yankees. Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances alone combined for 4.4 WARP as they told the entire baseball world to kindly buzz off. As of right now both of them will return for the 2016 campaign, yet trade rumors continue to swirl around Miller. Closers have been traded for impressive returns this winter, and it stands to reason that Miller would only be flipped for a king’s ransom. After all, good relief pitching is quickly becoming a very valuable commodity. Barring the addition of a true workhorse starter or two, the Yankees will need all the reliable relievers that they can get their hands on to help the paper maché rotation hold down the fort. There’s a brigade of pitchers that spent 2015 shuttling between Scranton and the Bronx to inject fresh arms into the relief corps yet their effectiveness was questionable at best sometimes. What the Yankees need is reliability and effectiveness, something that they had not too long ago.
Trading Adam Warren for Starlin Castro made sense. Castro is young, he plays second base, and he’s got a lot of upside. He’ll be around for a while, too. That’s worth three years of a capable swingman. As good as Warren can be in short bursts, Castro fits a dire need. No harm, no foul.
That’s where the Justin Wilson trade comes in. Wilson was a 1.4 WARP reliever, and a valuable lefty that could tackle both right-handed and left-handed hitters. Though he went through periods of wildness, Wilson was a valuable part of the late-inning success of the Yankees. He was shipped to Detroit this week for minor league pitchers Luis Cessa and Chad Green. Cessa and Green, while they have their share of warts, could turn into somewhat useful big league pitchers. That’s all fine and dandy.
However, the Yankee bullpen is now Miller, Betances and… stuff. Chasen Shreve will return, but his famous self-immolation down the stretch was quite scary. Ideally he’ll be able to stand up to Joe Girardi-levels of use in 2016, but there are no guarantees. Bryan Mitchell may take up the super-swingman role from Adam Warren. Jacob Lindgren’s elbow should be bone chip-fee and ready to doll out the strikeouts. Of the three, Lindgren is the most likely to step into Wilson’s role.
But is that good enough? The rest of the relief corps will likely be made up of some of the Nick Rumbelow-Branden Pinder-James Pazos group, and as good as some of them (particularly Pazos) could be, they leave much to be desired in terms of experience.
Brian Cashman has picked an odd time to trade away his two best middle relievers. The free agent market offered very little in terms of talent, and what was there has been quickly snatched up. Darren O’Day is returning to Baltimore, Mark Lowe will be teammates with Wilson in Detroit, and the Nationals will get a taste of The Shawn Kelley Experience that Yankees fans are all too familiar with. The best reliever left out there might just be the repurposed Joe Blanton, and Yankee Stadium isn’t exactly the place to discover that Blanton has fallen back into his homer-surrendering ways.
Therefore the trade market may prove to be the most appealing place to find help. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News claims that the Rangers are willing to talk turkey on their relievers, and both Keone Kela and Shawn Tolleson are remarkably attractive pieces. Kela struck out 10.1 batters per nine innings and may be the true prize here. DRA is much more fond of him (2.98) than it is of Tolleson (3.78). Tolleson also handled closing duties for Texas and his saves may make him more expensive.
Kela is controllable for five more seasons and is exactly the kind of young high-leverage arm that the Yankees should be targeting. He won’t be cheap, but he’ll come much cheaper than a splashier move like a reunion with Mark Melancon. To preserve the admirable minor league depth that they’ve built up, the Yankees will need to be thrifty and savvy to fill the holes on the roster. The starting rotation is a higher priority but Cashman undoubtedly has many irons in the fire. It would simply be a shame to watch the Yankees morph into the Tigers and give away games due to a shaky bullpen. There’s little point in having an elite closer and an elite setup man if the game never reaches them. Leads can quickly evaporate in a hail of dingers. It’s up to the bullpen to not surrender them.
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