Building a Bridge to the Elite Relievers

Following Monday’s trade for fireballer Aroldis Chapman, it’s quite clear that the Yankees have the best 1-2-3 ‘pen punch in the game, if not the best ever. Obviously, this absurd combination of high-strikeout and low-ERA relievers—Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Chapman—has the Yankees’ relieving corps receiving some high praise. There’s one thing to keep in mind, though. A bullpen isn’t just three pitchers; however good they may be. While the team may have the final few innings locked down, there’s more to a successful ‘pen than two setup men and a closer. Despite what Joe Girardi may hope, Betances, Miller, and Chapman can’t each throw an inning every game, and Yankees starters can’t go six innings every outing.

An often overlooked part of a bullpen is the “bridge” from the starting pitchers to the elite relievers. After all, it doesn’t matter how good a closer is if the team is losing once he enters. Last year, the team was in relatively good shape in the middle innings, due to contributions from Adam Warren, Justin Wilson, and Chasen Shreve. Unfortunately, two of these pitchers are no longer with the organization, and the third, Shreve, is a big question mark going into this season following a second-half collapse in 2015. The Yankees will have to rebuild the bridge for next season, and that’s not an easy task.

The good news for the Yankees is that they won’t be forced to put as much pressure on the bridge, as Chapman’s addition theoretically removes an inning between the starters and the setup men/closer. This is hugely important, given two thirds of last year’s middle relievers are gone, and the other is hard to trust. Still, Yankees starters averaged just over five innings last season, so there will be a gap between them and the elite trio. The Yankees will have to build this vital bridge, and it won’t be easy. At the least, there will need to be two or three dependable pitchers to get from the fifth to the seventh.

The most obvious name for this bridge is the aforementioned Shreve, who was one of the team’s best middle relievers for much of the season. A lot of Shreve’s value came from his ability to fortify the middle innings. He totaled 21 innings in the seventh, which was 11 more innings than any other frame. His 2.02 ERA in the first half of the season was huge for the team, but following the All-Star Break, Shreve’s ERA ballooned to 4.76. I detailed the reasons behind Shreve’s collapse right here, but despite knowing what happened, it’s very hard to predict if Shreve can bounce back. At this point, the Yankees will have to hope he can rebound, but they can’t expect another 2.02 ERA. That said, any ERA around three is fine, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Shreve put up numbers around there.

Finding the second and third relief pitcher isn’t as easy. There are plenty of talented arms, but none of them have a track record of big-league success. The Yankees have six young relievers who could all conceivably make an impact next season: Bryan Mitchell, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, Jacob Lindgren, Nick Goody, and James Pazos. These players are listed in order of career innings: Mitchell has the most at a mere 40 2/3 innings, so we’ll start there.

Mitchell, 24, has started for the team in the minor leagues, and had a 3.12 ERA in 15 starts at Triple-A last year. He could be a third or fourth starter, but the Yankees gave him a chance as a relief pitcher last season. He totaled 24 innings, to the tune of a disappointing 6.00 ERA. But, it’s important to mention that Mitchell missed time after being hit in the face by a line drive. Luckily, Mitchell was ultimately okay and wasn’t out for very long, but he wasn’t the same pitcher after returning. Before the injury, Mitchell had a 4.03 ERA. Afterwards, his ERA was 12.46. That makes his 6.00 ERA understandable, but also worrisome. While it shows that he’s a better pitcher than what last year’s numbers showed, there’s the concern that Mitchell will have trouble bouncing back from his scary injury. Last season was rough for the young pitcher, but he’s still a very talented player. Beat writers have noted that Mitchell is a popular ask in trade talks, and he could be a decent option in the middle innings next year.

Next up is Branden Pinder, the owner of 27 2/3 major-league innings, all recorded last year. There’s good news and bad news with Pinder. The good news is his 2.93 ERA last season, and the bad news is a 4.72 FIP and 4.55 BB/9 to go along with the shiny ERA. A high walk rate and low groundball rate are what fueled Pinder’s frightening FIP, and he’ll have to get both under control if he wants to experience prolonged success. Pinder’s minor-league numbers don’t suggest an issue with control, so the biggest X-Factor will be his ability to induce groundballs. If the 26-year-old can cut down on the walks and keep the ball on the ground more, he could have an impact in 2016.

Despite struggling in Triple-A last season (4.27 ERA), Nick Rumbelow received a cup of coffee last year, throwing 15 2/3 innings of 4.02 ERA ball. Rumbelow may have more upside than Pinder, but he’s less likely to find immediate big-league success, as he’s struggled to put up anything better than average numbers in the minors recently. Rumbelow will be on the roster fringe, and may need a good performance in Spring Training to make the 25-man roster for Opening Day. He’s not a pitcher that the Yankees will expect to handle important innings early on, and has a better chance to contribute later this season and in 2017.

Now we get to the big name, Jacob Lindgren. The Yankees took Lindgren with their first draft pick (55th overall) in 2014, and he’s absolutely dominated in the minor leagues. Lindgren, when healthy, is possibly the best relief prospect in the minors, and has yet to have a K/9 in the single digits at any level of professional baseball. The issue, though, is health. Lindgren underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow, knocking out his 2015 season after just 29 innings. If Lindgren can cut down on the walks, his elite strikeout rates gives him closer upside, and the 22-year-old could easily separate himself from all the other young relievers.

If Lindgren is the king of ridiculous strikeout numbers in the minors, then Nick Goody is the king of a ridiculous ERA. Last season, Goody posted a 1.73 ERA in Double-A and a 1.31 ERA  in Triple-A, along with a double-digit K/9 and reasonable walk rate. Goody wasn’t exactly dominant in the majors, with a four runs allowed in 5 2/3 innings, but that’s a very limited sample size. Goody’s raw talent isn’t anything special, but the 24-year-old’s eye-popping stats are sure to get him a look in the Spring.

Speaking of eye-popping stats, James Pazos posted a 1.09 ERA in Triple-A last year. Pazos, the only lefty in the mix, has elite velocity (for a left-hander) but doesn’t have any special secondaries. Still, he was utterly dominant in the minor leagues, and the Yankees are in love with him. When asked who was untouchable at the trade deadline, Hal Steinbrenner said Luis Severino, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez…and James Pazos. The fact that he was mentioned in the same breath as the team’s best prospects says a lot about the 24-year-old, and the team already has confidence in him as a pitcher. Despite throwing just five major-league innings, the majority of his innings came in the ninth—a rare thing to see with pitchers merely receiving a cup of coffee.

All of these arms are very intriguing and could be late-inning relief pitchers in the future. But, what matters to the Yankees is present performance, and not all of these relievers are ready to be difference makers next season. Of all of the pitchers, Mitchell is the most likely to make the team out of spring training, along with Pinder. If Lindgren is healthy and back to old levels, there’s a good chance he makes the team as well. Pazos, Goody, and Rumbelow have a chance at making the bullpen, but it will take successful spring training performances. It’s challenging to choose one or two of these pitchers to join Shreve as the “bridge,” given their lack of track record, but for now Mitchell seems to be the most likely to get that role. If Lindgren is 100 percent, he absolutely deserves the role, but it’s hard to tell how he will look at this point.

The issue with the Yankees bullpen isn’t their lack of depth overall, but their lack of proven options. They have plenty of talented arms, all of whom I’ve mentioned above, and while they are likely major-league ready, that doesn’t mean they are ready to form a successful bridge to the elite relievers. Out of these pitchers, at least one or two should be up to the task, but it may take time for the team to find those pitchers and consistency could be hard to come by. Spring training will be a major determinant in who forms the bridge, but if I had to choose one now, Mitchell and Lindgren, along with Shreve, would be the best options in the middle innings.

Lead photo courtesy Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

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1 comment on “Building a Bridge to the Elite Relievers”

Kevin S

Lindgren really is the best here and looks to make a big impact. Shreve’s implosion seemed to come out of nowhere and for someone who had thrown many innings before, fatigue wasn’t an issue. More likely some mental/mechanical breakdown was and his inability to right the ship at any point may be foreboding.

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