New York Yankees: Bullpen is biggest question mark now and in the future

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 10: Dellin Betances #68 of the New York Yankees walks off the mound after the third out of the top of the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on May 10, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 10: Dellin Betances #68 of the New York Yankees walks off the mound after the third out of the top of the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on May 10, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

The New York Yankees mounted another epic comeback on Thursday night, only to have it spoiled by the bullpen’s ineffectiveness.

The New York Yankees have been absolutely rolling, winners in 17 of their last 19 games. They’ve been getting fantastic results from their starting pitching and no opponent can keep New York’s offense quite for a full nine innings. No matter the score, no matter how late it is in the game, the Yankees always seem primed for a comeback.

If the starting pitching has been great, then how come the Yankees need all these comebacks? That’s because the bullpen, originally believed to be New York’s biggest strength, has struggled a bit. As fun as the late-game heroics and walk-off hits have been to watch, it would be better for the Yankees and everyone’s blood pressure for the bullpen to straighten things out.

Everything has been going right for this team that doesn’t seem to know how to lose. However, the bullpen is the biggest question mark for the New York Yankees now and in the future.

A look at New York’s relief corps shows a bullpen loaded with big arms and big names. Closer Aroldis Chapman is known around the world as the man who consistently pumps 100+ mph fastballs in the ninth inning. David Robertson is a former closer who seems to always wiggle himself out of jams with a great cutter and filthy curveball. Dellin Betances has made four-straight All-Star appearances, using his 98 mph fastball and viscous breaking ball to become one of the game’s most unhittable setup men.

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Chad Green went from middling starting pitcher to dynamic bullpen weapon in 2017 when the shorter outings allowed his fastball to jump to 97 mph. His increased velocity combined with pinpoint accuracy and a nasty slider turned Green into a shutdown multi-inning reliever. Green wasn’t the only Yankee reliever who became a well-known name around baseball last season. After improved command turned Tommy Kahnle into a strikeout artist with the Chicago White Sox last year, a midseason trade to the Bronx allowed the right-hander to put his stuff on display in primetime. Kahnle is another reliever who can dial it up to 97 mph with the fastball and his changeup dives out of the zone, causing opposing hitters to look silly.

Add in the likes of Adam Warren, Chasen Shreve, and Jonathan Holder, and the 2018 New York Yankees were supposed to have one of the best bullpens baseball has ever seen.

However, that unhittable bullpen hasn’t been quite so unhittable thus far. Chapman has done his part, with an improved slider making him even harder to hit, and Robertson has been his usual self, outside of a pair of big home runs. But Yankees fans don’t know what to expect when Betances comes in, something that’s been a problem since late last season. At times, Betances is filthy but he mixes in outings where he can’t find the plate far too often. He also took the loss on Thursday night, giving up a go-ahead home run to J.D. Martinez after the Yankees came back from a 4-0 deficit.

Green has been good for the most part, but he’s given up a pair of home runs this month and he hasn’t stranded inherited runners like he did last season. Just 13% of inherited runners came around to score when Green came in the game in 2017. So far in 2018, 38% of inherited runners have ended up crossing the plate against Green, according to Baseball Reference.

Shreve has delivered two ineffective outings in his last four appearances after a great start to the year, increasing his ERA from 0.75 on May 3 to 3.14 on May 10. Kahnle struggled to start the season (6.14 ERA) before landing on the disabled list on April 17 where he remains with shoulder tendinitis. Warren was more effective to start the season but he also currently sits on the disabled list with a back strain.

These could all be early season struggles and Kahnle and Warren are both expected back from the disabled list before the month ends. However, Green and Kahnle only have one full season of effective relief under their belts and Robertson and Warren are free agents at season’s end. Upgrading the bullpen could be a priority for the New York Yankees at this season’s trade deadline and in the upcoming offseason.

Brad Hand and Zach Britton would headline the potential bullpen targets at the trade deadline and Britton would also be part of a loaded 2019 free agency class. If the New York Yankees need a reliever this offseason, there will be plenty to call. Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Britton, Brad Brach, Jeurys Familia, AJ Ramos, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland will join Robertson and Warren on the open market and the Yankees will have plenty of money to spend.

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Bryce Harper? Manny Machado? It could turn out that the New York Yankees spend their money on the bullpen this offseason instead.

Chapman and company could get back on track and live up to their unhittable billing. But just in case they don’t, New York will at least have plenty of options to upgrade their relief corps in the coming months.