Tommy Kahnle is now a free agent, so the New York Yankees need to prioritize filling that hole in their deep and powerful bullpen.
Whatever the New York Yankees bullpen setup is in 2021, it will be without a key piece and a fan favorite. On Saturday, the team reported right-handed reliever Tommy Kahnle had elected free agency instead of an outright assignment to the minors.
Today RHP Tommy Kahnle elected free agency in lieu of accepting an outright assignment.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) October 31, 2020
First things first, this move was fully expected. Kahnle underwent Tommy John surgery in August and probably won’t pitch at all in 2021. General manager Brian Cashman needed to free up a 40-man roster spot. Keeping Kahnle in his final year of arbitration when he’s out with an injury wouldn’t have made sense.
However, this means the Yankees have some decisions to make. In an abbreviated 2020 season that saw little-to-no days off, the Bombers bullpen ranked 16th in both bullpen ERA and K/9. This was after ranking ninth and third in those respective categories in 2019. Even for a middle reliever, Kahnle was a big loss.
Now, the Yankees need to look to 2021 and figure out how to make the bridge to closer Aroldis Chapman as strong as possible. Cashman could roll with an in-house option, but adding a reliever on the cheap in free agency may also work.
Regardless of his decision, he and the rest of the Yankees front office should consider this small handful of arms to fill Kahnle’s role.
Let’s start with the most likely man to assume the Tommy Kahnle mantle: Chad Green. He’s posted a 12.3 K/9 since 2017 and is used to being a late-inning reliever in the Bronx. The 29-year-old righty can also serve as an opener and provide length out of the bullpen in an emergency.
Furthermore, Green has averaged nearly 96 miles per hour on his fastball for his career and also throws a decent slider. He added a curveball in 2020 and abandoned the slider completely, according to Fangraphs. However, being a two-pitch pitcher sometimes makes him prone to giving up home runs — he allowed a 1.8 HR/9 in 2020. Digging deeper, his HR/9 has increased each of the last three years.
Just the same, Green has proven he can serve the Yankees in multiple roles. If it’s established that he’s 100% the seventh-inning arm, he can prepare accordingly and pitch well. Even with his longball issues, Green taking over Kahnle’s role seems the most probable route New York takes.
Initially, I wasn’t planning on including anyone the Yankees could sign in free agency. Not only does the team carry the bullpen depth to use an in-house option for Kahnle’s role, but free agency will be slow this year. The global pandemic meant lost revenues across the board for all MLB teams, and a plethora of players are free agents after having their options declined.
Yet, Blake Treinen is someone the Yankees should consider on a one-year deal. He’s already 32 years old and doesn’t strike many batters out, but just won a World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Even on a veteran team like the Yankees, adding someone with recent championship experience could prove beneficial.
As to his pitching, Treinen isn’t going to notch many strikeouts. His career K/9 is a modest 8.7, which is odd considering his average career fastball velocity is 96.4 miles per hour. Rather, Treinen relies on a power sinker that’s resulted in a career 57.3% groundball rate (GB%).
Just imagine: Treinen inducing soft contact with groundballs in the seventh inning before Zack Britton takes over to do the same in the eighth. On a one-year deal, the veteran could be an excellent Yankees bullpen addition.
The man they call “Johnny Lasagna” can do it all. He can start a game in an emergency, provide long relief/mop-up duty out of the bullpen, and even throw a late inning here and there. More recently, Jonathan Loaisiga has expressed a desire to remain in the bullpen.
Though Loaisiga sports a 4.61 ERA in relief (compared to 4.21 as a starter), this can largely be chalked up to using him in several roles. As a clearly defined reliever taking over for Kahnle, the young righty can get a better idea of how to pitch in games. His career K/9 is a respectable 10.44 and his fastball velocity tops out at around 97 miles per hour.
This means when it comes to Loaisiga pitching exclusively out of the bullpen, the Yankees just need to commit to it. He is a reliever and only a reliever. No spot starts, no opening a bullpen game, no mop-up duty. Loaisiga will pitch one inning en route to Chapman pitching the ninth, maybe two in an emergency.
Throw in his solid curveball and changeup, and Loaisiga absolutely has what it takes to fill this hole in the bullpen.
Nick Nelson was primarily a mop-up arm in 2020 but turned a significant number of heads in his rookie year despite a less-than-stellar 4.79 ERA. However, Nelson also posted a 5.56 FIP, so his fielders didn’t do him many favors either. He additionally pitched to a 2.81 ERA across three levels of minor league ball in 2019 and started 74 of 76 career appearances in the minors. For all we know, Cashman still views him as a starter.
Yet, Nelson’s pitching style makes him a prime bullpen candidate. He’s posted a 10.4 K/9 in the minors for his career, but walks are an issue. His BB/9 is a rough 4.8, unacceptable for a starter. Moving him to relief work is just the right move.
Nelson also possesses prime stuff for a Yankees reliever, especially when it comes to replacing Kahnle. His average fastball velocity was 96.4 miles per hour last year, a pitch he threw 57.2% of the time. This was followed next by his changeup (24.6%), slider (11.8%), and curveball (6.4%).
Simply put, if Nelson can maintain his fastball velocity and incorporate his changeup more, the Yankees bullpen could be as though Kahnle never left.
As I’ve said countless times now, the odds of the Yankees looking for outside help as it pertains to the bullpen are low. New York employs plenty of young arms who can shift to a bullpen role. There’s almost no reason to make significant moves in free agency aside from retaining guys like DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka.
But then there’s David Robertson, a veteran arm Yankee fans know well. He and Kahnle were actually acquired together from the Chicago White Sox in 2018, and Robertson also spent the first seven years of his career with the Yankees. He recorded 39 saves in 2014 and owns a 2.75 career ERA as a Bomber.
Here’s the rub: Robertson signed a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies after 2018 but managed just a 5.40 ERA in seven games. Elbow trouble plagued him from the moment he arrived in the City of Brotherly Love. Robertson didn’t play in 2020 while he recovered from Tommy John surgery and even experienced a setback in rehab.
That said, Robertson is 35 and in the twilight of his career. Any deal he gets this Winter will either be a minor league contract or worth the veteran’s minimum. He knows New York and can handle the spotlight so, if I may paraphrase Bon Jovi, who says he can’t go home?
It’ll be a tough sell, especially given rumored drama involving Robertson and shorting coaches their playoff shares. Still, if Robertson is healthy, he would be an excellent option to fill the hole left by Kahnle.