Look back at the Yankees’ 2022 season, and it’s easy to miss just how deep their bullpen issues actually were.
This isn’t to say that New York’s relief corps was bad. In fact, by the numbers, it was elite. The Yankees’ bullpen ranked third in MLB with a 2.97 ERA, trailing only the Astros and Dodgers. As the great Walter Sobchak would say, not exactly lightweights.
The greater issue, rather, was manager Aaron Boone had to get creative more often than not. And often with guys not used to logging a full season of bullpen innings. Remember, Chad Green went down early with Tommy John surgery and Aroldis Chapman was terrible all year.
Cut to Clay Holmes being an All-Star closer but posting a 4.84 ERA in the second half. There’s suddenly room for improvement, right? Yankees relievers need to have clear and established bullpen roles in 2023 because playing the matchups/closer by committee just won’t work long-term. That said, just what will the bullpen hierarchy be?
Let’s start with the clear long and middle relief arms. It’s safe to assume Clarke Schmidt is the long relief/mop-up guy. Lou Trivino is a Swiss army knife, but probably ticketed for the sixth inning or otherwise low leverage work. Maybe prospect Greg Weissert can earn a spot with a strong spring too.
Next, we have specialists. Wandy Peralta is the lone lefty and allows lots of soft contact thanks to his sinker and changeup. Similarly, young righty Ron Marinaccio’s changeup is so strong against left-handed hitters that he’s practically another southpaw himself. So is the returning Tommy Kahnle, but more about him later.
Michael King should also be back as the primary setup man, but this is where things get complicated. The closer needs to be picked and both Holmes and Jonathan Loaisiga remain.
Let’s start with Holmes. He stepped right into the ninth inning job last year and it was like he was a born Yankee Stadium closer. Holmes’ pitching style also matches up well with a closer’s responsibilities. Thanks to his two-planed “demon” sinker, he generates both enough velocity to rack up strikeouts and enough soft contact to keep the ball on the ground:
Yet, Holmes got tired throwing 63.2 innings in 62 games last year and dealt with injuries down the stretch. This affected his control, so the Yankees shouldn’t make him the closer again unless they’re sure his arm can handle it.
This brings us to Loaisiga, who’s very similar to Holmes in that he too utilizes his velocity via a power sinker. Loaisiga is also a former starter and throws both a changeup and slider, and can use a traditional two-seam fastball as needed. Most high-leverage relievers only offer two pitches, so using Loasiga in the ninth inning could provide New York an advantage. However, Loasiga also has a history of arm trouble and has been on the injured list in all but one of his pro seasons.
Suddenly, the Yankees look like they’re largely rolling dice in the ninth inning.
But let’s circle back to Kahnle, who just returned on a two-year, $11.5 million deal. That’s a lot of money for someone fresh off Tommy John surgery and played in only 13 games last year. For context, Holmes and Loaisiga will earn approximately $5.5 million combined in arbitration.
Look at it this way. “Unfinished business” is what has Kahnle back with the Yankees after spending two with Los Angeles recovering from elbow surgery. He knows what’s expected of him under Boone and can balance being a fun teammate with throwing high-leverage innings.
Dig a little deeper, and Kahnle’s 2.86 ninth inning ERA is the lowest for his career in any inning. He’s also used to a full season workload. Could the plan be for his blazing fastball and crafty changeup to take the hill for the Yankees in save situations? $5.75 million a year is a lot for someone just to be a middle reliever/sometimes setup man, even on a two-year deal.
At this point, it’s likely Holmes will enter spring training as the closer. The job should be his to lose after an All-Star season and the Yankees have enough relief depth to build around him.
And yet, it is because of that depth that even if Holmes is the closer when pitchers and catchers report, we shouldn’t lock him into the role. Until he has it come Opening Day on Mar. 27, the Yankees’ bullpen picture is anybody’s guess.
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