Have the Yankees assembled their best bullpen yet?
New York retained Zack Britton before bringing Adam Ottavino aboard
Since Mariano Rivera moved into the bullpen full-time in 1996, the Yankees have never been without a competent bullpen. After his retirement, the team has taken it to another level.
In 2014, the club's bullpen led baseball with 5.6 WAR, according to FanGraphs. They finished second in both 2015 and 2016 before blowing the competition out of the water in 2017 and 2018.
Each of the last two seasons, the Bombers' bullpen has set the record for WAR with 9.4 and 9.7, respectively. Instead of relying upon just Rivera, the team has turned to a series of flamethrowers, adding Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and others to homegrown stars Dellin Betances and Chad Green. Whatever the recipe for bullpen success is, the Yankees have it committed to heart.
Moreover, with Britton retained and Adam Ottavino brought in to replace David Robertson, New York might have its best bullpen yet.
Keeping Britton aboard was a big coup for the Yankees. The veteran southpaw could have left for a team offering him a chance to close, but he opted to pursue a championship in New York.
Last season, the trade for Britton filled a gap left by Tommy Kahnle's injuries and struggles. The southpaw had initial command issues, getting into trouble with plenty of walks despite having his two-seamer moving like old. As he found himself further removed from an offseason Achilles injury, he looked more like himself.
Now the Yankees get a full season of his services. Alhough he added a 'K' to his name this offseason, expecting Britton to return to his 2015-16 peak is unrealistic. However, he can still be extremely effective. He's never had pinpoint command, but his sinker is a different look from the rest of the bullpen and can force plenty of weak grounders, which could put a burden on the Bombers' infield.
With Ottavino, the Yankees paid for someone coming off a career year at age-32. On the surface, that could seem foolish, but Ottavino still has upside. The New York native will now be playing his home games away from Coors Field, which could alleviate some home run concerns and lead to even more movement on his wicked breaking ball.
The right-hander was significantly better in the first half, so the National League may have adjusted to him. Will the AL be so quick to make the same adjustments? That's a significant question as Ottavino dons pinstripes
Replacing Robertson's production won't solely fall onto Ottavino's shoulders. With no more Minor League options, Kahnle needs a strong Spring Training to stay on the roster. However, if he finds the upper-90s fastball that led to his 2017 breakout, Kahnle has the potential to get back on track.
Even allowing for a return of early-season control problems, Kahnle's 6.56 ERA in 2018 is an extreme outlier in the context of his career. He still posted fine strikeout numbers without his best fastball.
A Kahnle resurgence would also provide insurance against any regression from Jonathan Holder. Holder, like Ottavino, struggled more in the second half, though the dip in his post-All-Star break numbers had more to do with one bad outing at Fenway Park, where he allowed seven runs without recording an out. Even if he can't perform the same as in 2018, Holder has the stuff to be a fine middle reliever.
Unlike certain parts of the roster, the Yankees' bullpen is mostly set. There's even depth when you add in long relief options like Luis Cessa, Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga. Therefore, the ability for this group to top last year's results comes down to utilization and health.
In terms of utilization, the bullpen has the resources to make up for any holes in the rotation. On the surface, the Yankees have improved their rotation with James Paxton taking Sonny Gray's spot, but depth is a question mark.
That's where Green and others going multiple innings becomes paramount. The Yankees had Adam Warren do this at times last season, but with him still a free agent, using Green, Holder or whomever wins the final spots in the bullpen to shorten games further could give the Yankees a leg up in individual games while keeping their starters healthy.
However, the health of the bullpen isn't a given. Britton and Chapman have dealt with injuries in back-to-back years and are entering their age-31 seasons. Betances will be 31 by Opening Day and Green will be 28 by mid-season. Only Holder is 25 or below.
Having so many elite arms gives the Yankees leeway for injuries. If one or two guys go down, they still have options, though their biggest advantage in shortening games would be hampered.
The Yankees have a unique collection of veteran relievers who've put together consecutive high-level performances. Elite relievers don't often stay that way for long, but New York has found some who have staying power. Now, the team hopes that lasts into this season.