Breaking down Yankees' short- and long-term options for late relief
The Yankees' bullpen is in a weird spot.
In the team’s 7-6 win over the Orioles on Tuesday, Yanks relievers not named Michael King threw 4.1 innings and allowed no earned runs and just one hit. The aforementioned King, who until recently had been phenomenal this season in multi-inning bursts, was very much off his game, allowing two Birds to reach in the seventh inning before Rougned Odor put the Orioles up with a three-run blast.
Fortunately for King, the Yanks battled back to tie the game with two in the bottom of the frame before besting Baltimore in extras on a Jose Trevino walk-off hit. In its first test since two of its best relievers, Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green, went on the IL, New York's bullpen kept the game close until the offense came to life in the bottom of the 11th.
But despite the galvanizing win, there are still question marks floating around the Yankees' bullpen. Gone are the glory days of 2019, when the Bronx Bombers boasted a deep relief corps of supremely famous and talented arms. Not a single pitcher in the current pen has made an All-Star Game, a far cry from the days of Betances-Britton-Ottavino-Robertson-Chapman.
Fame does not make a bullpen great, of course, but you get my point.
Heading into this season, the unit looked solid if unspectacular, but the reliable pieces have fallen like flies. Chapman, the team’s dominant, flame-throwing closer, was ineffective and unhealthy, leading to his placement on the IL on Tuesday with Achilles tendinitis. Green, the thick-thighed righty who had been Old Reliable for the Yanks the past few years, will miss the remainder of the season after tearing his UCL. He will undergo Tommy John surgery in the near future. Zach Britton is still recovering from his Tommy John surgery from last year.
King, who’d been one of the league’s most valuable relievers in the early going, allowed two runs in an inning to the White Sox on Saturday before giving up the go-ahead three-run blast to Odor on Tuesday. King’s ability to throw bulk innings means he’ll remain a key part of the pen going forward, but there’s no doubt that some of the shine has rubbed off. Jonathan Loáisiga, who was the club’s best reliever in 2021 (2.17 ERA in 70.2 innings), has been a mess so far in 2022. Then on Wednesday, Loáisiga was placed on the IL with shoulder discomfort.
The Yanks, despite their recent micro-skid, still have the best record in baseball. At full health, their offense is a ruthless juggernaut and their pitching staff is as deep and consistent as you’ll find. But now what? Besides King, someone has to throw the final three innings of ballgames in the Bronx.
Let’s take a look at some of the options.
The most notable bright spot for this group is Holmes, whom my illustrious colleague and lifelong friend Jordan Shusterman wrote about at length a few days ago. The upshot on Holmes is this: His sinker is the single most dominant pitch in MLB, he throws it a ton, nobody can hit it hard in the air, and he’ll be the closer until Chapman gets his stuff together.
Only 11 pitchers have recorded more than 10 saves for the Yankees since Mariano Rivera became the everyday closer in 1997. At some point this year, Holmes will become the 12th. He’s a bizarrely un-illustrious choice to hold such a renowned role, but he deserves every bit of it. When the team acquired him from Pittsburgh last July, Yanks fans were skeptical and underwhelmed, but he has proven his mettle. This guy is nails.
New York's first-round draft pick out of South Carolina back in 2017, Schmidt has been splendid in his first extended run in the bigs. Injuries forced the former starter into a bullpen role last year, a role in which he has shined thus far. In 13 innings over six appearances, Schmidt has allowed just one run while striking out 10.
On Tuesday, Schmidt was handed his first late-inning stress test since being recalled from Triple-A on May 13. He tossed hitless frames in the 10th and 11th against Baltimore, holding the Orioles scoreless in the 10th and allowing just the inherited runner to score in the 11th, paving the way for Trevino’s clutch knock.
Schmidt doesn’t have the pitch mix typically associated with late-inning dominance. His heater is more of a luke-warmer, sitting in the 94-mph range with above-average spin characteristics. The secondary stuff is more good than great, his slider the better of his two offerings. But while he’s not "nasty," Schmidt has been effective, and if he keeps getting outs, he’ll find himself in higher-leverage spots.
This gangly right-hander is built like a toothpick but somehow defies the laws of physics by delivering upper 90s heat with a whippy delivery that makes him look like an out-of-control weed whacker.
Acquired from the Mets for Joely Rodríguez right before the season, Castro has high-leverage experience in both Queens and Baltimore. But his experience does not override his volatility; Castro can look like the greatest reliever in the galaxy one night, then a malfunctioning pitching machine the next. If he gets more high-leverage calls, Yanks fans should be ready for an exhilarating roller coaster of an experience.
The lefties! Look at them! Throwing with that other hand, by Jove! That’s not how the human body is supposed to work!
Peralta was a journeyman lefty reliever before he arrived in the Bronx last year and took a big step forward. He throws gas, limits hard contact and generates a bunch of swings and misses. But he struggles to put hitters away. The gap between his whiff rate and his strikeout rate is incredibly bizarre — definitely fewer strikeouts than you’d want from a late-inning stopper.
Luetge is kind of the opposite of Peralta. The 35-year-old throws 88-mph cutters but uses pinpoint command to generate a lot of strikeouts. He has been used more as a weapon against left-handed hitters than as a real back-end guy, but he might have to pitch in that role a bit more.
Depending on how long Chapman is out and how effective he is when he returns, the Yankees might need to make a move on the trade market. Last year they did just that, swiping Holmes from Pittsburgh for a couple of prospects. Don’t expect any headline arms to be in the mix — Josh Hader won’t have to cut his hair just yet — as the Yanks will probably play toward the "anonymous but still dominant" end of the reliever spectrum.
In the long run, replacing Chapman is sure to be a priority for GM Brian Cashman since the longtime closer is a free agent at the end of the season. Edwin Díaz and Kenley Jansen are free agents at the end of the year, too, by the way. But before the Yanks can drop top dollar on a new closer, or mid-dollar to bring back the guy they already have, there’s a more pressing issue at hand.
Tuesday’s performance against the Orioles was an impressive showing for this unproven group of relievers, but the season is long and full of terrors. To give their stellar offense and strong rotation the support it deserves, the Yankees will need to find a way to paper together a solid bullpen. It’s a good problem to have, but one that needs solving nonetheless.
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.