Bullpens continue to grow into a major facet of a club's makeup. It's no longer enough to have some decent relievers and a strong closer. Rather, teams focus on building formidable backend combinations, which in some cases stretch five relievers strong.
The Yankees enter the 2017 season with one certain strength, the backend of the bullpen which features the trio of Tyler Clippard, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. The threesome matches up well with many other top-flight backend combinations in the game.
Clippard is not overpowering, but he's consistent. If Clippard can pitch to the level he did once he returned to New York last season (2.49 ERA in 25 1/3 innings), he will be an asset for the Yankees in 2017.
Betances enters the 2017 season with a bit of a chip on his shoulder after Randy Levine's unnecessary tirade following the reliever's arbitration case. Betances claims to have put it behind him, and I would expect his performance will not suffer in a more comfortable eighth inning role.
Chapman returns to New York, now as the game's highest paid closer. It is reasonable to expect the fire-balling left-hander will continue to dominant batters in his age-29 season.
The Yankees have the seventh, eighth and ninth innings handled, but coverage for the middle innings requires the club to make some decisions this spring. One benefit of having five pitchers battling for just two rotation spots is that the "losers" of the competition could simply slot into the bullpen. In the Yankees' case, each of the competitors have experience and some success working out of the bullpen.
I do not envision all three of the remaining competitors to earn bullpen spots simply because I believe the team will want at least one of them to remain fully stretched out at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Assuming the Yankees rotation remains healthy this spring, and the club does convert two of the three remaining starters to relievers, it would leave two open spots in the bullpen. Since the starters-turned-relievers will be right-handers, the Yankees will surely want at least one left-hander since the only other southpaw is Chapman.
Tommy Layne is the lone lefty middle reliever in camp with a major league deal for 2017, which gives him the upper hand to stick in the bullpen. Layne came to the Yankees via waivers last summer and performed quite well (3.38 ERA in 16 innings). Layne might not be simply a lefty-on-lefty hurler (.217 batting average against right-handed hitters while with New York). That said, he might be used in same-sided situations more often as the Yankees will minimally have four righty relievers who can handle batters from both sides of the plate.
Some other left-handers in camp with a chance to earn a bullpen spot include Jason Gurka, Joe Mantiply, Jonathan Niese, Evan Rutckyj and Chasen Shreve (who is on 40-man roster). Of that group, there are zero guaranteed producers which signals to me that Layne is a virtual shoo-in to break camp when the dust settles, especially if the Yankees decide to add two more lefties.
The Yankees also have three right-handed relievers in camp who are all on the 40-man roster - Johnny Barbato, Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder. The Yankees might have the benefit of two righties who can provide necessary length, so the final spot might go to a pitcher who can overpower hitters for shorter bursts. Heller seems to fit that mold. However, if the Yankees want to be able to use Layne for full innings, they will want to add a situational lefty.
How should the Yankees proceed?
It's nice to have the luxury of the backend of the bullpen set and it being one which can shorten games to six innings. However, the way bullpens are currently built, that is not enough. Couple the evolving construction model with a rotation that tends to deliver shorter outings than desired, the bullpen will get plenty of work.
For that reason, the Yankees having two right-handers from the rotation battle that can endure longer outings will be a certain benefit. The Yankees might like Adam Warren better in the bullpen and Bryan Mitchell is coming off a season in which he threw just 46 innings, so a limit on his work might be in order. They would be my picks as relievers.
I'll suggest Layne will make the squad because he can handle batters from both sides of the plate. In that regard, I believe the final spot will go to a situational lefty and if I was to guess it will end up being Shreve, who in my opinion, if put in a spot to face only lefty hitters, could excel.
Finally, I would expect the Yankees to shuffle the final bullpen spot with the group that lands in Triple-A as they have done over the last two seasons. Doing as such allows for fresh arms when needed and of course will be based on performance across the board.
Related: 2017 expectations for key Yankees