The 2016 MLB postseason thrust relief pitching to the forefront of the game.
Teams with dominant relievers who could be used during high-leverage situations regardless of the inning and for more than three outs succeeded. The contention that such usage of bullpen arms would not survive the rigors of the regular season is fair, but how close can teams get to the style?
As it stands, the Yankees will not have a top-flight rotation in 2017, however the club will have the benefit of five pitchers fighting for the final two rotation spots. The Yankees' potential advantage comes from the ability to move each of the "losers" of the rotation spots into the bullpen.
As relievers, the pitchers can adjust their repertoire -- amping up their fastball, utilizing their second-best pitch more often and abandoning their lesser offerings for the time-being. Better, each pitcher would be available to toss up to two innings at a time without regard to lasting five or six innings.
We've seen this work before as recently as last season when the Yankees used Luis Severino in the bullpen, and the results were tremendous. Adam Warren's best work has arguably come out of the bullpen. Bryan Mitchell has had success as a reliever. Dellin Betances was a starter who has turned his career around and is now considered a dominant reliever.
The Yankees have three certain relievers at this point in Betances, Aroldis Chapman, and Tyler Clippard. Chapman and Clippard are best served as one-inning relievers, who on very seldom occasions can lock down a fourth out in an appearance. Betances has demonstrated that, if used properly, he can act as a fireman, ready to handle tough situations in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning and then finish the following inning if necessary.
Having three relievers with shutdown abilities is a strength, but it is not enough to carry a bullpen for an entire season. In today's game, starting pitchers do not provide as much length, requiring a relief crew that can toss more innings without wearing down during the dog days of summer.
I sense the Yankees will place Warren in the bullpen simply because he fits better in the role. As of today, that leaves Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Mitchell and Severino to handle two rotation spots. I will not suggest that both of the remaining pitchers will automatically receive bullpen duties, but rather just one of them. I believe, for at least the beginning of the season, the Yankees will want one of the pitchers to remain stretched out and ready for any necessary spot-starts.
If I was to guess, the Yankees would prefer Severino bounce back and control a rotation spot. Assuming similar spring training performances and health, the other starter should be either Cessa or Green with the "loser" going back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to remain stretched out. That would leave Mitchell in the relief role.
Mitchell working out of the bullpen provides a benefit to the pitcher, considering he missed most of the 2016 season (46 innings combined between the minors and majors). As a reliever, Mitchell can accumulate innings without worrying about overwork or tiring because of the lack of effort last season.
This would leave the Yankees with three right-handers who can retire batters from both sides of the plate and can toss up to two innings per appearance when needed. Having Warren, Mitchell and Betances soaking up high-leverage situations in the sixth through eighth innings would allow Clippard and Chapman to be used in three-out appearances (or less), which would keep them fresh and productive.
If possible, the Yankees would be wise to employ a left-hander with similar abilities (longer outings and able to get batters from both sides of the plate out) instead of a specialist. In the final role, the club could carry a traditional long-man for those games that get out of hand. If the Yankees insist on maintaining the revolving door for relievers from Triple-A, it should be reserved for the long-man role only, with the exception being if the lefty reliever's performance is lacking.
In my view, a certain key to the bullpen production is how manager Joe Girardi utilizes his relievers. Under my suggested scenario, the Yankees' skipper would have to create a rotation of Mitchell, Warren and Betances. Mitchell and Warren should be the relievers eclipsing the 80-inning mark, which allows Betances to sit near the vicinity of 75 innings. This will force Girardi to trust Mitchell and Warren to maintain leads in games that are seemingly well in hand. It will also lessen the load on Betances in an effort to keep him as strong as possible through the end of the season.
In my view, Betances should be limited to games in which the Yankees are winning by no more than two runs or within a run of tying a ballgame in the sixth inning or beyond. Moreover, the game should have an element of pressure -- the type of situation Betances seems to embrace and shine in.
Girardi has pushed Betances into too many games in recent seasons in which the Yankees held sizable leads because the manager felt he absolutely needed that win. I admire the 'win today's game' notion, but Girardi's Achilles' heel is the lack of faith in his other setup men. Mitchell and Warren will not be perfect, but with three-run leads or more, there is little reason to jump to Betances in those situations.
The Yankees have an opportunity to make the most out of a questionable situation with the rotation by focusing on how to create and properly utilize a strong bullpen. With a minimal amount of out of the box thinking, while avoiding the extreme we witnessed in the 2016 postseason, the Yankees can put themselves in a good position on the mound without wearing out their top relievers when crunch time arrives.