In order for the Yankees to build on a surprising and inspiring 2017 season, the club will need to receive the dominant efforts many expect from their late-inning relievers.
As we preview expectations for the coming season, we'll take the relievers in the order I believe Yankees skipper Aaron Boone will open the season if he was to utilize a strict inning-by-inning methodology to complete games (he probably won't).
Kahnle's return to the Yankees was a good reason the club was successful down the stretch. He hurled 26 2/3 innings for the Yankees, registering a 2.70 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 3.4 BB/9, and 12.2 K/9. Kahnle's strikeout rate decreased from the otherworldly 15.0 K/9 rate he had with the White Sox before the trade, and his walk rate crept back up from 1.8 BB/9 in Chicago. Kahnle's strikeout rate seems legit, but the question about career control issues may not be completely resolved.
In 2018, Kahnle will likely slot in as a sixth and seventh inning reliever. The 28-year-old must work back toward the walk rates he maintained before last season's trade, or at least bring it under 3.0 BB/9. If he can, his stuff will once again lead to high strikeout rates, ultimately strong results and potentially trust in higher-leverage situations in 2018.
Betances was a key contributor in the beginning of the season, but then hit a brick wall in June, which led to the worst stretch of pitching in his major league career and called into question his role with the club in 2018.
Betances was, once again, voted to the American League All-Star team (four straight nods), but threw just 59 2/3 innings in 2017 -- the fewest among his four MLB seasons -- and the first time he did not average at least one inning per appearance. The reason was extremely poor control. While he is situated ahead of Kahnle in the pecking order here, there is reason to believe he could fall behind his teammate, and maybe even Chad Green if he cannot figure out his control issues.
The 29-year-old experienced control problems for the entire season, but they became amplified as the Yankees worked toward a postseason berth. Once Kahnle and David Robertson came over in a trade deadline transaction, Betances gradually lost control of his eighth-inning role, and was a non-factor in the postseason.
Betances has the talent to regain premier set-up man status, but no matter how many batters he strikes out (15.1 K/9 in 2017), if he's allowing 6.6 BB/9 like he did last season, he cannot be relied on in high-leverage situations.
Robertson, in his second stint with the Yankees, was integral to the club's regular season finish and particularly valuable in the postseason. He was willing to fill any role for the team in 2017, much like he did in his first go-around with the Yankees. Robertson, who pitched to a 1.05 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 3.1 BB/9 and 13.1 K/9 in 35 innings for the Yankees, was used in various innings down the stretch. Not only did Robertson - owner of 124 saves over the last four seasons - work in unusual situations in regard to the place in the game, he demonstrated he could contribute multiple innings per appearance.
We understand that utilizing Robertson in lengthy appearances cannot be relied upon for the entirety of the regular season. However, Boone can surely give it some thought under certain circumstances, understanding that he has immense depth to lean on if he extends Robertson. On most nights, I envision Boone trusting him in eighth-inning situations because the soon-to-be 33-year-old right-hander has consistently demonstrated he will get the job done.
Robertson's worth goes beyond what he provides as a set-up man, as he's most likely first in line to replace Aroldis Chapman as the team's closer when the incumbent requires rest, or is sidelined with an injury.
Chapman's first season working under a five-year, $86 million deal was not exactly what he or the Yankees had in mind. He got off to a fine start, but then suffered a rotator cuff injury in which he missed over a month from mid-May to mid-June. Chapman returned, and while he was not as dominate as in recent seasons, he did get the job done with an occasional hiccup.
However, in August, Chapman was horrendous, allowing eight earned runs in eight innings, losing his job in the process. He eventually turned the tide, and returned to the closer role in September and the postseason.
Chapman's walk rate jumped to 3.6 BB/9 and his strikeout rate declined (12.3 K/9). For Chapman, much of the concern was that hitters were getting around on his fastball. While still among the fastest pitches in the game, his fastball lacked movement and elevation, and was not dominating as many batters as in year's past. Chapman has a good slider, but seemed reluctant to use it enough to offset the high-octane fastball. When Chapman did mix up his pitch selection later in the season, he produced much better results. This is something he will have to work on with pitching coach Larry Rothschild this spring as the fastball will only continue to decline in speed.
If Chapman can harness his control and boost his strikeout rate back to a level closer to 14.0 K/9, he will once again be viewed as one of the elite closers in the game, and give Boone no reason to look elsewhere in the ninth inning.
The upside for the Yankees' endgame relief crew is that of historical dominance. However, each pitcher has dealt with periods of control problems, which will test Boone's usage patterns. The good news is that Boone has extreme depth to draw from, and his relievers genuinely seem willing to work at any point in the game.
Further, the Yankees boast two of the better middle relievers in the game in Green and Adam Warren, who each can work in late innings if needed. Boone will be able to distribute the entire relief workload in a manner that allows each pitcher to be strong throughout the season.