It hasn’t shown up in win and loss column yet, but the Yankees bullpen just ain’t what she used to be. At the start of the year there were grumblings about the starting rotation, and even some concerns about an aging squad of hitters, but almost no one questioned the ability of this relief corps. Even after Mo’s injury most were not concerned about the bullpen. There was no reason to be. David Robertson and Rafael Soriano were still slotting comfortably into the eigth and ninth innings. Joba Chamberlain was on the road to recovery, and David Aardsma was ahead of schedule in his potential return. Boone Logan had been an excellent lefty option. Cory Wade easily slotted into the seventh inning.
A couple of injuries, some setbacks, and an implosion have changed things quite a bit. While it would be premature and shortsighted to proclaim the Yankees bullpen a resounding weakness, it is clear that it was much more of a strength back in April. Luckily, Robertson and Soriano still fill out the eigth and ninth innings and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. Logan has continued his success and Clay Rapada has the second lefty position on lockdown for the time being. Cody Eppley continues to shock everyone as he is looking like this year’s Luis Ayala.
The bullpen has several problems, however, that didn’t exist at the start of the season. The Mariano injury took a minor toll on the bullpen depth. Then, Aardsma suffered a setback that will keep him out until at least mid August and the fact remains that Joba is still not all that close to returning. Cory Wade has blown up recently, culminating in his 2.1 inning, six earned run performance on June 29th. He has now been sent down to Triple-A for the likes of Chad Qualls, the 33 year old reliever from Philadelphia pitching to a 4.6 ERA this season. Freddy Garcia has been good in his limited bullpen role of mop-up guy, but he has now been forced into the starting rotation, leaving D.J. Mitchell in his stead. Mitchell is a far less reliable option than Garcia has been. Sweaty Freddy has a 1.56 ERA in his last 10 games and 17.1 innings pitched. I’d be shocked if Mitchell is able to provide that type of production.
Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada have been this year’s great finds, but it doesn’t seem likely to last forever for both of them. This is not to take away from what these guys have done this year, but two players with less than stellar stuff and low velocity may not be able to put up these numbers all season. It is worth noting that both have small sample sizes for their success; 23.1 innings for Eppley and just 18.2 for Eppley. Hopefully both have figured something out and the success lasts.
DJ Mitchell has been good in limited bullpen innings for the Yankees this season, but his minor league stats have not been pretty at all. He’s thrown 80.2 innings, with 67 strikeouts, a 5.36 ERA and a 1.3 WHIP. It’s tough to set high expectations for a guy who is having this much trouble getting Triple-A hitters out.
Worse yet, the Yankees are inevitably going to have to call on all of these players in the next few games. Garcia will likely be on a low pitch count, and Phelps will be limited to 80 pitches when he starts. There will be some early exits regardless of how the game goes, and Yankees fans will have to watch Girardi call upon DJ Mitchell and Chad Qualls multiple times.
The biggest thing going forward will be keeping Robertson and Soriano healthy. Without those two, the bullpen is not left with much. Unfortunately, Robertson is still shaking off the rust from his last injury, and Soriano has been known to be injury prone in the past. Hopefully no one tries to move empty boxes any time soon.
There is a silver lining though. Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley have played out of their minds. They will have to keep it up this week because they too will be called upon, in important situations at that. Neither shows any signs of slowing down, so there is reason to believe that they can at least hold down the fort until reinforcements arrive.
Before jumping off a bridge, it’s important to have perspective on the issue. There are still three excellent options for late inning relief in Soriano, Robertson, and Logan. The situation is also temporary. When CC Sabathia comes back after the all-star break, Garcia can return to his role in the bullpen, and Qualls can be dropped or DJ Mitchell can be sent down. Reinforcements are on their way, with Joba getting closer to a full recovery and Aardsma about a month and a half away. Kevin Whelan and Chase Whitley are still tucked away in Triple-A, along with a slurry of Cody Eppley-esque veteran relievers ready for a call-up at any time (Juan Cedeno, Ramon Ortiz, Justin Thomas, Jason Bulger, Chris Schwinden, and Nelson Figueroa). Couple this with Girardi’s penchant for winning with a patchwork relief corps, and there is still little to worry about.
While it is clear that the Bronx Bombers relief corps was more talented and less of a question mark at the start of the year, there is still no reason to panic. They will play an important role in two upcoming games, but after that it will be less of an issue. The bullpen has certainly devolved from the beginning of the season, but there is light at the end of the tunnel and if things really get bad then the trade deadline can also provide some help. There is reason for concern with the Yankees bullpen, but this cast of relievers may just be able to pull through for the organization.