Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Yankees should replicate Royals' bullpen scheme

The New York Yankees could learn something from the Kansas City Royals -- how to lengthen the bridge from starter to closer and make it as secure as possible.

For much of this season and particularly in the postseason the Royals have marched out a three-headed beast from the sixth inning on. The trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland have made manager Ned Yost’s job fairly easy. The hard-throwing combination has been lights out in the playoffs, virtually untouchable at times.

Besides providing a better chance to win, the Yankees have another reason to try to replicate the strategy. It would cut down on the innings pitched of their starters. The game has just a few players who can go end to end anymore and there isn’t one on the Bombers who necessarily can do that on a start by start basis.

Much of the issue is with the starters coming off injuries or simply trying to prevent them. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova missed much of 2014 and both will try to come back from major surgery. Masahiro Tanaka is one throw away from Tommy John surgery. No one knows when his UCL will completely tear, but it is going to happen at some point. Michael Pineda missed a chunk of 2014 as well and has had his share of maladies in years’ past. Whoever holds the final spot in the rotation; Brandon McCarthy if the Yankees sign him, or one of the young arms in the organization, either would benefit from minimized innings.

So, if the Yankees want to develop the same strategy, who are the players they’d turn to?

Only one player is a certainty and that’s Dellin Betances. Betances will not be a free agent until 2020 so he’s certainly one-third of the group. The right-handed power arm posted a 1.40 ERA (1.64 FIP) with 135 strikeouts in 90 innings becoming the Yankees fireman and eighth-inning man. After struggling as a starter, the Yankees might have developed one of the dominant arms in the games.

The Yanks could re-sign David Robertson. At the least they should give him a qualifying offer ($15.3 million) and decide if he’s the right candidate. Robertson was 39 for 44 in save conversions with a 3.08 ERA (2.68 FIP) in 2014. He had a remarkable 13.4 K/9 ratio. He’s been a more than reliable reliever for the Yankees since flourishing in 2011.

The Yankees have a potential weapon fresh from the 2014 First Year Player Draft in Jacob Lindgren. The southpaw cruised through four levels of the minors in 2014 and could be ready to help the Bombers in 2015. He might not be considered for the seventh inning right away, but Lindgren (22 in March 2015) is thought to be able to hand both left-handed and right-handed batters and not be simply a LOOGY. He's a wild card for one of the slots.

On the free agent market the top name is likely going to be Andrew Miller. Miller, another lefty, has been fantastic as a reliever the past two seasons. He’s been a big part of the Baltimore Orioles' success following a trade from the Boston Red Sox, who he helped win the 2013 World Series. Miller is another lefty that can get hitters from both sides of the plate out. Miller, who turns 30 in May 2015, was downright nasty this season accumulating 103 strikeouts across 62.1 innings. He issued only 17 walks during the season and finished with a 2.02 ERA (1.51 FIP) in the regular season.

There are two others who could fill a role in anyone’s three-headed monster -- righties Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson. Please note I’m not including names of prominent relievers who have club options assuming each will get picked up.

Neshek is currently manning the eighth inning for the St. Louis Cardinals. The side-arming hurler has been fantastic this season leading the Cardinals to closer Trevor Rosenthal. Neshek’s 1.87 ERA (2.37 FIP) kept the Cardinals in many games. Neshek, 34, is another guy who simply limits walks. He allowed just nine free passes during his 67.1 innings in 2014, while striking out 68 batters along the way.

Gregerson might not have been "lockdown" good this season, but he’s shown the ability to do so in the past and at 31 years-old he still has the ability to be a part of a trio at the end of games. Gregerson has been among the most successful relievers in the game for a number of seasons. In 2014, he compiled a 2.02 ERA (3.24 FIP). Gregerson is not as big a strikeout guy as the others, 59 in 72.1 innings, but he also has very good control (15 walks). Gregerson keeps the ball on the ground (1.32 GO/AO ratio for career) and limits the home run ball (1.7 percent career HR allowed rate). He's surely able to fill the seventh or eighth inning role.

So, there are six names to fill three slots. The first question is who will be the closer? Will the Yankees allow Robertson to walk and use Betances in the ninth? Or will they stick with what they know works, a combination of Betances and then Robertson?

If they chose the latter route, I’d put everything into grabbing Miller. It would still allow Lindgren to work his way into the bullpen hierarchy, potentially as a lefty specialist to start and help bridge the gap on days any of the other three arms needs a rest. Further, with Betances able to get four or even five outs, the game could be shortened further if needed.

If they choose the former, then they could try to grab both Miller and Neshek for what would likely be the cost of Robertson and one of the other. Here, they could still give growing time for Lindgren and plug in the rest of the holes with guys already in the system.

The need for shutdown relievers has been increasingly important over the last several seasons and tied into the success of teams. The Yankees have a sure thing to build around (Betances) and the budget to make the rest happen.

Which route will they go? How would you structure the 2015 bullpen? Let me know in the comments below.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer and sports media strategist. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In.