The best bullpen in baseball just got so much scarier.
On Tuesday the Yankees agreed to a deal with the White Sox to acquire 3B Todd Frazier, RHP David Robertson, and RHP Tommy Kahnle. Going the other way are RHP Tyler Clippard and prospects Blake Rutherford, Ian Clarkin, and Tito Polo.
There’s a whole lot to get into with this deal, and the resulting roster for the Yankees, but let’s start with that bullpen. By adding Kahnle and Robertson, the Yankees now have 5 of the top 30 relievers in strikeouts-per-nine. Kahnle, Robertson, Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman, and Dellin Betances have combined for a whopping 247 strikeouts in 158.1 innings.
Forget about the three-headed monster in the ‘pen; this is a hydra. Cut off one head, and four more strikeout artists are waiting in the wings.
Bullpens are the new “it” thing. Since the Royals won the 2015 World Series on the back of their Herrera–Davis–Holland bullpen, teams have leaned on relievers to deliver championships. The Indians had the 1-2 punch of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, plus a host of other quality arms like Dan Otero and Brian Shaw. The Cubs had Aroldis Chapman at the back of the ‘pen, as well as long-relief arms like Mike Montgomery and Travis Wood. Even in 2014, the San Francisco Giants resorted to using Madison Bumgarner in relief to clinch Game 7 of the World Series.
Teams have leaned on relievers recently, especially in the postseason. But no team in recent memory have put so much responsibility on the bullpen as the 2017 New York Yankees. This corps of pitchers may be up to the task, but the challenges are mighty indeed.
Take starting pitching. With Michael Pineda’s season now over after succumbing to Tommy John, the Yankees have only four starters on the roster who have pitched over 15 innings. Luis Severino has taken a big step forward in 2017 (3.40 ERA with 130 Ks in 113.2 innings), and CC Sabathia has defied expectations and the encroaching clutches of Father Time to put together another solid campaign with a 3.54 ERA. Rookie Jordan Montgomery has been a revelation, posting a 3.78 ERA in just under 100 innings.
But none of those three, with the possible exception of Severino, has the stuff to be the ace down the stretch that the Yankees need. GM Brian Cashman and Manager Joe Girardi had hoped that Masahiro Tanaka would be their ace, but he has sorely disappointed. Coming into 2017 Tanaka was a dark horse Cy Young candidate after a season where he pitched nearly 200 innings with a 3.07 ERA and 4.6 WAR, according to FanGraphs. He’s taken a big step back this year with a 5.33 ERA through 109.2 innings. Tanaka’s had a couple good starts (a complete game shutout of the Red Sox on April 27 comes to mind), but he’s also had a number of clunkers (Opening Day against Tampa Bay, or his last start before the All-Star Break when he gave up 5 runs in 4.1 innings).
Question marks abound for the Yankees’ starting rotation. Will Montgomery fade down the stretch in his first full season at the pro level? Will Sabathia stay effective–and if he does, can he average more than 5 2/3 innings per start? Will Tanaka finally regain the form that propelled him into the Cy Young conversation last year? The Yankees are a better team with the new bullpen acquisitions, but there’s only so much pressure Robertson and Kahnle can take off of the starting rotation. If the Yankees want to make the postseason–the setting where their potent relief arms can do the most damage–they’re going to need to get major improvement from their starters, either through improved performance from their current roster or by making a trade before the July 31 deadline.
The Yankees also added Todd Frazier to their infield, filling one of their major field necessities. New York has gotten just 1.4 WAR (per Fangraphs) out of third base this year from their soft platoon of Chase Headley and Ronald Torreyes. Headley has been the slightly better option due to his bat, slashing .257/.339/.368, though Torreyes is a marginally-better defender (0 DRS, compared to Headley’s -7).
At first glance Frazier’s .206 batting average and 1.1 WAR for the season suggest little improvement for the Yankees, but there’s reason for optimism. His slugging percentage of .431 is a few ticks down from his career average of .459, but he does have 16 homers on the year and will be moving to a more hitter-friendly park in Yankee Stadium. Frazier has also been the victim of bad luck, with only a .214 BABIP and 76.6% of his batted balls classified as either hit with medium or high speed (per Baseball Info Solutions). As the everyday third baseman in a more hitter-friendly environment and with a better lineup around him, Frazier may be in for a strong second half to the season.
Bringing in Frazier at third helps the Yankees address their gaping hole at first as well. Through the first half of the season New York platooned Chris Carter and Greg Bird at first; they combined for -1.1 WAR, better only than the Los Angeles Angels at the position. Carter is no longer with the club, with the Yankees releasing him last week, and Bird opted for season-ending surgery after the All-Star Break. With Frazier taking on the role of everyday-third baseman, Girardi can move Chase Headley to the other side of the infield.
Tuesday’s White Sox-Yankees trade allowed New York to fill a hole at third base, stop the bleeding at first, and build a fearsome bullpen to help them make a run at the Commissioner’s Trophy. But they can’t make it to October with only three effective starting pitchers, no matter how deep their bullpen runs. GM Brian Cashman needs to pick up another starter at the deadline, possibly Oakland’s Sonny Gray or Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole. Only then can New York turn its attention towards beating the Red Sox for the AL East title.
Scott is the guy you see at the ballpark with a loaded hot dog in one hand and a marked-up scorecard in the other. He’s been following baseball since 2006, when his beloved Tigers made the World Series. Scott is an expert in baseball film trivia, a connoisseur of ballpark food, and a firm believer that pitchers should have to bat (I’m looking at you, Bartolo Colon).