The Yankees farm system has taken a lot of heat lately, but the one area of the game where the Yankees can boast a vast assortment of homegrown talent is in the bullpen. Every team, even the Yankees, have places where they try to save money. For the Yankees, merely saving money is not enough. They still need to compete on a championship level each season. Thus, under General Manager Brian Cashman and Manager Joe Girardi, the Yankees have made developing hard-throwing bullpen pieces a priority.
Cashman and Girardi both saw firsthand the great advantage of what having a solid bullpen brings to a ballclub with the great Yankees teams of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Joe Torre was able to use the mix of John Wetteland, Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza along with the incomparable Mariano Rivera to effectively shorten a nine inning game to a mere six or seven. It simultaneously eased the strain on the starters since they knew they would not need to go late into the game in order to win the game. They could throw harder earlier in the game and not give in to hitters, knowing that a reliever would be able to take care of business in the later innings.
The Yankees tried for years to bring in free agents to fill the void left by Nelson, Stanton and company after they left the team. Big contracts were given to the likes of Steve Karsay, Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon, Kyle Farnsworth among others. Results were not always poor but few managed to play in the Bronx more than a season or two before withering under the strain of Joe Torre’s bullpen management and the big lights of the Big Apple. When Joe Girardi replaced Torre in 2008, he and Cashman changed direction. They went younger; and they went cheaper.
One of the biggest draws of young players is the fact that a player remains under team control for the first six years of his career, through renewable contracts and mandatory arbitration. This is the single biggest way in which teams keep player salaries affordable. For example, Mike Trout, arguably the best player in the game today made only $510,000 last season, as he was still 2 years from arbitration and 5 years from becoming a free agent.
The Yankees have developed a bullpen in recent years by using young homegrown talent highlighted by an occasional free agent specialist or ownership mandated player such as Rafael Soriano. This makes the Yankee bullpen the most affordable part of the team and by developing players specifically for the bullpen, instead of just accumulating other teams retreads, they can still make it the most cost-efficient part of the team and extraordinarily effective.
This year’s bullpen will not feature The Sandman, Mariano Rivera closing out games. That burden will shift to another homegrown Yankee in David Robertson. While the main setup men to start the season will most likely be free agent signee Matt Thornton and Shawn Kelley who was acquired via trade before last season, the remainder of the bullpen will likely all be products of the Yankee farm system. Adam Warren and David Phelps are still technically engaged in the battle for the fifth starter spot, it seems to be Michael Pineda‘s job to lose. Joe Girardi has already stated that both Warren and Phelps will make the team regardless of whether they win the starter gig or not.
The final two spots in the ‘pen are still up for grabs, and all of the candidates are homegrown. Preston Claiborne figures to grab one of them on the back of his work as a rookie in 2013. The last spot figures to come down to former super-prospect Dellin Betances and lefty Cesar Cabral. Betances was removed from the rotation in Triple-A last season after struggling to repeat his delivery every five days and responded with a vengeance, posting a 1.35 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 60 innings after the move to the ‘pen. Both Cabral and Betances have had strong springs, along with other Yankee farmhands, such as Fred Lewis and Danny Burawa, which may be called up at some point this season to bolster the bullpen. The farm system overall may be in a valley but the Yankees are peaking when it comes to homegrown bullpen talent.