For a manager, navigating a bullpen through a baseball season is like driving your car down an unkempt road. You try to avoid the damage, but you eventually resign yourself to the understanding that you’ll hit a pothole.
Over the course of a 162-game season, no team’s bullpen looks the same from month to month. There are injuries that force call-ups, doubleheaders that require fresh arms and, inevitably, at least one guy whose struggles force a change.
Teams tend not to count on consistency from their bullpens because they never really get it.
So though the Yankees will be without closer Aroldis Chapman, who will begin the season serving a 30-game suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident, the team’s bullpen will be fine.
Chapman is expected to return from his suspension on May 9.
By trading away relievers Adam Warren and Justin Wilson on consecutive days last December, the team eliminated its depth. But even without Warren, Wilson and the flame-throwing Chapman, the Yankees still have two of the best power-pitching relievers in baseball.
Yankees left-hander Andrew Miller, right-hander Dellin Betances and Chapman were the only three relievers in baseball with 100 strikeouts last season. Those three arms alone may give the Yankees baseball’s best bullpen.
But what general manager Brian Cashman has also given his team, by default, is an insurance policy.
Chapman may be the Yankees’ closer, but that never meant he would close every game. Aside from the suspension, he could get hurt or may just need rest. Any good bullpen has multiple guys capable of closing games anyway.
So, in Chapman’s 30-game absence, there will be people able to competently fill in.
Miller had 36 saves for as the Yankees’ closer last season, and Betances had nine for the club. Miller will again close for the team in Chapman’s absence. But if there is a day Miller needs to rest, Betances has the ability to close too.
Essentially, this team has a trio of pitchers capable of being the primary closer on any number of other ballclubs. When Chapman returns, that'll be a terrifying thought for the rest of the American League East.
Even without him, Miller and Betances form a formidable back-end tandem.
But to suggest the Chapman hole could be plugged with two players—even two really good relievers—is disingenuous.
After all, a bullpen’s best friend is its starting rotation. The best way to help a bullpen is to use it less frequently, and that comes as the direct result of a team’s starters throwing well.
Of course, manager Joe Girardi won’t tax his rotation early in the season just for the sake of the bullpen. But by simply pitching quality starts, the Yankees starters will have a role in overcoming Chapman’s absence.
Expect them to do just that for the first month of the season.
On Sunday, Masahiro Tanaka, expected to be the team’s Opening Day starter, pitched two scoreless innings against the Philadelphia Phillies. Sure, it was a spring training game, but performance in the spring seems like a reasonable indicator of success in April.
C.C. Sabathia pitched well for the Yankees at the end of last season, posting a 2.17 ERA in his final five starts before entering rehab for alcohol addiction—an experience that can only help him remain at his best this season. Luis Severino also played well in 11 starts for the Yankees last season as a rookie.
So, while the starting rotation provides no guarantees, optimism is warranted.
Acquiring Chapman was undoubtedly among baseball’s biggest moves this offseason, but it was a move for September and October—not April.
It would be nice to have Chapman to start the season. He should be criticized heavily for the circumstances that prompted the suspension. Domestic violence is an issue of greater concern than something as trivial as the Yankees bullpen.
Regardless of the reason, though, his absence had to have been expected at some point this season. Even if it wasn’t, the Yankees still appear well prepared.
Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen and like his Facebook page.
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