The New York Yankees bullpen had a biblical feel to it at the start of spring training. We knew it was general manager Brian Cashman's creation, but it seemed as if a higher power put it together.
In reality, it was a serious off-field problem and a failed trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers that allowed the Yankees and Cashman to pull off an offseason trade that brought flame-throwing left-handed closer Aroldis Chapman to the Bronx. He joined Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances to form a three-headed monster that had the potential to be one of the best relief trios baseball has seen.
They looked unhittable on paper. Now, less than a week away from Opening Day, the Yankees bullpen just looks paper-thin.
First, Major League Baseball suspended Chapman, set to be the team’s closer, for 30 games after an alleged domestic violence incident. Then on Wednesday, the team announced that after throwing only one pitch in the bottom of the seventh inning of a game against the Atlanta Braves at Disney World, Miller suffered a chip fracture in his right non-throwing wrist when a line drive hit him.
Let’s call the Chapman suspension the result of his own alleged behavior. What happened to Miller was daggone bad luck.
The Yankees stated, per Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, that there was no timetable for Miller’s return and that he would see a hand specialist to “determine the next course of action.”
It’s so unlikely that he’ll be ready for Opening Day that I’ll let Miller drill me with a fastball if I’m wrong. But Superman couldn’t heal from a wrist fracture in less than a week. And clearly after suffering the injury, Miller doesn’t have superhuman strength.
Until then the bullpen is left without a closer. Betances is a career setup guy. Nine of his 10 career saves came last season. With New York’s bullpen at full strength, the plan was for Betances to be a seventh- or eighth-inning guy.
Having both Miller, who had 36 saves last year as the Yankees closer, and Chapman, who has eclipsed 30 saves the past four seasons, had a dual purpose.
Primarily it would have allowed the Yankees to throw a closer at opponents for six outs. Miller, who would finish games on nearly every other major league team, would pitch the eighth inning. Chapman would close. And on days when Chapman needed rest, Miller could close. Or one could fill in should the other become hurt.
Or in Chapman’s case, suspended.
One line drive decimated that plan.
Even after Miller’s injury, though, there’s still evidence that the baseball higher-ups love pinstripes. Any day of the week, the left-handed Miller would prefer an injury occur on his right side.
With his right wrist in a cast, Miller will still be able to work his pitching arm in some capacity. To what degree won’t be understood until more information is released.
Other than that, Wednesday’s news did nothing to reassure the Yankees.
“Anytime you get a line drive, right away I don’t think it’s going to feel good,” Betances said, per Feinsand. “I’m sure right away you’re going to think everything is bad, but when he was in here talking to me, he was all right.”
Until Miller or Chapman returns, whichever comes first, insurance runs will be important to the Yankees.
The less experienced Chasen Shreve will become the team’s left-handed specialist. With Miller out, expect Luis Cessa, Johnny Barbato and Kirby Yates to all make the Opening Day roster.
All three have little major league experience. Yates has pitched parts of the last two seasons in Tampa Bay but has only one save. He posted a 7.97 ERA in 20 games in 2015.
Prior to Miller's injury, the three pitchers were competing for two remaining bullpen spots. But neither of the three figured to pitch in the high-leverage situations reserved for Betances, Miller and Chapman.
Given that the remaining Yankees relievers are baseball neophytes, Betances is the only choice to close for now.
The good news: Of the 30 games that Chapman will miss to start the season, only nine come against teams that made the playoffs last season.
The Yankees' bad luck is coming at a good time in their schedule.
With Miller’s injury, though, it’s as if New York had awoken from a dream. Its bullpen was the envy of every executive in baseball.
When the pieces are healthy, it is among baseball’s best. It might even push to be one of the best ever. Chapman and Miller had 69 combined saves in 2015, and Betances is regarded as one of the game’s elite setup men. Both Chapman and Betances have fastballs that have clocked in at over 100 miles per hour.
But for at least the duration of Miller’s recovery, the Yankees relievers might look ordinary if they don't struggle altogether.
So as New York awaits a timetable on Miller’s return, this bullpen may just want to ask for a little more help from above.
Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.