Yankees set up well to manage without big-money reliever

TAMPA — There is something missing in the Yankees’ clubhouse, beyond a starting left fielder. 

From the addition of Andrew Miller after the 2014 season through last year, the Yankees always have had at least one and often two of the top-paid relievers in the sport. 

The last time they didn’t was in the transition season of 2014, after Mariano Rivera’s retirement, when David Robertston evolved from main set-up man to closer. Robertson was the Yankees’ highest-paid reliever at $5.75 million, which was 34th among relievers in MLB, according to Spotrac data. This season, Tommy Kahnle is the Yankees’ highest-paid reliever at $5.75 million, which (drumroll) is currently 34th among relievers. 

The six highest-paid relievers on the Yankees, with no doubts about making the bullpen, are Kahnle, Lou Trivino ($4.1 million), Wandy Peralta ($3.35 million), Clay Holmes ($3.3 million), Jonathan Loaisiga ($2.26 million) and Michael King ($1.3 million). They are guaranteed $20.06 million, or nearly $10 million less than Aroldis Chapman ($16 million) and Zack Britton ($14 million) were paid last year on the second and sixth-highest reliever contracts in MLB. 

In 2022, though, Chapman and Britton were money for nothing. Neither made a postseason roster despite injury absences by valuable relievers King, Scott Effross, Chad Green and Ron Marinaccio. Chapman fell from the closer role, then completely out of favor, after a tattoo became infected and he was a no-show for a workout prior to the division series. Britton was not his old self after Tommy John surgery, walking six of nine batters over three late-season appearances, which he made to try to become part of the postseason roster. 

Clay Holmes participates in drills at Yankees spring training on Wednesday.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

So the Yankees got used to operating — and generally operating well — without Chapman and Britton, which is no surprise. For even after the retirement of Rivera, the greatest reliever ever, Yankees pens have mainly thrived. And the most hands-on person in the chain from Mo to Lo (Loaisiga’s nickname, for those playing at home) expects more of the same, even without pricey pen pieces. 

Mike Harkey, who was the Yankees’ bullpen coach from 2008-13 and has been on the job again since 2016, said he thought the group this year could be as good as any he has overseen. 

“With all that was missing last year, we had guys like Holmes and Loaisiga and Wandy gain awesome experience and I believe we have five or six guys who can give a lot of different looks and can pitch at the end of the game,” Harkey explained. 

Aaron Boone, left, and Matt Blake watch Wandy Peralta throw a bullpen at Yankees spring training on Friday.
Aaron Boone, left, and Matt Blake watch Wandy Peralta throw a bullpen at Yankees spring training on Friday.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Jonathan Loaisiga participates in drills at Yankees spring training on Wednesday.
Jonathan Loaisiga participates in drills at Yankees spring training on Wednesday.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

The Yankees have become exceptional at finding and refining relievers to create deep units: for example, trading Mike Tauchman for Peralta and dealing Diego Castillo and Hoy Park for Holmes were tremendous organizational wins. Aside from the pandemic-shortened, 60-game 2020 campaign, the Yankees’ pens in the post-Rivera world have not finished worse than seventh in Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs) and have been first or second five times. 

They relied heavily on being among the best strikeout pens ever. And this pen can still get whiffs. But the Yankees have accumulated relievers who keep the ball on the ground — Holmes to an extreme level — coinciding with big upgrades in infield defense (more so this year if Oswald Peraza is the shortstop). 

Pitching coach Matt Blake said, ideally, Holmes will get a bulk of the closing roles, but that the team will not lock into one reliever. For example, he said, if Toronto’s righty hitters, such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer, were up in the eighth inning, the Yankees would not hesitate to use Holmes then. Both Blake and Harkey believe that Loaisiga and Peralta also can close, plus maybe Kahnle, King, Marinaccio and Trivino, too. The strength is how many relievers the Yankees envision being comfortable with in high-leverage spots. Harkey believes that will allow them not to have to overuse anyone. 

Michael King
Michael King will be one of the keys of the Yankees’ bullpen.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Still, there are keys to how good the group will be: 

1. King’s health. Before he fractured his right elbow last July, his multi-inning dominance had made the right-hander among the most valuable Yankees. He threw batting practice Friday as part of a progression that he guarantees will lead to him being on the Opening Day roster. 

2. Loaisiga’s stability. Until mid-August, he was among the most disappointing 2022 Yankees. From Aug. 15 through the playoffs, however, Loaisiga was dominant. Among other things, he allowed one extra-base hit (a double) in 123 batters faced. Can the Yankees bottle that? 

3. Holmes’ consistency. He was the reverse of Loaisiga. For the first three months last year, he was basically without blemish. But then he lost the strike zone and had a shoulder injury. The club would operate best if he could dominate mainly in the ninth. 

King, Loaisiga, Holmes and Peralta — whom Harkey called the 2022 pen MVP for his flexibility, durability and fortitude — project as a powerful centerpiece quartet to anchor the bullpen … at any price.