Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Early Bullpen Struggles Bring Questionable Roster Decisions Into Light

(Originally published at IIATMS/TYA)

The bullpen was supposed to be a strength again this year.  The Yankees came into Spring Training with the core seven guys all but guaranteed roster spots, or so we thought.  As injuries in other parts of the roster mounted, and the resulting personnel moves to cover them created a 40-man roster crunch, some of those spots became less of a guarantee, and at the end of camp there was more than a bit of surprise when David Aardsma and Clay Rapada were DFA'd.  Their back end bullpen spots were given to Shawn Kelley and Cody Eppley, with Adam Warren making the cut as well as long man coverage for Phil Hughes.  With just seven games in the books, it's hardly an "end of the world" problem, but the poor performance of those late additions and the slightly surprising struggles of Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan has me once again questioning some of those "in/out" roster decisions.

The rationale for choosing Kelley over Aardsma was that his ability to pitch multiple innings was more valuable.  At the time that call was made, I questioned the need for another pitcher to throw multiple innings, as the Yankee rotation wasn't expected to be a "5 innings and done" group like that of the Rockies.  As it turns out, providing length has been a problem so far for the rotation, but Kelley has not been the solution.  After getting hit hard and giving up some homers in ST, he's continued that trend in his first couple regular season appearances (6 ER, 7 H (3 HR), 3 BB in 5.1 IP).

Aardsma's flyball tendencies weren't expected to play well in Yankee Stadium, which was more than likely a contributing factor to him being axed, but a look at Kelley's career numbers shows a similar tendency, as well as a similar tendency to get a little wild with his command.  He might have better stuff at this point in his career, and he may be better able to throw multiple innings than Aardsma, but what good are those multiple innings when he's always giving up runs in them?  Injuries aside, Aardsma has been a proven Major Leaguer for longer than Kelley and outpitched him in ST.  Kelley's career path since 2009 has been one of your typical Quad-A arm, and that's exactly what he's shown since becoming a Yankee.  Based on that history and the numbers we have seen in his small Yankee sample size, it's hard to make the argument that he was a clear cut better Opening Day option than the departed Aardsma.

The Rapada release was a bit easier to understand, mainly because he was injured at the time and shoulder problems this early in the season are never a good sign for a pitcher.  He was only on the 15-day DL, but the injury could have lasted longer and there's no telling how long it could have taken him to return to game action.  The choice of Eppley as Rapada's roster replacement, however, was another one that didn't make a lot of sense to me.  Eppley was absolutely putrid in spring camp, and is the type of pitcher who's going to get by based on his off-kilter mechanics more than his stuff or pitching smarts.  He's another replacement-level Quad-A arm, and while those are the type who normally get these jobs, it's not like the Yankees didn't have other potentially better options.

Knowing that Eppley offers a pretty low ceiling in terms of production and is basically useless against left-handed hitters, knowing that there are concerns about Boone Logan's arm this season, and knowing that Joe probably prefers to have a second lefty on hand, why not go with Vidal Nuno?  He thoroughly outpitched Eppley in camp, he's shown the ability to pitch effectively to both righties and lefties, and he has experience working as a starter and a reliever, so the desire for another multi-inning option is covered along with the second LOOGY role.  The Yanks didn't make that choice, Eppley gave up 4 ER on 8 H in his two appearances before being sent down for Hughes, and the Yankees are still without a second lefty in the 'pen to ease the workload on Logan, who's looked very shaky himself in his three appearances.

Would this be as big of an issue right now if the rotation were pitching better?  No it would not.  Would this be as big of an issue if Logan were doing a better job limiting damage and Chamberlain wasn't walking the ballpark every time he came in?  Also no.  And I know I'm on shaky ground using ST and 7-game sample size stats as the basis for my argument, but it's all I've got to go on right now and those stats do add up to the bullpen being a thinner, weaker group than was expected.  The moves that were made to fill out the 'pen haven't worked, and even now with both Phelps and Warren in there together the Yankees have potentially hurt themselves by not sending one of them down to stay stretched out as a starter.  Their organizational decision making in filling out the roster has been just as questionable as their decision making when it came to building the roster, and they've suffered as a result of it.

If this is all just acting as a placeholder for the eventual arrival of guys like Nuno, Mark Montgomery, Francisco Rondon, and Branden Pinder, so be it.  I can live with that.  What I can't live with is the continued insistence from the Yankee decision-making group that they are committed to putting a championship-caliber team on the field as every move they make flies in the face of that declaration.  Shawn Kelleys and Cody Eppleys grow on trees.  The Yankees have plenty of them in their own system.  If they didn't think David Aardsma cut it as a bullpen contributor, so be it.  But don't try to tell me that the Kelleys and Eppleys of the world are better pitchers because they're not and they're proving it.

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