This post could have been more or less completed almost two months ago, because the Yankees haven’t made any massive changes to the bullpen. They’ve traded away more relievers than they’ve added, but that’s a luxury of a system that has multiple young, effective bullpen options. Creating an organizational bullpen depth chart is a tricky thing — if the Yankees are willing to convert Phil Hughes to the bullpen, they’re willing to convert anyone — but we can get a basic idea of which pitchers are on their way.
Closer: Mariano Rivera
Front runners: Dave Robertson, Damaso Marte, Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin, Boone Logan, Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain
Veteran insurance: Sergio Mitre, Royce Ring, Edwar Ramirez
Almost ready: Mark Melancon, Romulo Sanchez, Wilkin De La Rosa, Kevin Whelan
Low rising: Graham Stoneburner, Gavin Brooks, Andrew Brackman
As always, the bullpen begins at the end, with Rivera in the ninth inning. All that’s left is to put together a group capable of giving him the ball. Hughes and Chamberlain have proven that key relievers can come from fairly unexpected places, but the Yankees have groomed Robertson and Melancon to eventually fill a late-inning, setup role, and this could be the year they take those roles fulltime. The bullpen favorites are pretty easy to pick, but there always seems to be at least one bullpen surprise out of spring training (and more surprises by the middle of the summer). Lower in the system, the Yankees have a lot of quality arms that could eventually convert to the pen. I listed Brackman as something of a place-filler for all of those potential starter-turned-relievers. As far as I know, there are no current plans to make him a reliever.
Worst-case scenario: The absolute worst-case scenario involves some sort of Rivera implosion, but at this point it’s absurd to even speculate about such a thing. Instead, let’s say the worst-case scenario starts in the rotation. Losing a starter – or two – could have a significant trickle down effect into the bullpen. It’s worth noting that a lot of the Yankees relievers are young, without lengthy track records of success. Marte isn’t young, but his track record took a significant hit last season. Bullpen’s are tricky. There’s a reason the Yankees have not wanted to spend heavily on relievers, and the bullpen’s worst-case scenario is pretty much the same for every team: The closer gets hurt, and the rest of the bullpen crumbles from it’s base.
Best-case scenario: Rivera continues to slap Father Time squarly in the mouth. Robertson and Melancon emerge as such reliable late-inning relievers that the Yankees feel comfortable with both Hughes and Chamberlain being stretched out as starters. Marte pitches like he did in the postseason. Gaudin and Aceves thrive in multi-inning roles (and the Yankees don’t need them to spot start). It wouldn’t hurt to have one of the Triple-A power pitchers — Whelan, Sanchez or Grant Duff — put everything in place and become a big league role player by the end of the season.
The future: It still begins and ends with Rivera, who is a free agent at the end of the season. The Yankees will have a tough task deciding how much money and how many years to give Rivera, who will surely slow down at some point (though it may be in 15 years). A close second in determining the future of the bullpen is the development of Hughes and Chamberlain. If either of those two is converted to the bullpen full-time, it would clearly change the future significantly. Further development of Robertson and Melancon could also have a major impact on the next five or six years of the Yankees’ pen. Down the road is the possibility that Stoneburner — as well as several other starters — could be converted from the rotation to the pen.
Not even an attempt at the complete depth chart
The long-term future of the Yankees bullpen is probably hidden in the rotations of the minor league affiliates. As a matter of course, the Yankees develop almost all of their top pitchers as starters until the upper-levels, and even then some are never moved to the bullpen until they get to New York. It makes little sense to attempt a complete minor league depth chart — I haven’t asked enough questions about the lower-level relievers to finish one with any sort of confidence –but here are some names that stand out for one reason or another.
On the verge: Mark Melancon, Kevin Whelan, Grant Duff, Amaury Sanit, Jonathan Albaladejo, Wilkins Arias, Royce Ring, Edwar Ramirez, Zach Segovia, Eric Wordekemper
Rule 5 picks: Zach Kroenke, Kanekoa Texeira (in the conversation if they’re sent back)
Lower in the system: Noel Castillo, Jonathan Hovis, Pat Venditte, Tim Norton, Brad Rulon, Jonathan Ortiz, Ryan Flannery, Gavin Brooks