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Power-packed bullpen gives Yankees an edge

Relief group, which set a record with 11.4 K/9 IP in '18, has high expectations
@BryanHoch
March 24, 2019

There has been a considerable amount of turnover, but the Yankees' bullpen hallmark has remained the same over the last five seasons: strikeouts, strikeouts and more strikeouts. The 2019 relief squad promises to stand as their most formidable assemblage of late-inning heat to date. Having led the Majors in relief

There has been a considerable amount of turnover, but the Yankees' bullpen hallmark has remained the same over the last five seasons: strikeouts, strikeouts and more strikeouts. The 2019 relief squad promises to stand as their most formidable assemblage of late-inning heat to date.

Having led the Majors in relief strikeouts per nine innings for half a decade, including a record-setting 11.4 K/9 IP last year, the Yankees are relying on the strength of their relievers to make sure the home run-hitting exploits of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and company do not go to waste.

"I've been part of some great bullpens here with the Yankees," closer Aroldis Chapman said through an interpreter. "Some names have changed, but I think that the quality of arms, the abilities, the skills of all the guys in the bullpen hasn't changed. In the past couple of years, [there have] been some really great bullpens. We have a good opportunity in front of us."

Though the Yankees believe that they upgraded their rotation by acquiring left-hander James Paxton in November and re-signing left-hander J.A. Happ in December, manager Aaron Boone figures to maintain a quick hook with his starting five, especially while ace Luis Severino recuperates from a right shoulder injury that installed Masahiro Tanaka as the Opening Day starter.

Boone will be able to do so because of a deep sea of power arms at his disposal, even with Dellin Betances beginning the season on the injured list. Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green and Jonathan Holder are all in line to set up for Chapman, with Tommy Kahnle and Stephen Tarpley also in the Opening Day squad.

"We feel like we've got the depth that we're still going to go north with a dynamic bullpen," Boone said. "Obviously, some guys will get bumped into some roles, but we feel like we can absolutely cover it and we'll be fine and be better for it. We'll be leaning on some other guys in different situations. We feel like we can withstand it."

Of the Yankees' new additions, there was only one that Judge publicly championed. That was the acquisition of the 33-year-old Ottavino, a New York City native whose fastball-slider combination generated 112 strikeouts in 75 appearances for the Rockies last season, spanning 77 2/3 innings.

"Adding Ottavino, man. That's the one guy I watched in the offseason," Judge said. "I kept praying, 'Come on, man, let's pull the trigger on him.' He's got some nasty stuff. He's going to be a dominant force in our 'pen, along with getting Britton back as well. He's another guy where I was like, 'I don't want to face that guy. I don't want to see him in the postseason.'"

Though the Red Sox claimed the American League East by eight games last season, Boston manager Alex Cora believes that the Yankees' bullpen could be a difference-maker in 2019.

"Their strength is their bullpen," Cora said. "We saw it last year. They went to those guys very often whenever we played them. I think we did a good job against their starters, to get them out early. But at the same time, they've got some capable guys at the front of their rotation and they've got some great arms in the bullpen."

Though Boone and pitching coach Larry Rothschild initially downplayed the idea of using an opener, as popularized by the Rays and adopted by other clubs last season, the early-season absences of Severino and CC Sabathia have prompted them to reconsider.

Boone now believes it is likely that the Yankees will utilize an opener at least once, with Green and Holder his most likely choices to hand off to a more extended pitcher like Luis Cessa, Domingo German or perhaps Gio Gonzalez, who signed a Minor League deal with the club this week.

"I think it's just another thing you can throw at a different team," Green said. "I wouldn't say every team is capable of doing it, but it seems like our bullpen is deep enough where we're able to cover some innings. For us, I think it makes sense."

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.