Why fearsome bullpen trio isn't the key to Yankees' hopes

TAMPA -- With the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman, a left-handed Cuban fireballer who has struck out nearly half the hitters he has faced in his six-year major league career, the New York Yankees have assembled as fearsome a collection of late-inning relievers as baseball has ever seen.

There is 6-foot-8, 265-pound Dellin Betances, who hit 100 mph or better on the radar gun nine times in 2015 and averaged 14 strikeouts per nine innings the past season. There is Andrew Miller, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound left-hander who broke triple digits only once, but with his devastating slider struck batters out even more frequently than Betances (14.6 per 9) and saved 36 games in 38 opportunities.

Now there is Chapman, for whom a triple-digit fastball is a warm-up toss. On two occasions the past year, Chapman’s heater broke 105 mph, and he was clocked at 104 mph more times (11) than Betances and Miller broke 100 combined.

Put it all together, and this probably makes for the best 1-2-3 bullpen punch in baseball right now -- and the best in many years.

That is why dozens and perhaps hundreds of spectators -- fans, reporters, scouts, Yankees GM Brian Cashman -- flocked to the five-mounded bullpen at Steinbrenner Field to watch the trio, along with CC Sabathia, throw a 25-pitch bullpen session Saturday afternoon.

But what made for a great spectacle on a February Saturday in Tampa might not amount to the dust in a rosin bag if the Yankees can’t get these relievers the ball with a lead once the games become real.

"You like to go into a game with a plan," manager Joe Girardi said. "But 90 percent of the time, the plan doesn’t work."

Right now, the plan is a simple one: Get through six innings with a lead. Begin the relay: Betances to Miller to Chapman. Go home happy. Do it again tomorrow. This all presupposes several things, none of which is as guaranteed as a 100 mph Chapman fastball.

One of those things is that the Yankees' offense -- heavily reliant on 40-year-old Alex Rodriguez, 35-year-old Mark Teixeira and 38-year-old Carlos Beltran -- will be potent enough to supply leads.

Another is that the shaky starting rotation -- heavily reliant on 22-year-old Luis Severino, who has all of 62 1/3 major league innings under his belt -- will be able to hold opposing offenses at bay.

Perhaps most importantly, this all presumes that the retooled Yankees middle relief, minus the versatile Adam Warren and the reliable Justin Wilson, will be able to deliver those leads to the three-headed monster that is expected to slam the door shut.

That’s a lot of ifs. And it doesn’t even take into account this disturbing fact: that it will be difficult for even Betances, Miller and Chapman to improve on the Yankees' late-inning relief from 2015, when the team’s record was 66-3 in games they led after six innings, 73-2 in games they led after seven and 81-0 in games they led after eight.

That is why Girardi called those in his bullpen "a nice luxury to have," but he stopped short of making World Series reservations or having Yankees clubhouse man Rob Cucuzza switch the number on his jersey from 28 to 29.

He knows there are a lot of things that have to go right for the Yankees before they even unleash the bullpen beast on hapless opponents. To Girardi's mind, the relievers who precede Betances -- assuming last year’s eighth-inning man is this year’s seventh-inning specialist -- will have a greater impact on his team’s fortunes than the ones intended to follow him.

"We’re looking at a lot of different guys in camp," Girardi said. "I really believe that’s more important than those last three guys because a lot of time you have to bridge that gap. There’s easy choices to make at the end of games, but it’s the guys who pitch the fifth and sixth innings that you really have to solve. Those guys are extremely important."

Warren, traded to the Cubs for Starlin Castro, and Wilson, moved to Detroit for minor league pitchers Luis Cessa and Chad Green, are gone, but Chasen Shreve, who was so reliable in June and July and equally unreliable in September, is back. So is Jacob Lindgren, whose rookie season was cut short by elbow surgery, and Nicks, Goody and Rumbelow, who were part of the shuttle squad that regularly made the trip between Triple-A Scranton and Yankee Stadium when the club needed relief help. Also in the mix are Branden Pinder, Kirby Yates, Anthony Swarzak and Johnny Barbato.

No one is going to flock to Steinbrenner field when any of them throws a bullpen session. But if they can’t get the job done in the regular season, fans will be flocking out of Yankee Stadium well before Betances, Miller or Chapman get into the game.

That might be why Cashman downplayed the importance of Saturday’s bullpen session and his presence at it.

"I just came down to get some sun," he said. "It’s a Saturday, it’s sunny, and I’m white as a ghost. To me, the most boring stories ever are the bullpen sessions that go on the first two weeks of camp."

The story of Chapman, of course, is anything but boring -- and not just because of his numbers on the radar gun. There is the possibility that he will begin his first season as a Yankee under suspension from Major League Baseball for his role in a domestic dispute for which he will face no criminal charges.

On Friday, commissioner Rob Manfred said he would soon rule on three pending MLB domestic violence cases, one of which involves Chapman. Some in the Yankees organization believe Chapman could get as many as 45 days in a suspension, which could push his Yankees debut to mid-May.

"Honestly, the sooner the better," said Chapman, who has said he will appeal any suspension. "It’s something that I want to put on the side and just forget about."

Asked if he was concerned about it, Chapman said, "No, not at all."

Neither, seemingly, was the crowd that came out to watch Chapman effortlessly pumping out heat on Saturday. There was no radar gun to record the velocity, but Brian McCann, who caught him for the first time, said, "His ball comes out extremely hot. There’s no one walking around that does what he does."

How often will the Yankees give Chapman the opportunity to do it? The answer is what will likely determine the success or failure of their 2016 season.