Yankees are thin in the middle innings

PHOENIX -- When the New York Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman in January, it was widely assumed that adding the triple-digit closer to the already formidable duo of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller was the final piece in what would be the most imposing bullpen in baseball.

But no one seemed to worry about just how the Yankees would deliver the baseball, and the lead, to the three-headed bullpen monster.

After all, the Yankees' middle relief seemed just fine in 2015 with Chasen Shreve, Justin Wilson, Adam Warren and a variety of situational types shuttling in and out from Scranton.

But now, a year later, Wilson and Warren are gone, and that Scranton Shuttle seems threadbare.

That weakness became obvious Monday night at Chase Field, when the Yankees and manager Joe Girardi chose to gamble on a first-time MLB starter, Chad Green, in the opener of a three-game set against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The theory was that using Green against a team playing even worse baseball than the Yankees, one that was especially bad at home (5-16), would give all of the Yankees starters an extra days' rest. They might even be able to cobble together a win using the rookie right-hander and an assortment of middle relievers since Betances, Miller and Chapman were not available.

To say it didn't work is a gross understatement. Green couldn't get an out in the fifth inning, and the three pitchers who followed him -- Nick Goody, Conor Mullee, another MLB debutante, and Phil Coke -- only made things worse, allowing the final six runs of a 12-2 Diamondbacks win.

OK, so the gamble didn't work. That was a possibility going in.

The more disturbing result of Monday's loss is the sickening feeling that there isn't going to be much help coming up from Scranton this season. With Yankees starters averaging roughly 5⅔ innings per start, it means there will be a lot of nights that the big three will never make it onto the field.

"A lot of these guys aren't three-, four-, five-inning guys," Girardi said of his middle relievers. "It's something we're going to have to figure out."

Last year, Bryan Mitchell and Branden Pinder, Chris Martin, Nick Rumbelow, James Pazos, Wilson and Warren came through the Yankees' revolving bullpen door. They all provided varying levels of effective service throughout the season.

But Wilson was traded away for Green and Luis Cessa, Mitchell broke his toe in spring training, and Pinder and Rumbelow had Tommy John surgery. All three are lost for the season. Warren, of course, went to the Cubs in the Starlin Castro deal. Pazos is pitching well in Scranton and is sure to see the Bronx at some point, and Johnny Barbato -- who made the team out of spring training but was demoted on May 9 to make room for Chapman's return to the roster -- will likely be back as well.

Other than that, the pickings are slim down on the farm. Cessa, who also made the team, appeared in one game before being sent down. Tyler Olson has been up and down twice without ever getting into a game. The fact is, Green was the best the Yankees had in Scranton. Although he showed flashes of potential, striking out three batters to strand two runners in the third and pitching a 1-2-3 fourth, he also demonstrated that he's not quite ready for prime time yet.

“I think he’s made a lot of progress since spring training and I think he’s going to continue to get better," Girardi said. "I think his breaking ball has gotten better. In spring training, he had a hard time throwing strikes; he didn’t have a hard time really tonight. I think there was a lot of improvement.”

But Girardi refused to commit to giving him another start, and the likelihood is he -- and probably Mullee -- are headed back to Scranton.

The dearth of talent in Yankees middle relief meant Girardi really couldn't hit for Green in the fourth inning when his spot came up with the bases loaded and two out in a tie game. It reminded you of how big a loss Mitchell was to the Yankees at the end of spring training, and how much the Yankees sacrificed when they traded Warren for Castro, who has admittedly been a fine addition.

There are other ripple effects, as well. The ineffectiveness of Luis Severino meant losing Ivan Nova as the long man in the bullpen, and it also meant rushing CC Sabathia back into the rotation without the customary minor-league rehab start.

And it means that even though the Yankees have that sleek, speedy three-headed pitching machine in their garage, they might not be able to take it out as often as they would like.

"That was something I talked about in spring training," Girardi said. "The importance of the other four guys was what was so important because the three guys were going to be really good. We lost a big guy in Mitchell when we lost him. At times, it’s been a struggle. We need to find a combination that works.”