The Yankees rolled into Boston this past weekend playing some of thier best baseball of the season. Since getting swept by the Red Sox at the beginning of the month the Yankees had rebounded to go 9-5 over their last 14 games to pull themselves back into the fringes of American League East contention. With a chance to further close that gap the Yankees struggled through the weekend and leave town a combined 0-6 on the season against their historic rival. More frustrating to Yankees fans is that they were shut down in big spots by two players who were castoff by the organization for no return over the winter and are now far outperforming the players that the Yankees have in their roles.
Brian Cashman has generally provided Yankees managers with strong bullpens during his tenure as Yankees' General Manager. He inherited Mariano Rivera upon taking over the job in 1998 and the tone was set for this part of his roster contructing style style. The Yankees have often had two or even three players at time that generated comments such as “he would be closing on many teams in baseball.”
Keeping with this trend the Yankees signed free agent reliever Adam Ottavino to a three-year, $27 million contract heading into the 2019 season. Ottavino was coming off an outstanding 2018 season for the Colorado Rockies where he established himself as one of the best relievers in baseball. He had embraced the pitching lab technological revolution early on and reinvented a slider that proved to be brutal on right-handed hitters.
Ottavino's first season with the Yankees saw him get out to fast start and produce an outstanding 1.90 ERA on the season in 66.1 inning pitched. There were up and down moments as there are with most relief pitchers, and his high walk rate often made fans more uncomfortable than they would have liked but the results were generally positive.
Statistically things fell apart for Ottavino as he posted 5.89 ERA during the pandemic shortened season. Nine of the 12 runs he allowed were from just two disastrous games and he lost the confidence of the Yankees' coaches and front office.
Heading into the offseason moving Ottavino’s contract was a key point for the Yankees as they sought ways to stay under the luxury tax threshold. Clearing the remaining $9 million on Ottavino's contract became a priority for a team with the highest revenues in the sport. So anxious to deal Ottavino was the team that they not only traded him inside the division to their greatest historical rival but the Yankees even kicked in Frank German a top-30 prospect in the organization to help convince the Red Sox to take the deal.
So far this season Ottavino has pitched 4.1 innings against the Yankees and allowed just one run. He helped the Red Sox bullpen close out a tight game on Saturday night by getting the team out of trouble late in the game. The right-hand heavy Yankees lineup was neutralized by a pitcher who dominates those types of hitters.
Also playing a big role in the Red Sox bullpen this season has been former Yankees' minor leaguer Garrett Whitlock who the Yankees left unprotected ahead of last seasons Rule-5 draft. Taken in the 18th round of the 2017 MLB amateur draft, Whitlock steadily rose through the system and was pitching very well for the Yankees Double-A Trenton team in 2019 before suffering an injury that resulted in Tommy John surgery.
With the lost 2020 minor league season keeping him on the sidelines, the Yankees made the decision to not add Whitlock to their 40-man roster this past November, leaving him exposed to the Rule-5 draft. The Red Sox swooped in and selected Whitlock early in the Rule-5 draft and it is safe to say that he is not coming back to the Yankees anytime soon. Whitlock currently has a 1.42 ERA through his first 22 games with the Red Sox this season and is one of Alex Cora’s favorite bullpen weapons. In three games against the Yankees he has tossed 5.1 scoreless innings and shut down the team that could not find space for him on their 40-man roster.
The Yankees struggles in 2021 have largely been tied to the underperformance of numerous players across the roster. It has not helped that two players the Yankees willingly moved on from for no return have combined to produce 1.9 bWAR out of their biggest rivals’ bullpen. This past weekend as the Yankees sought to tighten up the American League East standings, the Red Sox had former Yankees waiting to shut them down.
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