The Yankees have been linked to a wide range of starting pitchers on both the free agent and trade markets throughout the offseason, but Brendan Kuty of The Athletic reports that the team has shifted its focus to the bullpen. The asking prices for free agents Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, coupled with lofty asks from teams peddling starting pitching (e.g. the White Sox, Marlins) make it unlikely the Yankees will make another significant addition to their starting staff, per Kuty. The Yankees signed Marcus Stroman to a two-year contract last week and reportedly made an offer to Snell but weren’t close to the reigning NL Cy Young winner’s asking price.
Clay Holmes is again expected to anchor the New York bullpen after another strong showing in 2023. Acquired in what was then a low-profile deadline trade met with a collective yawn from most fans, the now-30-year-old righty has taken his game to new heights in the Bronx.
After posting a 5.57 ERA in parts of four seasons with the Pirates, Holmes has given the Yankees 154 2/3 frames of 2.50 ERA ball. The command issues that plagued him in Pittsburgh have dissipated (7.5% walk rate as a Yankee), and he’s ridden his power sinker to 44 saves and 17 holds while punching out 27.2% of his opponents. Since 2021, there have been 456 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings in the majors; none has a higher ground-ball rate than Holmes’ staggering 69.9%.
Behind Holmes, things are a bit shakier. Right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga has been excellent since 2021, sporting a tidy 2.97 ERA with a terrific 59.3% grounder rate thanks in large part to a power sinker of his own. However, Loaisiga pitched just 17 2/3 innings last year and did so with a career-worst 8.7% strikeout rate that ranked fifth-worst in MLB among pitchers with at least 10 innings. He spent the bulk of the season on the injured list (two separate stints) due to elbow inflammation. Loaisiga also had IL stints in 2021 and 2022, both pertaining to his right shoulder. He’s reached 50 innings in a big league season just once, back in 2021.
Similarly, right-hander Tommy Kahnle has been excellent when healthy … but such instances have been few and far between. Last year’s 40 2/3 innings were Kahnle’s most since 2019 and marked just the fourth time in ten MLB seasons that he’s reached even 40 innings pitched. Kahnle opened the year on the 60-day IL due to biceps tendinitis and closed out the year on the 15-day IL owing to shoulder inflammation. In his 40 2/3 innings, he turned in a sharp 2.66 ERA with a 29.1% strikeout rate against an elevated 11.5% walk rate. A healthy Kahnle is a big bullpen piece, but that’s tough to rely on, given his lengthy injury history.
Beyond that trio, things are even less stable. Right-hander Ian Hamilton had an out-of-the-blue breakout in 2023, tossing 58 innings of 2.64 ERA ball, but he’s a 28-year-old with no prior big league success. Ron Marinaccio’s eye-popping 2.05 ERA from 2022’s excellent rookie season nearly doubled in 2023 (3.99), and command continues to be an issue for him (13% walk rate in both 2022 and 2023). Righty Scott Effross will be in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Southpaw Victor Gonzalez, acquired from the Dodgers earlier in the winter, gives the Yankees another ground-ball specialist, but his overall numbers have declined each season since his excellent 2021 debut.
Beyond the injury concern and lack of proven arms beyond the top few names, the Yankees must also replace the innings of several outgoing relievers. Right-hander Michael King, left-hander Wandy Peralta and righty Keynan Middleton combined for 132 2/3 innings of 2.85 ERA ball out of the bullpen last year. King was traded to the Padres as part of the Juan Soto deal and will open the season in San Diego’s rotation. Peralta and Middleton are both free agents (and both remain unsigned).
On top of that, each of Holmes, Kahnle and Loaisiga is a free agent following the 2024 campaign. The upcoming season will be the second of a two-year, $11.5MM free agent deal between the Yankees and Kahnle. That contract does not have an option for an additional season. Both Holmes and Loaisiga will reach six years of service time in 2024 and become free agents for the first time — with Holmes headed toward being one of the top relievers on next year’s free agent class.
It’s no secret that the Yankees are set to shatter every luxury tax barrier this season, which only further muddies their path to bolstering the team. Roster Resource projects the Yankees at around $305MM of luxury obligations, placing the team well beyond the fourth and final $297MM luxury tier. Couple that with their status as a club that’s exceeded the threshold in at least three straight seasons, and they’ll pay a massive 110% tax on any dollars spent on the 2024 payroll. Even bringing Peralta back on the same $3.35MM salary he earned last year would cost the Yankees more than $7MM — and Peralta, of course, has very likely positioned himself for a nice raise over that relatively modest mark.
That onerous tax status, to be clear, doesn’t seem likely to preclude the Yankees from making further additions. They had interest in a Peralta reunion as far back as November and reportedly had some talks with him in early December. Kuty writes that the Yankees “love” the left-hander and what he brings to the clubhouse (in addition to his obvious on-field contributions). Meanwhile, Mark Feinsand of MLB.com suggested recently that the Yankees are one of the favorites to sign veteran righty Hector Neris.
Similarly, it should be noted that while Kuty casts doubt on the team’s likelihood of making another big splash in the rotation, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of more minor pickups. The Yanks added Luke Weaver on a low-cost one-year deal earlier in the month, and he’ll provide some long relief and starting depth. Additional deals in that vein, or perhaps minor league deals for veterans who could be stashed in Triple-A, could well come together. It’s always possible that a late drop in the asking price of Snell or Montgomery could spur the Yankees to circle back to one of the market’s top remaining starters, but for now that type of splash seems improbable.