It was no secret that the Yankees wanted to acquire a closer this offseason. Though Dellin Betances would have been perfectly suitable for the role, the organization clearly prioritized building a super bullpen. It was so important that everything else was put on hold. The team got what it wanted when news broke that Aroldis Chapman agreed to a five-year, $86M contract to return to the Bronx.
Chapman’s blazing fastball and personal baggage return to the Bronx after a few months with the World Champion Chicago Cubs, who acquired him from the Yankees before the July 31 trade deadline. The Cuban southpaw is one of the best relievers in baseball and would make any team’s bullpen better, however, there’s plenty of reason to grumble about Chapman rejoining the Yankees.
First, let’s talk about Chapman the person. I can’t tell you what to think or how to root, but the domestic abuse allegations make it very difficult for many, including me, to root for Chapman. Even if you believe Chapman, who says he didn’t lay a hand on girlfriend, you still have to reconcile that he recklessly fired his gun eight times inside his garage. Who does that? How sure are the Yankees that it’ll never happen again? I guess the Yankees believe they could void the remainder of his deal should any future incident pop up, which feels dirty on its own.
Some, clearly including the Yankees (cough Hal), have no problem overlooking Chapman’s prior behavior. I suppose it’s one’s prerogative to gloss over the situation, but even for those who are willing to, there are baseball reasons to not like this deal.
First and foremost, I can admit that Chapman is absolutely an upgrade to the bullpen for 2017. After Betances and Tyler Clippard, the rest of the relief picture is murky. With Chapman in tow, Betances and Clippard will work in the seventh and eighth innings, leaving fewer high leverage innings for inferior relievers to have opportunities in. Ultimately, Steamer’s +2.5 fWAR projection for Chapman should be a full two-to-three win upgrade over the replacement level relievers (i.e. Nick Goody, Chasen Shreve) that will have a reduced workload. That all sounds great, right? Not so fast.
In a vacuum, adding two or three wins is a pretty good deal at a $17.2M salary next year. However, the needle still hasn’t moved significantly for the Yankees, who are still looking at something like 83 wins next year. The team has been between 84 and 87 wins over the last four years, and this team not only projects to be in line with that, but doesn’t feel any better than those recent squads. It’s possible that the Yankees sneak into a Wild Card spot in 2017, but that’s no certainty. And yes, we’ve seen the advantage of a deep bullpen in the postseason in recent years. But without other upgrades, it’s not easy to picture the Yankees reaching October in the first year or Chapman’s deal. And based on Cashman’s comments, there aren’t any other significant changes coming.
The front office is certainly aware of where they stand on the projected win curve, so it feels like this move is intended more for 2018 and 2019, the two other years Chapman is under contract before he has the ability opt-out. Given the stocked farm system, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic for those two seasons and beyond. However, it’s also quite likely that Chapman is not the same pitcher by then. Should that be the case, perhaps the Yankees could have allocated his salary to better options in those seasons.
From a roster construction perspective alone, whether it was Chapman or Kenley Jansen, I didn’t understand the Yankees’ desire to add a closer this winter. As it stands, the team isn’t in a position where adding an elite reliever is going to put itself over the top in 2017, and the years beyond that are even harder to predict despite the oodles of prospects within the organization. I was really hoping that the Yankees would feel the same way, especially because I didn’t want to see Chapman in pinstripes again because of his past, but here we are.