Chapman returns to Yankees, but don't expect him to turn team around
For the first time this regular season, Aroldis Chapman will be in uniform for the Yankees. On Monday, the Cuban reliever will see his 30-game* suspension for violating the league’s new domestic violence policy (the first such ban handed down under that policy) come to an end when the Yankees open a four-game set against the defending World Series champion Royals. Chapman finds himself joining a team in a very different position than was expected, however, when New York acquired him from the Reds in late December.
*The Yankees have only played 29 games, but their April 10 rainout against the Tigers counts toward Chapman’s suspension even though it will be made up later in the year.
When the Yankees traded a quartet of non-prospects for Chapman in December, they were coming off a wild-card berth and looking to fortify their position as a contender in the American League East. New York missed the playoffs in consecutive years in 2013 and ’14, the first time it had done so since the early ‘90s, and in the winter between those two seasons, it lost 30-year-old superstar second baseman Robinson Cano to free agency. That was arguably the franchise’s lowest point since before the 1994 strike. But the Yankees’ wild-card berth in 2015 and the emergence of young homegrown players such as relief ace Dellin Betances, righthanded starter Luis Severino and first baseman Greg Bird—as well as the presence of promising prospects such as catcher Gary Sanchez, second baseman Rob Refsnyder and outfielders Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams and Aaron Judge—suggested that the future was a bright one in the Bronx.
Twenty days before trading for Chapman, the Yankees acquired Starlin Castro from the Cubs to serve as the long-term replacement for Cano at second base. Suddenly, the Yankees had a talented 26-year-old infielder to go with a starting rotation that featured four starters who were 27 or younger, the 28-year-old Betances and the aforementioned crop of young talent. Adding Chapman to Betances and incumbent lefthanded closer Andrew Miller, meanwhile, gave New York arguably the best bullpen Big Three in baseball as well.
Then it all started to unravel. Before the team reported to spring training, the Yankees learned that Bird, who hit 11 home runs in 46 games as a rookie last year, would need season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. A month later, Chapman’s 30-game suspension was announced. Since the season started, meanwhile, the young players in New York's rotation and lineup have disappointed. With the exception of Japanese veteran Masahiro Tanaka, the starters have struggled. Severino is 0–5 with a 6.12 ERA through his first six starts. Michael Pineda is 1–3 with a 5.73 ERA and has allowed eight home runs in 33 innings. Twenty-six-year-old Nathan Eovaldi has made a couple of impressive starts of late, but he will still carry a 4.78 ERA into his start on Thursday. In the lineup, Castro made a terrific impression in his first three games but has hit just .260/.304/.365 since—a line still far better than that of double-play partner Didi Gregorius (.227/.250/.330). As for the prospects, Refsnyder and Heathcott are struggling at the plate in Triple A, and Williams remains on the disabled list following right shoulder surgery from last August.
The Yankees’ veterans aren’t fairing much better. Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia are on the disabled list with hamstring and groin injuries, respectively. Third baseman Chase Headley is hitting .163/.253/.163 with an OPS+ of 21 and is still without an extra-base hit. Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran are sporting OPS+ figures in the eighties, with Beltran nursing a mere .252 on-base percentage and Teixeira slugging just .310. Speedy 32-year-old outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner continue to battle nagging injuries: The latter has missed games with a stiff neck and after being hit in the right elbow by a pitch, and the former is currently unavailable due to a strained hip muscle. Utility man Dustin Ackley has a negative OPS+ on the season, and Sabathia’s replacement in the rotation, 29-year-old Ivan Nova, will bring a 5.14 ERA into his first start of the season on Monday night.
Given all of that, it’s no surprise that the Yankees are in last place in the East. They did manage to take two of three from the first-place Red Sox this weekend, but their 11–18 (.379) record on the season bests just three teams in all of baseball: the Braves, Twins and Astros. Worse, they are already 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Orioles.
Chapman’s return seems unlikely to alter radically the course of the Yankees’ season. He is undeniably a huge upgrade over whichever pitcher gets removed from the bottom of the depth chart to clear room for him on the roster (likely either 24-year-old righty Nick Goody or prodigal lefty Phil Coke). With Chapman taking over the closer's role upon his return, manager Joe Girardi will now have more flexibility with Betances and Miller, and that should help protect against usage blunders such as the one that cost the Yankees a possible win in Baltimore on Thursday night. By that same measure, with Chapman in the fold, the Yankees should convert some wins they might otherwise have blown via the use of lesser relievers.
In order for Chapman, Miller and Betances to convert those wins, however, the rest of the team needs to give them leads. Thus far, the Yankees’ starting rotation has posted a 4.48 ERA, which ranks 18th in the majors. The offense, meanwhile, has scored just 3.48 runs per game, besting just two other AL teams (interestingly, the Royals, who just lost Mike Moustakas to a fractured thumb, are one of those two). Leads have not been terribly plentiful for New York, and Chapman’s return will not help on that front.
As for whether or not Chapman deserves to be handed the closer job when Miller has been perfect in that spot thus far—he's converted all six save chances and hasn't allowed a run—and was dominant in the role last year, as well: It may be a moot point. Miller and Chapman, both lefties, are equally qualified to close, and both are similarly dominant. If the Yankees don’t pull out of their early doldrums in the next month or two, however, Miller, who is signed through 2018, could easily be back to closing by August if New York trades Chapman, who will be eligible for free agency after the season. With that in mind, allowing Chapman to close may stoke his trade value come July. Miller has been very easygoing about his role since signing with the Yankees after the 2014 season, so there’s really no good reason not to let Chapman close in the hope of cashing him in at the deadline. That may not be particularly fair to Miller, who has earned the right to keep the job, but the way the Yankees’ season is shaping up, it may only be 2 1/2 months before Chapman is closing for another team and the job is Miller’s again.