The Yankees sign 29-year-old right-hander to MiLB deal, bolster bullpen depth

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Boston Red Sox
Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

While the news surrounding Yoshinobu Yamamoto is taking up all the headlines for the Yankees, they’ve still surfed through the market for depth arms. Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees signed RHP Duane Underwood Jr. to a Minor League deal, which also comes with an invite to Spring Training. He struggled to the tune of a 5.18 ERA this past season, but the Yankees could look to tweak some aspects of his arsenal and get a little more out of his arsenal.

A sinkerballer with a strong changeup, he also possesses some of the traits that the Yankees desire, as they look to bolster a bullpen that’s taken a massive hit in recent weeks.

Yankees Take Cheap Flyer on Struggling Reliever

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Seattle Mariners
May 26, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Duane Underwood Jr. (56) shakes hands with catcher Austin Hedges (18) following an 11-6 victory against the Seattle Mariners. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Duane Underwood Jr. is a reliever who hasn’t found much big-league success, with his lowest ERA coming in 2021 (4.33) and while the Yankees have a strong track record of developing relievers, this is more of a flyer. Immediately what jumps off the page is the drastic splits against right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters, as Underwood has a .687 OPS allowed in his career against righties, but a .868 OPS against lefties. The cutter should be a pitch that works well to lefties, as over the past two seasons it’s not only sported a 108 Stuff+, but it’s also held hitters to a .238 wOBA.

The Yankees could have Underwood place a heavier emphasis on this cutter against lefties, as he throws five different pitches, but not many of them are plus offerings. Something the Yankees have done historically well is simplify the pitch mixes for relievers who have one or two plus pitches, but throw four or five pitches that decrease the overall quality of their arsenal. His curveball has also been a plus pitch for him in terms of Stuff+ (111), and while the sinker didn’t do very well this past year, it’s hard to imagine a pitcher who has done well against righties would need to ditch a pitch that historically has had success in those situations.

Duane Underwood Jr. spent the last three years of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates after spending 2018-2020 with the Cubs, and the Yankees are the third organization he’s been with during his professional career. As the Yankees look to rebuild their bullpen following the trades of both Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez, it’s important to take flyers as well and see who sticks. In recent years, arms like Ian Hamilton, Lucas Luetge, and Nick Ramirez have all provided success for the team as MiLB free agents who were pressed into action due to injury and ended up carving out big-time roles.

While not every flyer pans out, the Yankees know that their success rate with these kinds of players merits bringing in surplus depth, especially given the spike in injuries for pitchers in recent seasons. A change of scenery could do Underwood well, as Matt Blake and Sam Briend are two of the most well-regarded pitching minds in the industry, and the Yankees have sported the fifth-best ERA (3.75) in baseball since hiring them ahead of the 2020 season. Velocity will be a key thing for Underwood to re-discover, as his sinker went from averaging 95.3 MPH in 2022 to just 93.6 MPH in 2023.

If he can have a healthy offseason, there’s a chance the Yankees find something in his profile that they can develop and churn out another low-cost reliever.