Yankees have 3 lowkey bullpen arms gearing up for big roles in 2023

matt blake, New York Yankees

The Yankees‘ pitching staff is loaded with homegrown studs and some of the best pitchers you can find on the trade or free-agent market. Matt Blake and Sam Briend have taken the pitching development to a whole new level since taking over in 2020, with the Yankees becoming a factory for high-octane pitching talent. While they traded a lot of their best pitching prospects at the 2022 trade deadline, the pitchers they’ve retained still boast remarkable talent. It’s part of why the Yankees have the 3rd best ERA- behind the Dodgers and Astros, and Matt Blake recently discussed potential arms that could make an impact in 2023.

These three arms have had big years with in MiLB over the past two seasons, but carving out a role with the Yankees won’t be easy. These three boast elite stuff that the Yankees have shown to value heavily under Blake and Briend, and for one reason or another, they deserve to get a crack at the Big League roster.

Groundball Specialist: Matt Krook

Matt Krook had a shaky campaign with the Scranton RailRiders, posting a 4.09 ERA mostly as a starter, though the Yankees could see him take off as a full-time reliever. He struggles with command, as since joining the organization in 2021, he’s had a 12.7% BB%, but his high strikeout numbers and great groundball rates are very promising. He’s routinely rank GB% numbers in the 55-60% range, which is some of the best marks across the Minor Leagues. 2022 was really his first time dealing with issues giving up HRs, but it seems that’s something we can write off as a blip in the radar.

His super sweeper is his money pitch, generating a whopping 14.5″ of horizontal sweep and a 126 Stuff+. With a strong sinker as well, his profile fits the Yankees’ philosophy of elite movement and inducing groundballs. While being 28 years old in AAA is concerning for some, modern-day pitching development seems to care less and less about what age you break into the Major Leagues at and more-so about the projectability of your stuff. Projections adore Krook, pegging him for a 3.73 ERA and 50.6% GB% in 27 IP, which would be of great use to the Yankees as they look to repeat as AL East champions.

His pitch movement is wicked, and that makes him a candidate to perhaps get some looks at the Major League level with a strong Spring Training and improving production as a reliever instead of a starter. We could see bumps to his velocity as he increases individual pitch intensity in smaller workloads, as you typically see fastball velocity increase by ~1 MPH in those transitions. Unlike the other two options on this list, it’s almost a forgone conclusion he’ll have to settle for a bullpen role, but he’s also probably the closest to the MLB level.

Sleeper Prospect: Jhony Brito

While Jhony Brito doesn’t possess elite strikeout numbers, he’s consistently performed well at every level he’s pitched well at every level. Brito possesses an absolutely filthy changeup that he features heavily, and this could explain why batters ran such a low BABIP against Brito despite generating lots of contact against the 24-year-old RHP. Changeups tend to run low BABIPs, with batters registering just a .256 BABIP on the pitch in 2022. This can allow Brito to overperform his FIP (3.91) and run really low ERA numbers like he did last season with a 2.96 ERA.

Brito also generates strong velocity on his fastballs, as we saw him sit at ~95 MPH on his sinker and four-seam fastball in his Spring Training outing with the Yankees on April 5th. Scouts have also reported that he’s hit upwards of 98 MPH on his fastball, and while they aren’t elite in their pitch shape, they definitely are strong groundball inducers. He had a near 50% GB% in 2022, and while he only struck out 20% of the batters he faced, perhaps in a bullpen role where he can lean on his changeup more, we could see more success.

Jhony Brito is currently pitching in the Winter League in his native Dominican Republic, where he’s been a reliever. The Yankees could look to move him to the bullpen, but they can also keep him getting SP reps with the Triple-A team to back up any of their starters on the roster in case of injury. Clarke Schmidt and Domingo German are ahead of him on the depth chart, but even they’ve suffered injury issues over the years. Brito rarely gets discussed when discussing pitchers in the farm system, but his consistency in run prevention and strong changeup can’t be overlooked.

Both Brito and Krook have made trips to Triple-A already, but what about the youngest pitcher mentioned on the list who’s set to make their Triple-A debut in 2023?

Video Game Movement: Randy Vasquez

Randy Vasquez throws curveballs that make you wonder whether you saw a real pitch or someone pulling a string on a baseball. With over 3,000 RPMs of spin on his sweeping breaking ball, he’s one of the most exciting young arms in the farm system. He averages over 10″ of horizontal sweep on his curveball, making it a hybrid between a sweeping slider and a sharp curveball. Vasquez also throws a mid-90s fastball that has more sink/tail than the typical riding four-seam fastballs we see. He’s someone who could highly benefit from making his curveball his primary pitch, as it moves in a way that doesn’t seem physically possible on the surface.

FanGraphs views Vasquez’s curveball as a 70-grade pitch, and it’s one that makes him a highly intriguing pitcher for 2023. He performed well in his first full season at Double-A, as while his K% dropped to just 24.2%, he maintained a GB% of 48.3% and an ERA of 3.90. The big adjustment Vasquez has to make in 2023 is leaning on his breaking stuff more, as being a fastball-primary guy with below-average shape on your fastball is not a great game plan. It’s a strong groundball pitch, but it won’t induce many whiffs, and that could severely limit his ceiling.

We could also see an increase in velocity in a bullpen role which would help his fastball performance, as we discussed with Matt Krook. Breaking ball velocity also increases alongside fastball velocity, and that plays a huge role in limiting the wOBA batters can put up against the pitch. The Yankees have a really talented arm in Vasquez, who looks to stay a starting pitcher and has the highest upside in the group as an SP. Both Frankie Montas and Luis Severino are free agents after 2023, so he’s looking to give them a reason to avoid feeling obliged to retain both of them.

Randy Vasquez doesn’t project well for 2023, and I imagine he’s the farthest away from getting MLB looks out of the three. He’s in contention for best pitching prospect in the system, but it’s a matter of continuing to add mileage to his fastball and sharpening his command as he rounds out his profile. He’ll most likely start out at Triple-A in 2023, where we’ll see if he can be the high-strikeout arm he was in 2021. The pitch movement and raw stuff is there, it now comes down to pitch execution and optimizing his usage of said pitches.

Finding Roles For Young Pitching Talent on the Yankees

All three of these arms are not completely polished, and the internal pitching depth is definitely not at the same level as it was entering 2021. They’ll look to player development to help better arms that border on being in the limbo between better than Triple-A but not quite MLB-ready. We’ve reached a pivotal point in the development of these three players, who were all intentionally protected from the Rule 5 Draft by the Yankees. There’s a reason they rostered them, and it tells you they really like these pitchers. They could have traded them or just left them unprotected, but they felt as if these arms would generate buzz from other teams.

matt krook, yankees
Mar 22, 2022; Dunedin, Florida, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Matt Krook (77) throws a pitch in the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during spring training at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

With the Yankees having 5 star-caliber pitchers in their rotation, there won’t be any competition for the 5th spot in the Yankees’ rotation, barring any injuries. It also seems like only one bullpen spot will be up for grabs, though Domingo German doesn’t have any options, and seems like he’ll default into that 8th and final spot. The Yankees can still move arms in the trade market, but it seems like these three will have to settle for proving themselves as spot starters, injury call-ups, or depth with the Triple-A team. It’s a good problem to have, but they have plenty of talent to leapfrog.

2023 is exciting for those who have followed the Yankees’ farm system over the last few years as the Yankees prepare themselves for a youth movement. Already, big spenders, it’s time for the Yankees to flex their muscle as a developmental organization and put themselves in the same tier as organizations like the Astros and Dodgers. They’ve got the talent to do it, now they just have to let the kids play.