Yankees uncovering bullpen gems among non-roster underdogs

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On Valentine’s Day, when Yankees pitchers and catchers officially reported to spring training, Aaron Boone expressed optimism about the non-roster hurlers the team had brought in during the offseason. He envisioned one of them emerging as a surprise standout, similar to Ian Hamilton‘s breakout performance the year before.

Two weeks into Grapefruit League games, Boone’s expectations haven’t just been met, they’ve been surpassed. The new arms have impressed, exceeding initial projections and exceeding the success of the previous year’s spring training surprise, Ian Hamilton.

Aaron Boone isn’t the only one reminiscing about Ian Hamilton’s Cinderella story from last season. The Yankees’ spring training has been ignited by a wave of impressive performances from non-roster pitchers, mirroring Hamilton’s journey from minor-league free agent to big league contributor.

Leading the charge is Nick Burdi, a right-handed hurler who has captivated the Yankees with his overpowering arsenal. His performances have exceeded expectations, drawing effusive praise from Boone and sparking comparisons to Hamilton’s meteoric rise.

Another standout is Dennis Santana, a right-hander who inked a minor-league deal with the Yankees in the offseason. Santana has impressed with his own brand of pitching, solidifying his position as a potential bullpen asset for the upcoming season.

These two hurlers aren’t the only ones generating excitement. Duane Underwood Jr., another non-roster player, is also vying for a role in the bullpen. Additionally, three newcomers who recently secured spots on the 40-man roster – right-handers Cody Poteet and Cody Morris, and left-hander Clayton Andrews – are all in the mix for bullpen spots. The Yankees find themselves in a fortunate position, with a surplus of talented arms competing for a limited number of openings in the relief corps.

Boone stated before Thursday night’s 11-5 Yankees loss to the Tigers that he sensed many individuals were pushing themselves into consideration.

Yankees bullpen fights uncertainty

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X-@YankeesMuse

The Yankees bullpen faces an uncertain start to the season, with two potential voids looming due to injuries.

One spot is definitively vacant due to Scott Effross‘s December back surgery. He underwent Tommy John surgery in the fall of 2022 and is not expected to return until sometime this summer.

Adding to the team’s concerns, Tommy Kahnle‘s availability for Opening Day is also in question. While healthy now, the shoulder inflammation that sidelined him in September 2023 lingered into December, delaying the start of his offseason throwing program. This cautious approach by the Yankees means Kahnle might not be fully ready by the season opener.

However, there’s a glimmer of hope. Kahnle is scheduled to begin facing live hitters soon and is expected to see action in two Grapefruit League games before the Yankees travel to Houston for their March 28th season opener. These outings will be crucial in determining his readiness for the start of the regular season.

Boone contemplated whether they should postpone Kahnle’s season start and potentially open up another spot for the first 10 days or so of the season, stating that they would have to wait and see.

Kahnle’s delayed return creates opportunities for Burdi and Santana

With Tommy Kahnle’s return likely delayed due to his lingering shoulder issue, the Yankees bullpen finds itself with two potential openings. This situation creates an opportunity for some of the team’s impressive non-roster acquisitions to shine.

A strong contender for one of these spots is right-hander Nick Burdi. He has dazzled in his three spring appearances, tossing three scoreless innings. His overpowering arsenal, featuring a fastball that clocks in at 100 mph and a sharp slider, has been on full display. Burdi has struck out seven batters while walking only one, prompting effusive praise from manager Aaron Boone, who described his performance as having “tremendous stuff.”

Dennis Santana, another right-handed pitcher who signed a minor league deal with the Yankees in the offseason, is also making a strong case for a bullpen spot. In his three outings, he has been lights-out, surrendering just four hits without allowing a single run. His ability to control the zone has been impressive, as evidenced by his six strikeouts and zero walks.

Both Burdi and Santana have emerged as frontrunners to fill the vacancies left by injuries, showcasing their capabilities and potentially carving out roles for themselves in the Yankees’ bullpen come Opening Day.

Santana, Burdi impress Boone: A tale of two pitchers

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AP

Both Nick Burdi and Dennis Santana have impressed manager Aaron Boone during spring training, each offering a unique skillset for the Yankees’ bullpen.

Santana, a right-hander acquired in the offseason, has caught Boone’s eye from the get-go. He relies on a heavy arsenal featuring hard sinkers that consistently reach velocities between 94-97 mph. Complementing his fastball are sharp sliders and an improved cutter, giving him a diverse repertoire to keep hitters off balance.

Burdi, a 31-year-old right-hander, boasts a fastball that can touch 100 mph, evidenced by his 27 strikeouts in just 19 career major league appearances split between the Pittsburgh Pirates (2018-2020) and Chicago Cubs (2023). However, his raw talent has been hampered by injuries throughout his career. Since turning professional in 2014, he has primarily pitched in relief, but injuries limited him to exceeding 30 appearances in a single season just once. This includes a significant absence from June 2019 to May 2022 due to two arm surgeries, including Tommy John surgery.

Boone mentioned that for Burdi, the key is maintaining his health and making a successful comeback. He highlighted that this has been a persistent challenge throughout Burdi’s career. However, Boone acknowledged that despite this challenge, Burdi possesses exceptional pitching abilities.

Among the non-roster hurlers vying for a bullpen spot, 27-year-old Dennis Santana boasts the most big league experience. He’s seen action in 143 games across four seasons, pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers (2018-2021), Texas Rangers (2021-2022), and most recently the New York Mets (2023).

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Santana’s former teammate in Los Angeles, Tommy Kahnle, acknowledged his powerful arm with a chuckle, saying “Obviously, he does throw hard.”

Listed at 6-foot-2 and hailing from the Dominican Republic, Santana has compiled an 8-14 record with a 5.17 ERA over 149.2 innings pitched in his major league career. However, a silver lining emerged after his trade from the Dodgers to the Rangers in 2021. In 39 appearances with Texas, he displayed improved effectiveness, registering a more respectable 3.63 ERA. This suggests Santana might be able to replicate that success with the Yankees.

Boone is impressed by Dennis’ athletic talent and the mastering of the cutter pitch, which he had occasionally used the previous year. The Yankees manager specifically noted Dennis’s dedication to refining this pitch during the winter and its effectiveness in recent games, alongside Dennis’s overall impressive performance.

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