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Yankees likely to turn to farm system to replace Thornton

Tyler Webb could be the next man up for a spot in the Yankees' bullpen.
Trenton Thunder/Facebook.com

The New York Yankees moved on from veteran left-handed relief pitcher Matt Thornton on Tuesday despite the 37-year-old achieving relative success in his first season with the team. Thornton was claimed off trade waivers by the Washington Nationals, and the Yankees elected to free themselves of his $3.5 million salary for next season rather than pull him off the market.

Though journeyman relief pitcher Rich Hill got the call from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to replace Thornton on the roster, it was successes of the club’s top left-handed relief pitching prospects which made cutting ties Thornton a reality. When speaking about the decision to allow Thornton to head to Washington, Yankees manager Joe Girardi cited the talent spread between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Trenton as one of the main reasons he felt comfortable letting a relief pitcher with a 2.55 ERA over 46 games this season leave town.

“As I think about it, we have a pretty young staff here when it comes to our starting rotation and multiple inning guys have been extremely important to us,” Girardi said. “[Thornton]’s thrown almost 25 innings for us this year, and he’s done a good job for us, but we felt that with the emergence of some of the young minor leaguers that we have in our system who are coming really fast, we decided to make the trade. It gives us flexibility for this year and next year moving forward.”

Of the talent down on the farm, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman revealed that 24-year-old Tyler Webb is probably the closest to the major leagues. A hard-throwing lefty who began his season in Tampa, Webb was named to the Eastern League All-Star team and has grown into an integral part of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre bullpen. If added to the big league pen, Webb could be an effective lefty specialist who could excel in the late innings.

Though likely not a candidate to make the roster this season, Cashman noted that he was quite impressed with what the team’s top draft pick, Jacob Lindgren, has done since signing in June. Lindgren, who was promoted to Double-A Trenton on Tuesday, has struck out 30 hitters in 13 1/3 innings pitched this season, logging a 0.68 ERA and .120 batting average against along the way. Lindgren has been fast-tracked through the Yankees farm system so far, and he seems likely to compete for a spot in the big league bullpen next spring.

James Pazos was third left-handed relief pitcher who Cashman spoke of as a potential member of the roster in the near future. A former 13th-round pick from the University of San Diego, Pazos first put himself on the map when he was selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League last season. He begain 2014 in Tampa, and has been lights out in 19 games since being promoted to Trenton, recording a 1.33 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 27 innings pitched.

Though Webb, Lindgren, and Pazos lack experience, Girardi did not believe it would be a major roadblock to success if they were to rise to the major league level this season.

“No, they don’t have the experience that a Matt Thornton has, but you could look at things a lot of different ways,” Girardi said. “David Robertson didn’t have the experience that Mariano Rivera did, and he’s done a very good job. Dellin Betances didn’t have the experience that Robertson had, and he’s done a great job for us. We feel that there’s a lot of options.”

Brian Cashman also tossed out another intriguing possibility when he refused to rule out the possibility of bringing up former top prospect Manny Banuelos when rosters expand in September despite the fact that he has never pitched regularly out of the bullpen.

Banuelos has split his season between Tampa and Trenton, and has spent most of the year limited to three innings per outing as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. However, the Yankees recently allowed Banuelos to pitch deeper into games, which has resulted in him rediscovering the dominance that first put him on the map.

During his past three starts, Banuelos has allowed just one earned run over 14 innings pitched, limiting hitters to just three hits and striking out 11 during that span. In talking with Banuelos during the team’s last homestand, the 23-year-old hinted that being limited to three innings may have affected his mentality when he took the mound.

“I’ve had a couple tough outings where I just got one or 2/3 innings, and then I have to wait five days until I pitch again,” Banuelos told me last week. “That’s kind of tough, so I’m pretty happy I’m finally pitching more than three innings.”

Which farmhand gets the opportunity to make an impact in New York later this season is still unknown, though Cashman appears to have made it clear that one or more will get the call in September. In years past, there would be no chance for Webb, Banuelos, or any other rookie pitcher to join the team and land in a significant role during a playoff hunt for the Yankees to save $4 million, but this is the new Yankees, where budgets finally mean younger players could earn a significant chance.