Never underestimate the importance of the bullpen. The reason for the New York Yankees’ surprising success this year is in large part because of how well their relievers have pitched. After a rocky start to the season, the Yankees relief corps has the best bullpen in the majors, posting a 2.49 ERA and a FIP of 3.35 over the last 30 days.
Of course, no small amount of credit for the bullpen’s success goes to Mariano Rivera, who for the moment is perfect in save opportunities. The future Hall of Famer, as anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows, is retiring after this season and will leave a gaping hole at the end of the bullpen when he does. While you don’t replace the all-time saves leader, someone will need to be the Yankees closer in 2014. In light of how well the bullpen is performing, this season can be seen as an audition for many of the Yankees’ relievers.
David Robertson appears to be the natural choice as the heir to the Yankees closer throne. He has been an excellent setup man since 2010. However, last year when Mo went down in early May with a torn ACL that ended his season, it was the now-departed Rafael Soriano and not Robertson who ended up closing out the vast majority of games. One reason was that Soriano, who had spent his career as a closer, was signed to a ridiculously large contract. The other reason was that Robertson, who Joe Girardi had initially given the role, did not perform very well. He blew a couple of saves, which led to rumblings in the media about whether he had the right make-up to handle being a closer, let alone the Yankees closer. He did address the aftermath well, even going on Twitter to apologize to Yankees fans about his blown saves. Robertson ended up having just two saves last season, but he has been by far the most consistent reliever not named Rivera. My guess is the job will be his to lose.
Then there is troubled child Joba Chamberlain. A few seasons ago, he would have been the obvious choice, but he’s been inconsistent, injury-prone and petulant. Plus, he may have written his Yankees-career death sentence earlier this month. Chamberlain got nasty with Rivera after the closer politely told him to keep his voice down while Rivera was conducting an interview with a reporter in the dugout. Chamberlain, who had been yelling to family and friends in the stands, responded by threatening Rivera with “don’t ever shush me” and after the fact didn’t appear repentant for his boorish behavior. Joba’s contract is up at the end of the season. The Yankees will most likely part ways with the righty, and he’ll sign with another team that will think it can “fix him” so he can be a starter again. (See Coke, Phil, on how that will turn out.)
Boone Logan is an interesting option. More than a lefty specialist, Logan is capable of getting right-handers out, too. Last year, his splits versus lefties and righties were almost identical, with left-handers hitting .231 against him and right-handers averaging .238. This year the results thus far have been similar, if less impressive, with righties batting .281 and lefties .276, although both those numbers and his WHIP have been steadily decreasing. Logan’s contract is also up next year and the front office has mostly stayed away from giving relievers big money contracts. If the Yankees do keep Logan, it will be primarily as a specialist who can also get them through a few right-handed hitters.
The Yankees closer role could also go to a young gun. Dellin Betances was once one of the Yankees top pitching prospects. The big 25-year-old righty has not lived up to his promise as a starter so the Yankees recently put him in the bullpen. He fared well in his first two relief appearances at triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, allowing only one run in 4.1 innings and striking out four. GM Brian Cashman has said he hopes that as a reliever, Betances can amp up his velocity from 92-96 mph to 96-100 mph (he topped out at 97 in his two relief appearances). All closers are failed starters, including Rivera, so if Betances can find success in the bullpen he could be an intriguing choice as the Yankees closer. He just got called up to the big league club so we may soon see what Betances can or can’t do.
No matter who is coming out of the pen to slam the door on games in 2014, fans may be gripping their pillow tight after the Sandman rides off into the sunset.