Anyone who follows the game knows how the Yankee bullpen ends: Mariano Rivera. Never before, in the more than hundred year history of the game, has there been a player who inspires such unabashed confidence that he will get the job done as Mo. When we hear “Enter Sandman,” it’s as close to a “foregone conclusion” as you get in baseball.
The guys in the Yankee bullpen who get the ball to Rivera have changed over the years, although the bullpen put together for 2011 by Brian Cashman and employed to maximum efficiency by Joe Girardi was one of the finest in memory. Despite the pen losing to injury some of the more pricey stalwarts such as Damaso Marte (remember him?), Pedro Feliciano (yet to throw a pitch in pinstripes) and Joba Chamberlain (more on him in a moment, but I’m sure you’ve heard the bad news already) the 2011 bullpen pitched to an AL best ERA.
Home-grown arms like David Robertson, who really came into his own last season, and Boone Logan along with the scrap-heap supplements like Cory Wade and Luis Ayala (gone to Baltimore this year) helped turn the 2011 Yankee bullpen into a strength despite being called in for more innings than expected of most ‘pens (I won’t mention the guilty party here as I gave up taking shots at AJ Burnett for Lent).
The 2012 Yankee bullpen had very few question marks heading into the spring. There has long been discussion about the addition of a second lefty to the crew. While there is much speculation about that very thing, the Yanks had but Boone Logan throwing from the southpaw side last season and it could not be considered a weakness. The need for a second lefty is debatable; in back to back Grapefruit League broadcasts this week, Ken Singleton called a second lefty a “luxury” one day and something “you always like to have” the next. Personally, I think Cashman and Girardi tab whoever is the best arm for the last spot in the bullpen.
That spot in question is really one of the few yet to be answered in the last two weeks before the team breaks camp. Should the Yanks go with a second lefty, two pitchers have distinguished themselves enough to warrant making the team. The more-seasoned Clay Rapada, slings it up there and looks pretty tough against left-handed batters: I saw him strike out Luke Scott and Carlos Pena of the Ray back to back this week. Cesar Cabral is the other lefty opening eyes for the Yanks down in Tampa; in that same game against the division rivals, he K’d six in two innings. Adding intrigue to the decisions facing the Yankee brain-trust is that both pitchers should they not make the big club will most assuredly not clear waivers; if they don’t come north with the Yankees, they more than likely will do with some other club.
Cory Wade, while not having the best spring is the most likely to be the Yankees long man, but he does face the challenge for that spot from both the aforementioned lefties as well as the potential “loser” in the battle for the starting rotation. While Girardi has said he may not make a discussion until possibly the starters’ sixth time out, Phil Hughes (who has proven he can pitch very effectively out of the pen) looks like a lock for the rotation with how well he’s pitched this spring.
If Ivan Nova doesn’t make the rotation now, he is most likely destined for AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and not the pen. Unlike, Rapada and Cabral, the Yankees still do have minor league options on the young right-hander despite proving himself posting a 16-4 record last year. I just don’t see Michael Pineda being in the bullpen or in the minors after trading our No. 1 prospect, Jesus Montero, for him this winter.
This leaves Freddy Garcia, who was the only Yankee I didn’t hear gushing over the fact that Andy Pettitte should be back in the rotation come May. As there are only 2 scheduled days off in April, the 5th starter is going to get some chances to prove his worth and stick. Garcia, if he accepts it, could really be a boon in the pen. I see him very capable of filling a similar job description that Ramiro Mendoza and Alfredo Aceves have in the past: a guy who can spot-start, be a long-man or even the mop-up guy. Will he be ecstatic over the possibility? I’d think not, but the Yankee teams of the last few decades have been built on that “team first” ideal. You want that ring you shut up and do whatever the job asked of you.
But alas, all is not as simple and clean as that. Injuries, the wild card of spring training, have taken their toll on the Yankee bullpen. Roberston, who is being counted on as the 8th inning guy, injured himself early in training and hasn’t been on the mound for some time calling into question his readiness for Opening Day. Hurting yourself kicking some empty boxes would seem like the bone-head play of the spring, had it not been for this week’s really bad news (I’m getting to it). But by all reports, Robbie and his bone bruise should be ready to go; the Yankees are traditionally cautious with nagging injuries, oft the price of a more veteran team.
Rafael Soriano, despite never quite looking like he wants to be on the mound, is a proven back-end of the bullpen guy and as a former (and possibly future) closer, he is up to the task should Robertson need a little more time.
This brings us to Joba Chamberlain. And what do you say? He should have kept his excitement to tweeting overly enthusiastically about the NY Rangers and stayed out of the kid’s playground? Recovering from Tommy John ahead of most time-tables and expectations, and really being counted on to take his place in the 7th inning, Joba severely injured himself this week. His season is done before it got started; in fact his career may be in jeopardy after an open dislocation of his ankle (that means the bone came through the skin; he lost so much blood his life was considered in jeopardy, too) while playing with his son, Karter (I blame Roger Clemens for these pitchers’ kids names starting with “K”) on a trampoline. Prayers go out to Joba as he faces another long road of recovery. One thing is known: we won’t be seeing him in the Yankee bullpen in 2012.
The only “winner” in this debacle is David Aardsma, who outside of being the first guy in the Baseball Almanac is the most likely to take Joba’s job. Recovering from surgery, the Yanks took a flier on him ($500K plus incentives for 2012 with a club option for next season) although he probably won’t be available until after this year’s all-star break; his recovery about a month behind Joba’s Tommy John surgery. But, in Aardsma, should he return to form, we’re talking about a guy who had nearly 70 saves 2009-2010.
I can’t close my thoughts on the 2012 New York Yankee bullpen without a few more words on the greatest closer the game will ever see. Mariano Rivera has said that he has made up his mind regarding his eventual retirement. And while I believe him to be a man of his word, the return of Andy Pettitte can only make more real the feeling of leaving too soon as opposed to too late. Mo is still Mo and seeing him throw nothing but more scoreless innings this spring (like most springs, summers and falls) has done nothing to indicate that his skills are eroding. But we don’t have to worry about who “replaces” Mo in 2012. This season the Yankee bullpen, as it has since 1997, will be anchored by Mariano Rivera and with him there, that makes the pen one of the best in the game again this year.