I’ve decided that I have been spoiled. Not by material goods but by the Yankees. Through numerous accolades and world championships, nothing has been more impressive than seeing one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Mariano Rivera. I don’t think there is anything Mariano Rivera can’t do? Think on it and let me know if there is something, within reason, he has yet to accomplish. However, I can’t help but think about the inevitable. The decline is coming, but when?
This is not a reactionary post to Opening Day. All relievers, especially closers, face a tough job. They have the pleasure of pitching one high pressure inning, all while hoping they can make the adjustments necessary for a successful outing against the first batter they’ll face. If you aren’t on, you aren’t on. And this is part of the reason why I worry. As Mo continues throwing, eventually he will be ineffective. His velocity will decrease. He will miss more spots. He won’t be able to throw back to back games. It’s science. His body is not as strong as it was when he was 24. But this is not to say that Mo won’t be effective this year, but maybe next year. What if I’m right? Clearly, I don’t want to be.
Bear with me through a story about when I went to a New York Giants game at FedEx Field in 2010. It wasn’t the best year for the Giants as they missed the playoffs and Tom Coughlin seemed to be under the hot seat. I approached a couple of Giants fans while waiting in line to grab a beverage. The gist of the conversation was this: The guys thought that Coughlin needed to go and I questioned why. They couldn’t give me a definitive reason or a solution other than to hire someone else. I always say if you have a problem with a current situation don’t complain about it; suggest an effective solution or shut up. So I won’t shut up, I’ll offer up a solution to a future problem. Because no matter what anyone tells you, the inevitable is coming. Father Time waits for no man.
Any pitcher who has great command and more than two pitches should excel in a closer role. If you trust Sergio Romo to throw 2+ innings, why don’t you trust him to get 3 outs in one inning? This is not to say that Sergio Romo is directly interchangeable with David Robertson or Mo. I’m saying that most closers are no different than set up guys. How are guys like David Robertson, Johnny Venters, Tyler Clippard, any different than former Yankee Kyle Farnsworth, Jim Johnson, or Brett Myers!? They aren’t. The latter are given the ball in the final inning as opposed to the one before.
Let’s say Mo pulls a Trevor Hoffman this year or next (if he stays around) and is abysmal. I’ll spare you with needless statistics for a problem we don’t have yet, but Robertson would be first in line followed by 33-year-old Rafael Soriano. This is pretty obvious and nothing ground breaking so I’ll throw up a name that I don’t think have been going around many circles: David Phelps. If he continues to show great command throughout this season, he’s got three pitches and there’s been a trend of life-long starters becoming closers for the Yankees that goes pretty well: Mo and Dave Righetti. Not too shabby. This is a stretch and I readily admit that. It’s better to have options at this point lest we do something idiotic and overpay for a closer…
Better pitchers than Phelps include Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Jose Campos but they are too valuable to be discarded to a closing role this early. What about Joba Chamberlain, you ask? Unless Joba can figure out how to stay healthy and return to 2008 form, he’s out of the mix. Phelps wasn’t supposed to make the roster this year but if he can continue to pitch well in his long relief role, then it may be worth another look as a late inning guy if and when we have to shuffle the bullpen around.
This is all speculative and we are still a year away from seeing what David Phelps is and what he can do at this level. Most importantly, Mo looks great anyway. I did find myself in a different mindset when Mo was on the mound on Opening Day though. Instead of thinking this save is automatic, my mindset has become a little more doubtful. I worry about Mo due to the fact that we’ve witnessed the decline of so many great players over the past few years and how much of a struggle it is to watch a player’s career end (see: Jorge Posada in 2011). I still appreciate Mo as much as the next guy, but I can’t help but look forward and try and figure out what life will be like without the best. There is a void, and that void will exist for quite some time. I can only hope that someone will fill it at least half as well as Mo did.