If Not D-Rob For Closer Next Year, Then Who?

Grant Balfour

With the GM meetings now in the rearview, there’s an even busier Yankee offseason to-do list in place.  They need multiple starting pitchers, they still need to re-sign Robinson Cano, they’re looking to upgrade at right field, catcher, shortstop, third base, and possibly DH, and they may be in the market for a new closer.  Despite being the apparent in-house favorite after Mo’s retirement, Cash stated pretty definitively last week that the Yankees had not designated David Robertson as next year’s closer and that they were looking for a more “proven” option on the free agent market.

Putting aside the comments questioning D-Rob’s capability of closing and the motivation for making them, there is some sound logic to this plan.  The Yankees are missing 60+ elite-level relief innings from their bullpen with Mo out of the picture and those innings aren’t easily absorbed by just signing a rehabbing David Aardsma-type off the FA scrap heap or calling up Mark Montgomery and calling it a day.  The Yankees do need another arm at the back end of their bullpen, and if nothing else, going after a proven closer covers them for the 8th and 9th innings again.  So if it’s not going to be D-Rob trotting out to start the bottom of the 9th next season, who else could it be?

Joe Nathan

The new active saves leader with Mo retired, Nathan is the biggest name on the relief pitcher market and they don’t get more proven than him.  He’s been closing games since 2004 and he was a bullpen workhorse up until the elbow injury and Tommy John Surgery that sidelined him in 2010.  Now at age 38 (he turns 39 this Friday), Nathan isn’t quite the horse he used to be but he’s still plenty good.  He recorded 43 saves in 46 chances in 2013 and struck out 73 batters in 64.1 IP.  His 1.39 ERA was his lowest since 2008 and his 2.26 FIP his lowest since ’06.  He doesn’t have the best history in Yankee Stadium though, and the major decrease in his GB rate is a bit of a concern.  As the premiere closer on the market with a long track record of success, he’s going to command big money and at least 2 years.  All 4 of those factors could be enough to steer the Yankees away, but Andy McCullough reported on Friday that the team has had contact with him already.

Grant Balfour

He doesn’t have the flashy career numbers that Nathan does or the long history of closing success, but Balfour is about as close to a poor man’s Nathan as you can get.  He saved 38 games in 41 chances for the A’s in 2013 and like Nathan, he struck out his fair share of batters with his fastball/slider combo (72 K in 62.2 IP).  What Balfour doesn’t have is Nathan’s command.  He owns a 10.6% career BB rate and averages 3.94 BB/9.  Both those values ticked up in 2013 (11.1% and 3.88) after trending in the right direction from 2010-2012, and combined with his low GB rate there’s an obvious concern about how he’d translate to pitching in YS3.  Balfour’s tendency to put runners on and give up runs along with his short closing track record should keep his cost down, but he’s hardly a perfect fit.  That said, the Yankees have been connected to him as well and it would be kind of cool to get to keep hearing Metallica blaring through The Stadium when a closer came in.

Joel Hanrahan

Like Balfour, Hanrahan is relatively new to the closing role, although he’s been pretty good in it when he’s been healthy.  Hanrahan closed out 76 of a possible 84 save opportunities for the Pirates from 2011 to 2012 before being traded to Boston before this past season.  He struggled out of the gate as the Red Sox closer and was then shut down with a season-ending elbow injury.  Now rehabbing from TJS, Hanrahan could be another one of those “buy low and stash him” moves that the Yankees made with Aardsma and David Herndon.  I don’t believe he’s throwing off a mound yet and he probably won’t be ready to start the season, but if adding payroll to other parts of the roster forces the Yankees to cut down on their available bullpen budget, Hanrahan could be worth taking a flier on.

Joaquin Benoit/Jose Veras

I’m lumping these 2 together since they come from the same team.  Veras and Benoit finished 2013 as the 8th/9th inning combo for the Tigers and both hit the market looking to make closer money after spending some time handling the role for their respective teams earlier in the year.  Benoit, 36, was a longtime setup man, not unlike D-Rob, before finally getting a chance to close for the Tigers in 2013.  He was a bit of a wildcard earlier in his career but has been very good since spending a year with the Rays in 2010.  He’s more consistent than Veras and has better command.

Veras, 33, would be looking at a reunion of sorts if the Yankees signed him.  He broke into the Majors as a low-leverage part of the Yankee ‘pen in 2006 and pitched 57.2 innings of 4.19 FIP ball for them in ’08 before blowing up and getting traded to Cleveland for cash in ’09.  Since then he’s spent time with 5 other teams and reinvented himself as a pitcher, ditching the 4-seam fastball in favor of a sinker and incorporating a splitter more to his pitch mix.  He’s also improved the command of his curveball and turned it into a pretty nasty pitch when he’s locating it.  He’s not necessarily proven in the traditional sense, but coming off a career year in 2013 he could be an option to handle the 8th inning if the Yanks did decide to go with D-Rob as the closer.

There’s a few other names the Yankees could kick the tires on, but this represents the best of what the closer market has to offer.  There’s flaws and concerns with each of these guys, flaws and concerns that don’t make any of them clear cut favorites to beat out Robertson for the closer role next year.  But if the Yankees want to bring somebody in to compete for the job and provide some late-inning insurance for either the 8th or 9th innings, they’ll be hard pressed to beat this group.

(Photo courtesy of the AP)