If there’s one word that fits as a theme for the 2013-2014 Yankee offseason, it’s turnover. Almost every part of the roster experienced significant turnover from last season. The infield has 2 new players at second and third base and a different starter at every position compared to Opening Day 2013. The outfield also features 2 new players in right and center, and the one holdover is changing positions again. 40% of the starting rotation will be new. The only part of the roster that hasn’t turned over much is the bench, and unfortunately for those guys they’re going to stand alone in that distinction as we wrap up this week-long review of the current roster state with the bullpen.
We knew the Yankees were going to experience a major change in the ‘pen in 2014 the minute Mariano Rivera announced that the 2013 season would be his last. When recent bullpen staples Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan followed him out the door in free agency, the anticipated change became even greater. Interestingly enough, the bullpen was the one area where the Yankees didn’t aggressively attempt to rebuild through free agency, instead picking and choosing a few under-the-radar names to compete with their cache of young, homegrown arms for the open spots in camp. Big names or small, young players or older, outside or internal, we’re going to see a lot of new faces jogging out from behind the outfield walls this year, and we’re also going to see the familiar ones in new roles.
Starting at the top and at one of the most unenviable positions in all of professional sports as Mo’s successor, we have returning relief ace David Robertson. D-Rob is and has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last 3 seasons and he’s finally getting a real shot at the job he’d probably already have if he pitched for almost any other MLB team. If you’ve paid attention to him since he came up, you’ve noticed how much he’s learned from Mo, from the smoother mechanics to the better command of his fastball on the corners to the development of the cutter as his primary pitch. If anybody is qualified to be Mo’s replacement, it’s D-Rob. He’s cool, he’s calm, he’s got filthy stuff, and he’s used to the pressure of pitching in New York. If the Yankees had any sense, they’d be talking extension with him right now.
The setup and middle relief roles are where the unfamiliarity and turnover starts to show up. Robertson’s 3 primary setup guys to open the season, at least according to what Joe has been saying, will be Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, and Preston Claiborne. They all come with their respective strengths, but also areas of concern related to their roles. Kelley’s another guy who can shut an inning down when he’s commanding, but when he’s not he’s a bit of an adventure and his flyball tendencies got him into trouble in The Stadium last year. He’s far from the sure thing that D-Rob was as the 8th inning setup guy. Thornton will take over Logan’s vacated LOOGY role and it’s one he’s well qualified to handle. His effectiveness against right-handed hitters, however, has been on the decline as he’s worked through his mid-30s, and Joe will have to be smart about how much he exposes Thornton to righties. Claiborne could very well be the next in line to follow D-Rob to a future closer role based on his solid 2013 debut. He also could have already peaked last year and could be in for a Joba-like disaster of a season in 2014. We won’t know for sure until we see him out there again.
If nothing else, the 3 primary middle relievers have MLB track records to speak of. Looking down to the bottom of the bullpen and those final 3 open spots, there aren’t too many guys competing who even have that. The highest upside for those roles would most likely be found in young players like Dellin Betances and Jose Ramirez. Their stuff can pass the Pepsi challenge with anybody else in camp. It’s their lack of command and experience that makes them lottery tickets, and they’ll need to show that they can be consistent to earn the coaching staff’s trust. More experienced guys like Matt Daley and Robert Coello could be good options for soaking up lower-leverage innings, as could David Herndon if he’s healthy. This is the part of the ‘pen where there’s usually the highest level of in-season turnover, so at the bare minimum the Yanks aren’t short on viable options.
To finish off with some familiarity, we come back to the long relief role, one that’s been a gateway to the Majors for top Yankee pitching prospects in each of the last 2 seasons. In 2012 it was David Phelps and in 2013 it was Adam Warren who handled the job, and both of them will be the top 2 candidates to get it again if they don’t end up winning the 5th starter competition. Phelps could also work his way into an important 1-inning role should any of the non-D-Rob players above get hurt or fail to cut the mustard. He worked shorter outings after coming off the DL late last season and he could get a little more giddy-up on his fastball if he only has to air it out for an inning or 2 at a time. Something to keep in mind.
There are a lot of things that still need to be figured out in the Yankee ‘pen this season. There are more questions than answers right now and I think it’s fair to say that the bullpen isn’t as sure a thing as it’s been entering the last few seasons. What it lacks in finished products, however, it makes up for in quality ingredients and as the season starts to play out I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised by what a few guys do. There’s a ton of swing-and-miss stuff in this group, guys who can dial the fastball up to the upper 90s and blow it by hitters and guys who can put a little extra spin on their offspeed pitches and make hitters look silly if they’re guessing wrong. Mid-season turnover is more common in the bullpen than anywhere else on the roster and there’s no shortage of bodies to plug into spots when and where they’re needed.
It might take a while for the quality of this group to catch up to the quantity it has right now, but when it does it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we’re talking about the Yankee ‘pen as one of the best in the business again by season’s end.
(Photo courtesy of the AP)