Rolling the dice with David Robertson

Until today, there has been very little discussion of the impending free agency of David Robertson. Which seems strange considering that the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera has had a brilliant first go of it as the Yankees’ primary closer. To be frank, not a lot of discussion has occurred in my own household which features two diehard fans of the team. But then ESPN.com’s Buster Olney dropped this bomb in his daily Insider (requires subscription) column:

David Robertson hasn’t had any talks with the Yankees about a long-term deal even though he’s months from becoming a free agent, but it may be that the team’s strategy with him is fairly cut-and-dried. 

Robertson is a dominant reliever, with 63 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings and just 10 walks in his first season as the Yankees’ closer. He’s 29 years old. The Yankees could simply give him a qualifying offer of $15 million, which is easier for large-budget teams to do. If Robertson declines, as every other player given a qualifying offer has done, it’s possible that he could slide into that dead zone of free agency that swallowed up Kendrys Moralesand Stephen Drew last winter.

Dominant? I’d say. Dellin Bentances has gotten his share of attention (and rightly so), but Robertson has been the Yankees’ answer to Craig Kimbrel. When 43.6% of the batters you face walk sadly back to the dugout, yeah, that is dominant.

So why is Robertson being treated so much differently by the team than Mariano Rivera was for all those years? Olney paints a picture of an ambivalent Yankee brass not caring if Robertson simply takes or passes on qualifying offer. Robertson is that disposable?

Rob Neyer has been famous for calling relievers “fungible” and I get that to a degree. The Yankees’ bullpen has survived nicely after losing Rivera to retirement. So perhaps the thinking is that Betances could always step into those shoes or Shaun Kelley and everything would be fine. And maybe it would.

The bullpen is also a great place for the Yankees to introduce their young arms to the Majors. We have seen them do so with Hughes and Phelps being just the latest examples. But a deep and powerful bullpen has done much in propping up a deeply flawed team to contention status in 2014 and that is hard to underestimate.

Fangraphs.com ranks the Yankees’ bullpen as the most dominant in the game. The site assigns the value of the bullpen to 4.7 fWAR. Subtract four or five wins from the Yankees’ current record and you have a team fighting with the Red Sox for last place.

As much as the point is debatable, much of the Yankee dynasty was helped brought about by a strong bullpen that could make a game a seven inning affair. To be fair to the other side of the argument, Rivera’s co-cast of characters changed much over those years. It is possible to rebuild bullpens.

Basically, the options of the Yankees and David Roberson are: 1. The team offers him a qualifying offer and he declines, 2. The team gives him a qualifying offer and he accepts or, 3. The team and Robertson work out a multi-year agreement in the off-season.

Number one gives the team a chance to negotiate with Robertson but other teams can do so as well. With Number two, Robertson is only locked up for one more year and walks after that. Number three gets Robertson long-term but pays a high price for a one-inning pitcher and for his eventual decline phase.

Eric Karabell, ESPN.com’s fantasy expert mentioned today that he expects Robertson to be pitching for another team next year. That wasn’t comforting. But it is a definite possibility and part of this game of chance the Yankees seem to be playing with their closer.

If you look at David Robertson’s numbers, he has not only answered the bell as Rivera’s replacement, he is also having one of the best seasons of his career. His WHIP is at an all-time low, his strikeout to walk ratio at an all-time high. In fact, his strikeout to walk ratio has risen four straight seasons!

Robertson has a career FIP of 2.65, just below his career ERA of 2.72. He has a career Left On Base percentage of 80.8%. This compares to Rivera’s 80.5% for his career and 2.76 career FIP. Robertson also has post-season experience with only one really bad series (Texas, 2010) coloring a whole lot of great performances.

All this is to say that Robertson is an elite closer, a species whose importance is debated. But either way, Robertson is one of the best relievers in baseball. He has not lost anything off his fastball. His curve is sharper than ever and he is every bit worth tying up for at least five years.

Saying so, it is a bit disconcerting that the team has not made any overtures to him at all and seem willing to play Russian Roulette with him in the off-season. For a team with too few home-grown heroes that will lose its second icon in two years after 2014, it would seem Robertson would be valued higher on the priority list.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

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