This was supposed to be the Yankees obvious strength, instead they’ve spent the season plugging holes and moving Dave Robertson into later and later innings. At this rate, he’ll be their designated 10th-inning reliever by mid-August. The Yankees bullpen has held it together despite a series of injuries and a few disappointments.
The problems started when Pedro Feliciano couldn’t break camp. Pretty soon Phil Hughes was hurt, which forced Bartolo Colon out of the bullpen and into the rotation. Then Rafael Soriano went on the disabled list. Then Joba Chamberlain needed Tommy John. If not for Robertson’s all-star performance, the Yankees bullpen would be a mess. Given the situation, though, it’s been pretty good. CoryWade’s been a nice pickup, Luis Ayala has given the Yankees more than they could have expected, Hector Noesi has filled in from minor league system and Boone Logan has finally had some success after a brutal beginning. All things considered, the situation could be much worse.
At this point, Damaso Marte actually seems closer to a return than Feliciano, but the guy the Yankees really need to get back is Soriano. He would give the bullpen some of the late-inning depth that made it so imposing when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. Logan’s shown some recent signs of getting himself straightened out, and that could also be huge in the second half (he was certainly crucial in the second half last season). Every year, relievers are among the most discussed trade possibilities, but it’s worth remembering that last year’s bullpen addition – Kerry Wood – had ugly numbers and was coming back from an injury when the Yankees acquired him. You just never know who might make the difference in a bullpen.
The Yankees have already seen a long line of long relievers up from Triple-A. At this point, George Kontos might have moved to the top of the pecking order. Temporarily lost in the Rule 5 draft this offseason, Kontos has been outstanding with a 2.26 ERA and 59 strikeouts for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Back from Tommy John surgery, he seems to have regained a lot of his prospect status. The Yankees also have right-hander Kevin Whelan and veteran lefty Randy Flores putting up good Triple-A numbers. And don’t forget the name Tim Norton. He was terrific before a shoulder injury, and Donnie Collins has reported that he could be back soon.
Beyond the relievers on the verge of the big leagues, the Yankees have had great success with some of the college relievers that they drafted last year. Chase Whitley has already pitched his way to Double-A, Preston Claiborne has a 1.17 ERA and 24 strikeouts in his past 10 outings at High-A, and Tommy Kahnle has a 68 strikeouts and a .194 opponents batting average in Low-A. Ryan Flannery, a 47th-rounder in 2008, has 13 saves and has allowed a total of two walks out of the Tampa bullpen (and this is the second year in a row he’s shown outstanding control). Everyone’s favorite switch pitcher, Pat Venditte, has pitched pretty well in Trenton after a miserable first month.
Is there a new version of Hughes or Chamberlain waiting in the system?
In the past, the Yankees had great success moving Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain out of the Triple-A rotation and into a big league setup role. Could they try a similar trick this season? The Triple-A rotation has been impressive, and guys like Adam Warren and David Phelps have fastballs that might translate to late-inning success. Ivan Nova, too.
The Yankees have Mariano Rivera under contract for one more year, so they don’t have to find his replacement just yet. Soriano can opt out after this season, but surely that’s not going to happen after an injury. Robertson is just now eligible for arbitration, so he’ll still be incredibly cheap. Those are three pretty important pieces coming back next year, and the Yankees should get Chamberlain back at some point next season. There are pieces already in place for next year and beyond. What’s left is for the Yankees to sort through their upper-level pitching depth to decide who can help their rotation, and who’s better suited for a bullpen role in the near future.
Associated Press photos of Rivera and Robertson, headshots of Kontos, Claiborne and Chamberlain