Mo’s back, so all must be right in the world, right? Truth is, the Yankees bullpen has the potential for good and bad. There are quality arms that come with legitimate questions, most of them relating to injuries and the ability to bounce back. What the current group of relievers does not offer is much long-term stability. There’s a very good chance that, at this time next year, four of the Yankees top five relievers will have signed elsewhere or retired.
Falling in line
The potential here is pretty obvious. Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time. David Aardsma was a pretty good closer before his elbow injury. Joba Chamberlain is still just 27 years old and doesn’t have to be his 2007 self to still have a good fastball/slider combination. Boone Logan held lefties to a .231/.293/.372 slash line last season. Dave Robertson could very well be one of the five best setup men in the game.
If missing last season actually saved a few bullets in Rivera’s arm; if Chamberlain and Aardsma gets back to their old selves two years after Tommy John (which wouldn’t be out unprecedented); if Logan can get back to a normal workload focused on left-on-left matchups; and if Robertson can keep his walk rate where it was last season the Yankees will have a shutdown bullpen in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Add a long reliever (David Phelps, Ivan Nova, Adam Warren, whoever) and a situational reliever (probably Clay Rapada as an early-inning lefty specialist) and the Yankees bullpen could be an overall strength just like last season.
What would really make it a best-case scenario, though, would be the arrival of a few long-term options. Mark Montgomery, Chase Whitley and Francisco Rondon should be knocking on the door to the big leagues fairly early this season. Same for Preston Claiborne, Kelvin Perez and Cesar Cabral. That’s six young relievers who could work their way into the mix if opportunities present themselves. In fact, the best-case scenario involves some tough choices about sticking with what’s working vs. giving opportunities to young pitchers who are ready. If lower-level relievers like Branden Pinder, Tom Kahnle and Nick Goody also take significant steps — let’s call them Montgomery-sized steps — then the Yankees long-term bullpen concerns would be significantly eased.
A one-man show
Robertson has been pretty good for four years now, and he’s been at his best the past two years. Even his worst-case scenario — given reasonable parameters that don’t involve tripping down another step — is pretty solid. He’s the most dependable piece of this bullpen. It’s the pieces around him the Yankees have to worry about.
For years we’ve wondered how much longer Rivera can be his old self. Is this the year we get a definitive answer? Chamberlain was eratic in his return from the disabled list last season, and Aardsma hasn’t pitched enough for anyone to say how good he’ll be post-surgery. Logan made a ton of appearances last year, and might not be up for carrying such a heavy load this time. The proven backups are guys like Rapada, Jim Miller, Josh Spence and Cody Eppley — guys who were released or designated for assignment in the past year or so, and there’s usually a reason for that.
One other thing we’ve learned about relief pitchers: They’re notoriously unreliable. It’s a select few that are able to consistenty get results frosuch an inconsistent job. There are high hopes for Montgomery, but he’s made 15 appearances above A ball. Rondon has trouble with the strike zone, Whitley isn’t a typically overpowering relief prospect, Cabral is still working his way back from an injury, and Perez was never on the radar much until last season. A lot of the Yankees relief prospects seem to be fairly safe bets, but really, how many safe-bet relievers are there?
Associated Press photos