We’ll finally wrap up this state of the organization series by looking at the Yankees bullpen, a source of consistency through most of the 2013 season, now facing a series of questions and challenges heading into 2014. Losing Mariano Rivera is is the biggest blow to the bullpen, but it’s not the only one.
Dave Robertson (third year of arbitration)
Shawn Kelley (third year of arbitration)
Preston Claiborne (not yet arbitration eligible)
Says a lot about the current state of the bullpen that these are the three most-experienced relievers coming back next year: A long-time setup man, a better-than-expected spring addition, and a mid-season call-up who’s hardly a lock to make the big league roster out of spring training. Of course, long-relievers like David Phelps and Adam Warren have bullpen experience, but as far as full-time, typical relief pitchers, these three are the only returning Yankees relievers who had at least 10 relief appearances last season. That means a significant bit of turnover heading into 2014. Given the lack of late-inning experience, the Yankees could certainly be in the market for a free agent closer/setup option, but there’s still no doubt Robertson will be counted on in some significant capacity. Whether it’s back to the eighth inning or into the ninth inning, Robertson has emerged as the best from a series of Yankees relief prospects (Mark Melancon, J.B. Cox, even Joba Chamberlain). He’s going to take on a new level of significance and attention now that Mariano Rivera is gone. Behind Robertson, Kelley emerged as a go-to strikeout pitcher last year, and he should get a chance to play a similar role going forward. Claiborne might have a bit of a leg up, but he’ll still have to prove himself in spring training to beat out a series of on-the-verge alternatives.
This list is a long one, beginning with Dellin Betances (who’s out of options) and Cesar Cabral (who might be the top lefty specialist in the system). Both have big arms, and both took steps forward this year. Betances shined after a move to the Triple-A bullpen, and Cabral was effective in limited chances after a September call-up. Right now, those two have to be considered front runners (status that could change with a poor spring or a series of winter additions). But the Yankees young bullpen options certainly don’t end with Betances and Cabral. From 2009 to 2011, the Yankees drafted a series of college pitchers who have moved steadily — and in some cases, quickly — through the minor leagues. Claiborne got to the big leagues last year; Chase Whitley and Mark Montgomery spent the year in Triple-A; Danny Burawa and Tommy Kahnle had big strikeout totals in Double-A; Branden Pinder is a big guy with a big arm, and he was in big league camp last year. It’s often hard to predict which relievers will emerge and which will stall — Claiborne did not seem to be the on-the-verge option at this time last year — but the Yankees do have several to choose from. Most interesting of the bunch is probably Montgomery, who entered this season as the Yankees top relief prospect based on legitimately overwhelming numbers in Class-A and Double-A. He was generating Robertson comparisons, but he also struggled through shoulder and back issues (and disappointing numbers) in 2013. If he bounces back, he could emerge quickly.
In the past seven years — probably more than that, actually — no Yankees pitching prospect has made a bigger bullpen splash than Joba Chamberlain. Which is a reminder that it’s hard to pick out any team’s top bullpen prospect. Chamberlain was a starting pitcher in the minors, then he made his big league debut as a dominant bullpen arm. Phil Hughes had his first extended big league success as a reliever. Former Yankees rotation prospect Tyler Clippard has become a terrific setup man in Washington. It’s easy to look into the Yankees current minor league system and pick out a guy like Montgomery as a high-potential reliever — even after a bad season, there’s still significant hope for this guy — but guys like Jose Ramirez and Shane Greene can’t be overlooked here. Even low-level starters like Jose Campos and Rafael De Paula could, in theory, transition to the bullpen at some point and emerge as terrific relievers. Right now the Yankees have a handful of fringy relief prospects pitching in the Arizona Fall League, giving the Yankees a longer look, which matters in a role like this where surprises can emerge at any time.
STATE OF THE ORGANIZATION
Bullpens are quite often a mystery. The Yankees have been in the unusual position of having a remarkable force of stability for the better part of two decades, but now Rivera has retired and things have to change. What the Yankees have in abundance is a series of possibilities. Most of them are unproven and inexperienced — and that obviously brings its own series of issues — but there are a lot of them, and that’s not a bad thing when it comes to something as typically unreliable as the bullpen. Let there be no doubt, not all of the young relief possibilities will be up to the task, but if one or two can emerge, and Robertson can transition to the ninth inning, and one of the young rotation options can settle into the long relief job, the Yankees bullpen could be just fine next season. It’s just going to be very different and difficult to predict. As we saw with Claiborne this year, a young pitcher can come up and have significant success for a while, only to see it disappear in a flash. There could be a lot of trial and error in this bullpen, but the Red Sox and Cardinals proved that’s not a deal breaker in building a championship-caliber team.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Claiborne, Kelley, Betances, Cabral, Ramirez, Montgomery and Robertson