I can relate to today’s Pinch Hitter. It turns out, Derek Levandowski used to cover the Durham Bulls, and there’s really nothing like that random connection of having each covered the International League at some point. Derek grew up in upstate New York, but he now lives in North Carolina, works as the marketing coordinator for World Tavern Poker, and tweets under the handle @DereksCurveball. 
Derek wrote that he’s been a Yankees fan since the days of Spike Owen and Mel Hall, and for his post, Derek’s looking ahead to the task facing Dave Robertson: Replacing Mariano Rivera.
Right now the Yankees appear to have David Robertson penciled in as their closer for the 2014 season. This has a lot of baseball people torn, as Robertson is one of the better setup men in all of baseball, and it takes a special mentality to pitch in the ninth inning rather than the eighth.
Can Robertson do the job?
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you have heard that sort of question before — in the winter 1996-97. John Wetteland, fresh off of a 43-save season and a World Series MVP, was a free agent and it was his desire to come back to the Yankees for 1997 and beyond. The Yankees, however, had other plans, believing their 27-year-old setup man, Mariano Rivera, might actually make a pretty good closer.
There was a lot of concern among the Yankees brass and the Yankees fans that the ‘formula’ (Rivera for the seventh and eighth innings, Wetteland for the ninth) was too good to break up. Early on, it appeared those concerns may be legitimate as Rivera struggled in early 1997, surrendering two home runs in April after allowing only one in all of 1996. Fans might also remember that 1997 was the season that Rivera blew a crucial save to the Indians in the ALDS, lighting the fire for a trio of Yankees championships in 1998, 1999, and 2000.
Mo ended up being pretty good, though, when all was said and done.
Flash forward to 2014. Having stood atop the mound for four championships, Rivera is now a part of Yankee lore, and it’s time for someone to fill his unfillable shoes. For the time being, that man appears to be Robertson, a 28-year old from Birmingham, Alabama who has all of eight career saves (a mere 644 less than Mariano Rivera).
Robertson has been superb as a set-up man, posting a 1.91 ERA over the last three seasons. But is he ready to close?
Let’s assume that this time the Yankees won’t be as lucky as they were with Rivera, and that Robertson is, for whatever reason, unable to handle the closer’s role with the Yankees. Or, let’s assume the Yankees decide at some point over the next few weeks that Robertson would be better suited for the eighth inning. What are their potential fallback options?
Obviously free agency is still in progress and there are several free agent arms still out there: Fernando Rodney is 36 years old and coming off of solid 37-save seasons. Rodney had a 3.38 ERA, which is about 1.5 runs higher than Yankee fans are used to, which could lead to a tough adjustment.
Jonathan Papelbon is 33 and coming off of a decent season with the Phillies, and may be available via trade – but at what cost? Francisco Rodriguez has been around forever, but he’s just 32 and spent most of last season as a setup man, posting a 2.70 ERA.
Shawn Kelley : Kelley was lights-out against right-handed batters for most of 2013, and posted a very closer-esque 71 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings. However, he also posted a very shaky 4.39 ERA and allowed eight home runs.
Preston Claiborne: Claiborne arrived on the scene without much fanfare in 2013 but still put forth a solid rookie campaign, posting a 4.11 ERA in just over 50 innings. His strikeout rate was somewhat less than you would like to see for a late-inning reliever, at 7.5 per nine, but that could improve with experience. He also has very solid command, walking just 14 hitters along the way. Claiborne has also shown great poise for his age, as he will play at just 26 years old in 2014.
Dellin Betances: Despite a lack of Major League success, Betances seems the most ‘built’ for the closer role. A dominant minor league season after being transitioned from the starting rotation (108 strike outs in 84 innings, and a 2.68 ERA) could mean that Betances is ready to step into a major league bullpen, but he would likely need some seasoning before he could step into a closer’s role. There is no question about his stuff though, merely his command and intestinal fortitude.
Matt Thornton: The 6’6, 235 lb lefty features a very good fastball and was part of the 2013 Red Sox World Championship team, however the Yankees signed him to be their lefty out of the pen, not their closer, and it’s unlikely they would transition him from that role.
Outside Of The Box
Michael Pineda: Pineda was part of the now infamous Jesus Montero trade. Pineda suffered a torn labrum during the spring of 2012 and required surgery that kept him out until mid-way through the 2013 season. He has still yet to appear in a Major League game for the Yankees. However, now that the Yankees have signed Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka, if Pineda does not win the fifth spot in the rotation, he could be a great option for the closer’s role. His numbers at AAA were very respectable, a 3.86 ERA in 6 games (albeit as a starter), with 26 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings.
Reports were that Pineda was hitting 93-94 on the gun, and that should theoretically get even better as he is another year removed from shoulder surgery. At 6’7, 260 pounds, he would also bring an imposing presence to the mound.
At this time last year, who would have predicted that Edward Mujica and Koji Uehara would be closing for two teams headed to the World Series? Maybe the answer for the Yankees is Johan Santana or, if possible, someone even less likely. Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, it will not be Mariano Rivera.
Associated Press photos