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Wide-open bullpen could be a constant transformation

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Mariano Rivera [2]

As you might suspect, I initially thought the idea of a 7-year-old blog Pinch Hitter was kind of adorable. Something cute and quirky if nothing else, a nice little sideshow during these final cold days of January. But here’s what struck me when I read Carter’s piece: I agreed with every bit of it.

Preston Claiborne [3]· Dave Robertson is about to be the Yankees closer? Yep.

· Right now, Shawn Kelley looks like the favorite for the eighth inning? Yep.

· Matt Thornton was learly brought on board as the new Boone Logan? Yep.

· Preston Claiborne has a leg up on the competition for the middle innings? Yep.

· David Phelps and Adam Warren will factor in if they’re not needed as starters? Yep.

Not that it’s all going to play out that way — plenty of things can and will change in spring training — but as the roster is currently constructed, with what we know of it today, Carter’s bullpen analysis makes perfect sense.

The Yankees have done nothing to push Robertson out of the ninth inning, and there’s no free agent out there who seems likely to change that between now and Opening Day. Last year’s strikeout rate makes Kelley a late-inning standout among the current relievers, and Thornton is clearly a reaction to the team’s need for an experienced lefty. If nothing else, Claiborne’s familiarity leaves him well-placed on Joe Girardi’s radar (he could certainly be overshadowed in the next two months, but right now he’s the guy Girardi knows and trusts the most). And both Phelps and Warren could have a real chance to play a role significantly more important than that of a mopup man.

So, yes, I agree with Carter. But here are five reasons both he and I could be totally wrong.

Dellin Betances [4]1. As Derek pointed out this morning, Robertson is no sure thing in the ninth. I happen to feel pretty confident that he’ll be fine in that role — I’ve known the guy for a long time, we’ve all seen him pitch out of unreal jams, and his personality just doesn’t strike me as one to be particularly rattled if/when he knows that ninth-inning job is his — but at the same time, we just don’t know. He’s earned the shot, and Robertson would be the first to say it’s now on him to do the job.

2. Kelley might the be late-inning standout at the moment, but one big year isn’t much of a track record. I keep thinking of guys like Andrew Bailey and Ryan Madson who have been very good late-inning relievers but need to get healthy. Madson is basically throwing a tryout bullpen in about a week. [5]Might the Yankees get positive reports and give him an incentive-heavy deal? If not, there are still a handful of other guys out there — Derek mentioned Fernando Rodney and Francisco Rodriguez — and I still wonder if their asking prices might reach a point that gets the Yankees involved.

3. The Yankees didn’t give Matt Thronton two years and $7 million without having the full expectation of using him in the big league bullpen. He’s clearly the go-to left-hander, and I suppose he could pitch his way into that eighth-inning mix (though he seems to be primarily a left-on-left guy at this point). That said, Cesar Cabral has a big arm, and Thornton is 37 years old with declining velocity. Could a guy like Francisco Rondon impress in big league camp? And what about Vidal Nuno as a kind of unusual choice from the left side?

4. Yes, Girardi is familiar with Claiborne. That means he’s familiar with the early part of Claiborne’s big league debut — when he literally wasn’t walking anyone and did a nice job of pitching his way into the mix — but it also means Girardi is familiar everything that came next, when Claiborne was legitimately knocked around in the second half of last season. Claiborne might have the early advantage of familiarity, but guys like Dellin Betances (who Carter mentioned), Mark Montgomery and Chase Whitley surely see some opportunity there. Same for that long list of veterans like David Herndon, Jim Miller and Matt Daley. Could one of them become this year’s Shawn Kelley and emerge out of relative obscurity? In this bullpen, the opportunity is certainly there.

5. Because they have big league bullpen experience — and because there seems to be a believe that Michael Pineda is the favorite for that fifth-starter job — Phelps and Warren are the easy choices for starter-turned-reliever options, and those guys don’t necessarily have to be limited to long relief. At various times, those two have looked like pretty good big league pitchers. But Jose Ramirez is also a long-time minor league with a nice arm that might profile well in the bullpen, and the Yankees loved what Shane Greene showed last year with his improved command.

With a bullpen this wide open, there might be some obvious names that stand out, but there’s also a lot of work to be done and a lot of decisions to be made. This bullpen remains a work in progress, and it might stay that way beyond spring training.

Associated Press photos