Yankees at the break: The bullpen • 07.12.11
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
Unable to address their rotation needs, the Yankees have instead built what should be one of the better bullpens in baseball. Of their three major league additions this offseason, two have been relievers. They’ve also locked up two more years with the game’s greatest closer.
In the big leagues
Whether you like the Rafael Soriano deal or not, it clearly gives the Yankees one of the deepest bullpens in baseball. They have two legitimate closers, the Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera, and the new guy Soriano, who could step in should Rivera actually begin to show his age. Joba Chamberlain and Dave Robertson give the Yankees two young right-handers, while Pedro Feliciano and Boone Logan give them two legitimate lefties. As long as everyone stays healthy, the last spot in the bullpen will likely go to a long reliever, probably Sergio Mitre as long as he’s not needed in the rotation. The wild card here is Mark Prior, the former elite young starter trying to make his way back to the big leagues after a series of injuries.
On the verge
The Yankees have proven that a pitcher on the verge of helping the big league bullpen doesn’t necessarily have to pitch out of a minor league bullpen. There’s a solid chance at least one of the minor league starters will play some sort of bullpen role this season. Just last year, Ivan Nova made his first big league appearance out of the pen. There has always been some outside-the-organization talk of Andrew Brackman’s potential as a reliever. The same could be said for Graham Stoneburner and Shaeffer Hall, each of whom is expected to be in the Double-A rotation this year. For now, though, all of those pitchers will continue to develop as starters. The Yankees will keep them there until development or need forces a change.
Of the young pitchers actually expected to pitch as minor league relievers this season, right-hander Ryan Pope, lefty Steve Garrison and newly acquired Brian Schlitter are the only ones on the 40-man. Early call-ups will be wide open now that Mark Melancon and Jonathan Albaladejo are out of the organization, and those three would certainly be the easiest to move to New York. Assuming they open the season in Scranton, minor league signees Prior and Neal Cotts could also be in the call-up mix. It might be a long shot, but if Brian Anderson, a converted outfielder, can continue to make strides as a pitcher, he could build some level of prospect buzz as a potential major league reliever. He throws pretty hard and had some short-term success last season despite having not pitched in years.
Deep in the system
The top low-level pitching prospects usually develop as starters — regardless of long-term plans — but the Yankees actually have some notable young pitchers already working as relievers in the lowest levels. The stats that stand out come from three college kids taken in last year’s draft.
Tommy Kahnle was the Yankees fifth-round pick — the highest pitcher they took in the draft — and he allowed just three hits while striking out 25 through 16 innings in Staten Island. Chris Whitley (15th round) allowed a .157 opponents batting average and had 44 strikeouts in Staten Island before finishing the season with High-A Tampa. Preston Claiborne (17th round) also skipped straight to Tampa after a 1.18 WHIP with 30 strikeouts in Staten Island. All three could skip Charleston completely to open in Tampa this season, probably depending on how they do in spring training. The wild card here might be Conor Mullee, a 2010 draftee who moved from shortstop to the mound and put up good numbers in the Gulf Coast League.
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, Dave Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Pedro Feliciano, Boone Logan, Sergio Mitre
Scranton/WB: Ryan Pope, Brian Schlitter, Mark Prior, Brian Anderson, Eric Wordekemper, Neal Cotts, Andy Sisco
Trenton: Craig Heyer, Pat Venditte, Adam Olbrychowski, Josh Schmidt, Noel Castillo, Steve Garrison, Wilkins Arias
Tampa: Tommy Kahnle, Scottie Allen, Benjamin Watkins, Ryan Flannery, Francisco Gil, Ronny Marte, Ryan Acosta
Charleston: Preston Claiborne, Chris Whitley, Conor Mullee, Danny Burawa, Kramer Sneed, Manny Barreda, Juan Marcado, Brett Gerritse
If things go to plan, the Yankees seem to have no room for either of their Rule 5 draft picks, Daniel Turpen or Robert Fish. Things also don’t look good for Romulo Sanchez, the hard-throwing right-hander who’s out of options but could make a run at beating Mitre for the long-reliever spot.
In the minor leagues, George Kontos will surely fit somewhere — probably in Scranton — if he doesn’t stick as a Rule 5 pick with the Padres. There are always more relievers than there are spots heading into spring training, and guys like Buddy Carlyle, Kevin Whelan, J.B. Cox and Phil Bartleski should also be in the running for relief spots in Double-A and Triple-A.
Figuring out lower-level bullpens is tricky to say the least. A lot of my predictions are only mildly educated guesses. Some of those assignments will ultimately be determined by spring training performance. Right now, it’s hard to know which of the 2010 college draftees will skip Charleston to open in Tampa and which of the high school draftees will be ready for a full-season assignment instead of a trip to extended spring training. It’s also hard to know what the plans are for new addition Scottie Allen — who came over in the Juan Miranda trade and has worked as both a starter and a reliever — and it’s hard to know what the Yankees will do with young guys coming back from injuries (Manny Barreda, Caleb Cotham, Gavin Brooks, Brandon Braboy, etc.).
Associated Press photo of Rivera, headshots of Robertson, Pope and Claiborne