The New York Yankees bullpen will be vastly different in 2014. Since 1996, Yankee fans have been blessed with the greatest reliever of all time anchoring the back of the bullpen. Sadly in 2014 there will be no Sandman. Mariano Rivera’s retirement undeniably alters the Yankee bullpen and makes it unquestionably weaker. Former setup man, David Robertson, will assume the closer’s duties this season. It would be unrealistic and simply unfair to Robertson to expect the level of greatness achieved by the man Tony Kornheiser nicknamed the “Hammer of God”. Robertson is an excellent pitcher in his own right making the All-Star team in 2011.
The biggest challenge for Robertson this season will be to throw less pitches per appearance. One reason Rivera was so successful for so long was that he was a minimal effort reliever. Strikeouts are nice, but getting 3 outs on 7 pitches is better. Robertson has a reputation for high pitch counts and putting extra runners on base while earning the nickname “Houdini” for his ability to strand runners. In order for Robertson to thrive in his role, he will need to embrace the fact that a ground ball to third on 2 pitches is just as good as a strikeout on 8 pitches. He must limit his pitch count if he is going to make multiple appearances every week.
The real problem with the Yankee’s bullpen lies in the eighth and not the ninth. While no one may ever be able to duplicate Mariano Rivera’s career, many closers from Eric Gagne and Billy Wagner to Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Papelbon have shown that they can duplicate, or exceed, a Rivera-esque season. Robertson has the talent and ability to do so but if he is busy closing out the game, who is setting him up?
There is no obvious internal candidate. In addition to losing Mariano, the Yankees lost several other, admittedly less important, pieces from last year’s bullpen, including Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and Phil Hughes (who might have been moved back to the bullpen had he stayed in New York). That leaves Shawn Kelly and newcomer Matt Thornton as the top two candidates for the 8th inning job. Shawn Kelly appears to have the inside track, especially if the Yankees only keep one lefty in the pen. Kelly is a strikeout machine, but when contact is made, the ball has a tendency to land in another zip code. It has been a few years since Thornton has been a dominant member of a bullpen and was only marginally effective last years for the White Sox and Red Sox. As a left hander, he is more likely to be used as a Lefty Specialist than a 8th Inning Guy.
The long term answer may be the recently signed Andrew Bailey. He is currently recovering from shoulder surgery but is expected to pitch mid-season. Other candidates may step up in Spring Training or early in the season including: David Phelps, Dellin Betances, or even Manny Banuelos. There is always the chance the Yankees look outside the organization. While it is unlikely that they will sign another rehabbing reliever such as Joel Hanrahan or Ryan Madson, the Yankees may be able to find a player cut during spring training, similar to what they did with Lyle Overbay last season. Different trade scenarios may be explored as well. Perhaps one of the extra catchers currently on the roster (Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine or John Ryan Murphy) or an extra infielder (Eduardo Nunez or Dean Anna) may swapped for bullpen help.