After the roller coaster ride of the past 48 hours, with the great Mariano Rivera’s career looking all but over one minute and vowing to return the next, we can now cast our eyes to the current bullpen members and where the pieces fit. The Yanks will want to keep their plan close to the vest because naming a Closer now may mean un-naming someone later, which is a situation they’d prefer to avoid. But Relievers have roles, roles that exist for good reasons, and Manager Joe Girardi is nothing if not clear in how and when he uses his bullpen. He has a plan, he’s just not telling us yet. Though last night’s game may have provided some clues into the direction the Yanks plan to take, at least at the outset.
First, Phil Hughes. Check out this quote from Mark Fiensand:
Are the Yankees considering moving Hughes to the bullpen? Girardi: “We have not talked about that because I believe in crossing the bridge when we have to cross it. We don’t have Andy back. … I think you have to look at all your options, what we’re possibly going to do. But the key is, for us to really look at options, Andy has to be ready.”
Linking Hughes’ fate to Andy’s return leads me to believe Hughes will wind up being the odd man out. With Mo out for the year and Joba/Aardsma on the mend, there’s an opening for the set up man role that Hughes excelled at back in 2009. Since 2007 he’s been middling at best as a Yankee starter, and his production could easily be matched by a low ceiling prospect like Phelps, Mitchell, or a straightened-out Freddy Garcia. Hughes’ only real success in the rotation came in a handful of starts in the first half of 2010, and frankly the Yanks have had stretches like that from guys like Arron Small and Shawn Chacon. This move to the bullpen will in all likelihood be permanent, a glittering example of how ‘can’t-miss’ prospects can…well, miss. Hughes has repeatedly stated that he needs to take a “relievers mentality” as he has searched for success as a starter, so the bullpen would appear to be a good place for him.
As far as closing duties go, the Yanks are publicly taking a wait and see approach. But last night’s game could be a window into how they will approach things. David Robertson came in to close things out last night, looking very impressive and striking out the side. But note the fact that it was a non-Save situation. As impressive as D-Rob has been over the past 2 seasons, he did sport a high Walk rate (4.73 BB/9) and enjoyed an absurdly high strand rate (89.8%) last year. When he’s a little off, or the umpire isn’t giving him the low strike, he can tend to make a mess of things at times. That’s fine as a setup man, but can end up in a loss if you’re the last man out of the pen. Having a cushion of a lead and/or someone backing him up would be preferable, which is how he was used last night. As a strikeout pitcher Robertson tends to throw a lot of pitches, which could limit a manager’s ability to use him in back to back games and the overall frequency that he’d be available. I’m not arguing he can’t do the job, he certainly can and no reliever is perfect. Just that his skill set lends itself to that of a fireman, which is often the more difficult task. As our own William Juliano wrote this morning in a piece for Pinstripes Plus:
The biggest concern about using Robertson as the primary closer is that by limiting his appearances to the ninth inning, the Yankees will mitigate the value of his incredible strikeout rate. When there are men on base late in the ballgame, Robertson’s swing and miss stuff is a lethal weapon, but if confined to one inning appearances, the Yankees may not get to use it.
On Soriano, he has the pedigree to step in and do the job. He was an All Star that recorded 45 Saves for the Rays the season before he joined the Yanks. He wasn’t as good his first year in the Bronx (107 ERA+ in 2011) but was banged up last year and missed time with an elbow issue. The adrenaline of closing and the drive for a new contract at the end of this year could be the fix for him to return to form. He has a 14M contract for next year, but can opt out if he gets a better offer. Looking at the 2013 FA list Soriano is as good as anyone currently on the list, and a big season could push him to the head of the class. No, he likely won’t get 14M per on the open market, but could garner a Ryan Madsen type offer of 2-22M with a contender looking for a proven Closer, and that extra 8M guaranteed would be sufficient incentive for him to bolt. By having Soriano close in Save situations and D-Rob come in to non-Save situations, the Yanks serve two goals. Giving Robertson some 9th inning experience as they groom him to be their future Closer, while Soriano piles up the stats that will help him attract a new deal that helps the team rid itself of a bad contract. We all know the Save as a stat isn’t all that meaningful, often facing weak parts of the opposing lineup in low leverage situations. But for a FA piling up Saves can enhance your value. To me, this configuration makes the most sense to try first. If it doesn’t work, they can always switch roles later. Maybe by then the Yanks will admit who’s who.
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