PART 2: THE BULLPEN:
The Yankees figured to have a strong bullpen as they entered the 2012 season. Perhaps the best in baseball.
Of course, having the best closer baseball has ever seen and will see in Mariano Rivera was a large part of that strength. However, in 2012 Rivera was not a big part of the team’s success.
Everybody remembers that day at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City last May when “Mo” tried to shag a ball he should not have and tore his MCL in his left knee. He later had surgery and missed the rest of the season.
But the Yankee bullpen was rescued by a fluke signing of Rafael Soriano in 2011 over the objections of general manager Brian Cashman. Nonetheless, the Yankee brass overruled Cashman and signed the former Tampa Bay Rays closer coming off a 2010 season in which he saved 45 games and a had a 1.73 ERA.
That deal looked wasted in 2011 when Soriano pitched in mediocrity and then injured his elbow before finishing with just two saves and a 4.12 ERA. He was baseball’s most expensive seventh inning pitcher in history.
In 2012, he saved the bullpen by stepping in for Rivera and notching 42 saves in 46 opportunities with a sparkling 2.26 ERA. Many thought that with Rivera gone that the Yankees would sink in the American League East. But Soriano proved them wrong.
It is no wonder that Soriano elected to opt out of his contract and seek a closer’s role of his own as a free agent. The Yankees might have panicked to find a suitable closer for 2013 had Rivera not decided to come back for one last hurrah.
Indications are Rivera will be ready to go when spring camps open in February. Rivera, 43, was 1-1 with a 2.16 ERA and five saves in six chances when he went down in 2012. In 2011, he was 1-2 with a 1.91 ERA and 44 saves in 49 opportunities. So as long as Rivera’s knee is sound, the Yankees will have no worries about their closer in 2013.
With Soriano gone, it would seem to be an issue if the Yankees did not have David Robertson, who was an American League All-Star selection in 2011 with a 4-0 record and 1.08 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings. In 2012, Robertson got off to a slow start with a ankle injury suffered in spring training.
He later had to be placed on the disabled list at midseason in May with an oblique strain. He simply was not the same pitcher early in the season as he was in 2011. But in the second half, Robertson flashed his old form. After a brief and unsuccessful trial as a closer he was shifted back to his eighth inning role and he flourished again.
He was 2-7 with a 2.67 ERA but he was finally his old self by late August and for the September stretch run. At age 27, Robertson becomes a very valuable pitcher for the Yankees with the departure of Soriano. Robertson will also have to adapt to close on days Rivera is unable to pitch. The Yankees do not seem worried about it though.
Behind these two hard-throwing relievers, the Yankees will seek to build another strong bullpen with a pair of similarly hard-throwing veterans in right-hander Joba Chamberlain and left-hander Boone Logan.
Chamberlain, 27, missed most of the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He missed the start of the 2012 season after suffering a break of his right ankle in a trampoline accident in Tampa, FL. He was 1-0 with a 4.35 ERA in 20 2/3 innings over 22 appearances late in the season.
He returns in 2013 without injury and seeking to regain the consistency he enjoyed in 2011 when he was 2-0 with a 2.83 ERA before he injured his elbow. If he does the Yankees will not miss Soriano at all. Chamberlain figures to be the logical choice to pitch most in the seventh inning. If he measures up to the challenge the Yankees’ bullpen will again be very strong.
Logan, 28, has been the unsung hero of this bullpen for a long time.
Sure he can be erratic at times. But he also has now put together three very good seasons with the Yankees. Miscast as a lefty specialist for two seasons, he was able to step out of that role in 2012 and post a pretty good season.
He was 7-2 with a 3.74 ERA and held opponents to a .234 batting average. The elevated ERA was largely due to the fact that he was pressed into service more than he had in the past and the additional innings caught up to him. He pitched in a league-high 80 games and manager Joe Girardi would like to cut that down to a more realistic 60 to 65 in 2013.
But with Chamberlain, Robertson and Rivera on the disabled list at one point last season, Logan pitched in a lot of games he would not have pitched in normally. A healthy bullpen should make him more effective as well as additional man to pitch in the seventh inning.
Girardi was able to cobble together a pair of specialists out of left-hander Clay Rapada and right-hander Cody Eppley and he was very pleased with the results he got from them.
Rapada, 31, was 3-0 with a 2.82 ERA. But against lefties he was plain nasty. They hit just .186 off him and he looks to have an inside track on keeping that role in 2013.
Eppley, who was picked up off waivers from the Texas Rangers early in 2012, turned into an effective pitcher against right-handers. He had a 1.93 ERA against righties and they hit just .227 against him. The 27-year-old veteran was 1-2 with a 3.33 ERA overall and he earned Girardi’s trust as the season progressed.
Depth in 2013 does not look to be an issue. There are a number of candidates to challenge for spots in 2013.
David Phelps, 26, is thought of primarily as a starter based on his success in the minor leagues. But he could settle into a long reliever/spot starter in 2013, the role he largely held in his rookie season as he compiled a 4-4 mark with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts).
Phelps will get a chance to crack the 2013 starting rotation in the spring but he only likely will have a chance if there is an injury or Ivan Nova continues to pitch poorly. Long relief looks to be a good bet or he could be sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to keep him stretched out as a starter as an insurance policy on what is a veteran starting rotation.
The Yankees signed free-agent right-hander David Aardsma last season even though they knew he was recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Aardsma, 30, saved 38 games in 2009 and 31 games in 2010 for the Seattle Mariners before he injured his elbow.
He pitched in only one game for the Yankees late last season but the Yankees saw enough renew his contract option for 2013. So Aardsma could very well win a spot in the Yankees bullpen this spring if he regains his hard-throwing dominant arsenal. Aardsma could be helpful both in the middle innings or as a late-inning option for Robertson and Rivera when they are unavailable to pitch.
The Yankees also have a veteran right-hander in Jim Miller, 30, who was 2-1 with a 2.59 ERA in 33 appearances with the Oakland Athletics last season. Miller oddly is tougher on lefties than he is on righties. Lefties hit just .136 off him in 2012 while righties solved him to the tune of .283. The Yankees will see how he fits in this spring.
Cesar Cabral, a 2012 Rule 5 draft acquisition, spent the entire season on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his left elbow as he was competing for the lefty specialist role with Rapada last spring. After compiling a 3-4 record and a 2.95 ERA in the minors 2011 with 70 strikeouts in 55 innings, Cabral will get a chance to display his power stuff this spring with a chance of supplanting Rapada or earning a spot as a third lefty in the bullpen. Cabral is only 23 and he has a high ceiling as a reliever.
The Yankees do have some interesting young reliever candidates in their minor-league system but most of them have to be considered as longshots to make the 2013 roster.
Chase Whitley, 23, was 9-5 with a 3.25 ERA at Scranton and the right-hander compiled a 1.07 WHIP in 80 1/3 innings over 41 games. The Yankees like his competitiveness though he does not appear to have closer stuff.
Right-hander Preston Claiborne, 24, pitched impressively enough at Double-A Trenton (2-2 with a 2.22 ERA in 30 games) to earn a promotion to Scranton, but he may need some more work. He was 4-0 with a 4.05 ERA in 20 games there. But the Yankees still like the tall Texan and he does have strikeout stuff (78 punchouts in 82 innings).
The most impressive young pitcher the Yankees have in the minors is 22-year-old right-hander Mark Montgomery. Montgomery began 2012 with the High-A Tampa Yankees, where he was 4-1 with a 1.34 ERA. He also struck out an unbelievable 61 batters in 40 1/3 innings.
He carried that power stuff to Trenton, where he was 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 15 games. He saved 15 games overall in 2012 and to say that Montgomery figures to be a long-range prospect as a future major-league closer would be putting it mildly. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, he may not seem like your typical closer. But neither was Robertson and look where he is now.
Montgomery’s progesss is worth watching in 2013.
The Yankees 2013 bullpen prospects, much like their starting staff, appears to be in pretty good shape and fairly set. I do not expect Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild to be begging Cashman for additional help here. Soriano walked out but with Rivera back for one last season and depth at the back end the Yankees’ bullpen should remain one of its strengths.
Girardi has been a master at building a bullpen and utilizing it in a proper way. Other than Logan, no one was really overused in 2012 and that should be the trend again in 2013.
Not many teams can boast a bullpen this good and this deep.
NEXT: STARTING LINEUP