This season’s ninth innings are going to seem very strange for the New York Yankees.
For the first time since 1997 the team will not have the benefit of the greatest closer in baseball history.
Mariano Rivera was the gold standard of the modern era one-inning closer and won’t it be odd not hearing “Enter Sandman” reverberate throughout the Yankee Stadium?
Rivera leaves taking his major-league 652 saves and career ERA of 2.21. He also removes the security blanket that managers Joe Torre and Joe Girardi had that made them so successful. Opponents will enter the 2014 season extremely happy that No. 42 will not be in the Yankees’ bullpen.
The question is who will take Mo’s place?
Though no promises have been made, David Robertson will have the opportunity to fill the biggest shoes in baseball.
Robertson, 28, like Rivera, is a product of the Yankees’ minor-league system and he has been Rivera’s set-up man for the past three seasons.
In four full seasons and parts of a fifth, Robertson has compiled a 21-14 record with a sparkling 2.76 ERA. Last season, Robertson was 5-1 with 2.04 ERA and superbly set up Rivera in his final season.
The big question is can the former University of Alabama closer handle the job at the major-league level. Robertson has a mere eight saves in 18 chances in the majors.
When handed the role in 2012 when Rivera injured his knee early in the season, Robertson faltered and was replaced by Rafael Soriano. That experience leaves enough doubt about him heading into the new season.
But Robertson has the goods to close. He can bring a low- to mid-90s fastball, a cutter he learned from the master Rivera and a knee-buckling curveball. The only question is can he keep his pitch counts down to get through a clean ninth inning consistently?
Rivera’s lifetime WHIP (Walks and Hits to Innings Pitched) was 1.00, which is excellent. Robertson is sporting a career WHIP of 1.25, which is not great for a reliever. However, his WHIPs over the past three seasons have been 1.13, 1.17 and 1.04.
The 1.04 WHIP from last season is a career low. That is closer material. So Robertson stands as the No. 1 candidate as of today.
The Yankees still could sign a closer before spring training opens. But that is not looking likely.
The best closer on the market, Grant Balfour of the Oakland Athletics, signed a two-year deal with his former team the Tampa Bay Rays. Former Rays closer Fernando Rodney, 36, was excellent in 2012 but regressed in 2013 with 37 saves and 3.38 ERA and a high WHIP of 1.34.
In addition, the Yankees have already spent a lot of money on free agents this offseason. Can they afford to add more?
A more likely scenario would be a trade packaging some players in return for an experienced bullpen pitcher who can set up and close out games. Stay tuned.
The Yankee bullpen also will be without some other familiar names in 2014.
The Colorado Rockies signed left-hander Boone Logan to a three-year deal. The Detroit Tigers signed right-hander Joba Chamberlain to a one-year deal.
The Yankees did sign veteran left-hander Matt Thornton, 37, from the Boston Red Sox. Thornton has some heavy mileage on him but he provides the team a quality left-hander who has had experience as a set-up man and closer.
Thornton has a career record of 32-42 with a 3.53 ERA, a 1.29 WHIP and 23 career saves. He was 0-4 with a 3.74 ERA in 60 games with the Chicago White Sox and the Red Sox last season. He will essentially replace Logan as the team’s main left-hander.
The Yankees also have a holdover in right-hander Shawn Kelley, 29, who was 4-2 with a 4.39 ERA in 57 games with the Yankees last season. The former Seattle Mariner essentially made Chamberlain obsolete after recording 71 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings with his devastating slider.
Kelley and Thornton are likely to be Girardi’s main seventh and eighth inning options this season.
The Yankees also have high hopes for right-hander Preston Claiborne, 26, who was impressive in the early stages of his rookie season.
Called up in May, Claiborne did not issue a walk in his first nine appearances. On July 28, Claiborne was 0-1 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP in 29 games. However, the wheels came off the wagon quickly and he was 0-1 with a 8.80 ERA in his last 15 games.
The Yankees still believe the big Texan nicknamed “Little Joba” can pitch as he did in his first 29 games in the major leagues. As long as Claiborne is attacking the strike zone to get ahead he can be a huge weapon for Girardi this season. Claiborne has a very high ceiling and spring training will determine just how far he can go in 2014.
Speaking of high ceilings, the reliever to watch this spring will be left-handed specialist Cesar Cabral, 25.
A Rule 5 draft pick in 2011, Cabral was competing for a job with the Yankees in 2012 when he suffered a fracture of his left elbow in his final appearance of spring training and he missed the entire 2012 season.
His rehab also extended into 2013. In 30 games in three stops in the minors, Cabral was 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA. But he had 43 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings. He was called up to the majors when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1 and he made his major-league debut on Sept. 2.
Cabral ended up 0-0 with a 2.45 ERA in eight late-season games, striking out six in 3 2/3 innings. Lefties hit .125 off him.
It looks as if the Yankees have found a gem in the young lefty. Cabral enters 2014 as almost a shoo-in to make the team to give the team a lefty specialist they have lacked since Clay Rapada injured his arm in spring training last season. Mark my words, Cabral is something special.
The other two spots in the bullpen are up for grabs. But the Yankees have a lot of options to fill those spots.
Should Michael Pineda claim a spot in the starting rotation and join CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda, one obvious choice to fill out the bullpen is David Phelps.
Phelps, 27, has served as reliever and spot starter for the past two seasons.
In two seasons he is 10-9 with a 4.11 ERA in 55 games (23 starts). His ERA is inflated because he been less successful as a starting pitcher the past two seasons. Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild would like to see Phelps resume his role in the bullpen because of his versatility and effectiveness.
Phelps does not possess a crackling fastball but he does have extreme confidence in his stuff. He throws strikes and his control is excellent.
Along with Phelps, the Yankees used rookie right-hander Adam Warren as a long reliever and spot starter last season. Warren, 26, responded with a 3-2 record and a 3.39 ERA in 34 games (two of them starts).
Warren enters spring training in the running for the No. 5 spot in the rotation but could very well end up as the long man out of the bullpen again. Unlike Phelps though, Warren has a mid-90s fastball and he has been better as a starter.
The same can be said for 26-year-old left-hander Vidal Nuno.
Nuno won the James P. Dawson Award in 2013 for being the most impressive rookie in spring training. He then went 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before making his major-league debut as a reliever in last April.
He was 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA in five games (three starts) before a strained left groin sustained on May 30 shelved him for the rest of the season.
Nuno is a soft-tosser but he has exceptional control. His ability to fool hitters with his breaking stuff makes him a good possibility as a No. 5 starter if he is impressive again this spring. He also could become a third lefty as a long man in the bullpen.
At the very least, Nuno could return to Scranton and be ready for fill in as a starter or reliever for the Yankees should they need to replace an injured pitcher. Nuno is an excellent insurance policy for Girardi.
One very intriguing bullpen possibility for the Yankees is former top prospect starter Dellin Betances, 25.
The 6-foot-8, 260-pound right-hander flamed out as a starter in 2012 when he recorded a 6-9 record and 6.44 ERA with 99 walks in 113 1/3 innings at two minor-league stops. The Yankees made him a reliever in 2013 and he was much better.
Betances was 6-4 with a 2.68 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 84 innings at Scranton. He cut his walks to just 42.
He was called up in September and had a 10.00 ERA in six games late in the season. But the Yankees believe he has potential to be a dominant reliever in the major leagues is he continues to harness his control. He has mid-90s fastball and his power curve is getting better.
Betances enters this spring as a dark-horse bullpen candidate with the tools to become an excellent reliever someday and perhaps a future closer.
The same can be said of right-hander Mark Montgomery, 23, the team’s current No. 11 prospect.
Montgomery has a 93-mile-per-hour fastball but his biggest weapon is a drop-off-the-table slider that has shot him through the minor-league ranks.
In 2012 he struck out 13.8 batters per nine innings as he advanced through Double-A Trenton. He also led the organization in saves. Last season, Montgomery was 2-3 with a 3.38 ERA with 49 strikeouts in 40 innings at Scranton.
He will get an opportunity to show his progress this spring but he likely will start the season in Scranton. The Yankees still see him as a future setup man or closer. He may get his shot sometime in 2014.
Another minor-leaguer worth watching this spring is 24-year-old right-hander Chase Whitley, who spent most of last season at Scranton.
Whitley was 3-2 with a 3.06 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings in 29 games. The Alabama native also showed some ability as a starter late in the season.
In five late-season starts, Whitley was 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA. The Yankees will evaluate him this spring and determine what role he might be best suited. But his solid numbers in the minors indicate he is on track to make the major leagues in a few years.
One interesting aspect of the candidates I have mentioned so far is that seven of them (Robertson, Claiborne, Phelps, Warren, Betances, Montgomery and Whitley) were originally drafted by the Yankees. Two others (Cabral and Nuno) are products of the team’s minor-league system.
The other two candidates (Thornton and Kelley) were signed as a free agent and via a trade, respectively.
Although the Yankees’ position players in the minors are progressing slowly. The same can’t be said for the starters and relievers they have been developing the past few seasons. That is a testament to the scouting department and general manager Brian Cashman.
The Yankees need to continue that development as they move forward.
The biggest testimony to that progress will be if Robertson seamlessly settles in as the team’s closer. He may be replacing a huge legend. But if anyone can do it, it is Robertson.
A lot is riding on Robertson;s right arm and the Yankees are very hopeful he can meet the challenge.