Three questions about the 2013 Yankees bullpen
Last year, no one would have faulted the Yankees bullpen if it had crumbled once Mariano Rivera went down in early May; after all, it’s nearly impossible to replace the greatest closer of all-time, let alone move everyone’s role up a level in doing so. Later, in that same vein, no one would have been shocked had the bullpen wilted down the stretch, tired from the burden of carrying on without Rivera and tired from having four pitchers make at least 65 appearances.
However, neither of those happened. After a quick moment with David Robertson (who himself then was injured) in the game-finisher role, Rafael Soriano stepped in and finished the season with 42 saves and a 2.26 ERA; meanwhile, the bullpen as a whole compiled a 3.43 ERA, and beyond that “core four,” several players – from specialist Clay Rapada to injury returnee Joba Chamberlain to deposed starters David Phelps and Freddy Garcia – made key contributions in big spots.
Coming into this season, Rivera, Chamberlain, and David Aardsma are back and healthy, but Soriano is gone and a few spots are up for grabs. As Spring Training draws near, there are a lot of questions going about the bullpen, with these three being the chief ones the Yankees must quickly find out the answers to in order to succeed.
Question 1: Is “The Sandman” ready to re-awaken?
It’s not easy to become baseball’s all-time saves leader, and beyond talent, one of the biggest things that has propelled Rivera to that plateau is durability. Between his ascension to the closer’s role in 1997 and 2011, Rivera had just one season where he failed to make at least 54 appearances and record at least 30 saves; that was 2002, when he was limited to 45 and 28 due to nagging groin and shoulder injuries…but still earned an All-Star nod.
Last year? Nine appearances, five saves, and one torn ligament that many feared would be the end of his career. Of course, Mo said no to that theory, but what can the Yankees realistically expect from the man who has made a living sawing off bats with his dreaded cutter? Knee injury aside, he is 43, and from the get-go questions will once again circulate about 2013 being his potential swan song.
New York has had Rivera as old reliable for 15 years now, and at least for 2013, will need him to reclaim that role. If he doesn’t, though…
Question 2: Who becomes the “heir apparent?”
For the last two seasons, many took for granted that the Yankees had Rivera as the closer, and Soriano and Robertson as their late-inning workhorses. Last season that changed, but the team thrived because of Soriano’s tremendous effort as the closer and the emergence of Boone Logan, Cody Eppley, and later Chamberlain as the other half of the set-up squad. So then, with Soriano gone, the question is two-fold for 2013: who steps in as his replacement…and who steps in if Rivera falters?
On the first line, the righty-lefty combo of Chamberlain and Logan would seem to be the ideal candidates; “Booney” had a breakout year in those 80 appearances, and while overall he was about equal against righties (.238 in 84 at-bats) and lefties (.231 in 121 AB), his K/BB ratio against southpaws was nearly triple what it was versus righties, making him almost a southpaw version of Robertson. Chamberlain, meanwhile, took a couple weeks to settle in after his return from elbow and ankle surgeries, but in his final 13 appearances (13 IP) from Sept. 4 onward, he allowed just one earned run and struck out 17 against only one base on balls.
The X-Factor, however, could be Aardsma, who missed all of 2011 and made just one appearance in 2012 due to a hip injury and then Tommy John surgery. Aardsma had back-to-back 30-save seasons in Seattle in 2009-10, and at age 31, hopes to return to form in a contract season.
Aarsdma’s line also plays positively into the second question; given Robertson’s struggles in his short stint as the closer last year, it might seem complicated, but Aardsma has the experience, and with Chamberlain possessing a repertoire that has long been lauded as one that would make him an elite closer, the Yankees appear to be covered.
Question No. 3: Who becomes this year’s David Phelps/Cody Eppley?
Going into Spring training last year, Phelps was one of three youngsters in camp looking to impress enough to be the first guy up from Triple-A in case of emergency, while Eppley was a Texas Ranger. Over the next seven months, Eppley (3.33 ERA in 59 appearances) became a workhorse semi-specialist while Phelps (4-4, 3.44 overall) gave the Yankees more out of a swingman than any team could ask for.
Both are back in 2013, with the loser of the looming battle between Phelps and Ivan Nova for the final rotation slot likely the long man and Eppley at worst competing for the seventh slot, but the Yankees will need to have a few guys bubbling under the surface who could make some noise at some point this summer if called upon. In the swingman role, one candidate could be RHP Chase Whitley, who was 9-5 with a 3.08 ERA in 43 games last year between Double-A and Triple-A. As he was in 2012, Whitley is a non-roster invitee to camp this year, and given that he pitched a total of 84.1 innings and made two starts in those 43 appearances, he could get a look as a long man if needed.
As for the Eppley-type role, two names to remember could be LHP Francisco Rondon and RHP Preston Claiborne. Rondon, who is on the 40-man roster, spent most of 2012 at Trenton, going 5-0 with a 3.96 ERA, and was moved up to Scranton late in the year – and given that he is a lefty, a good performance could carry extra value if it’s Boone Logan who ends up needing to be replaced due to injury or ineffectiveness; meanwhile, Claiborne, who is a non-roster camp invitee, posted a 6-2, 2.96 line in 50 appearances between Trenton and Scranton in 2012, and has a 2.97 career ERA over three seasons.
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