New York Yankees 2014 Five Point Preview: Jack Curry on the bullpenMariano Rivera's retirement makes every role new, but Yankees have depth to survive
Replacing any star player, regardless of position, is a tough undertaking.
But how do you replace the greatest player of all-time at his position?
"I think he needs to be the guy he was in the eighth inning and just transfer that to the ninth. It's easy for me to say, but I think he has the ability to do that," Jack Curry says of David Robertson, who will be the one tapped to "replace" Mariano Rivera as the Yankees' closer on April 1.
Rivera is, numerically and figuratively, the best closer in the history of Major League Baseball, a record 652 saves the lasting legacy of a surefire first-ballot Hall of Fame career.
Pressure? Absolutely, but don't tell Robertson or the Yankees that.
"I actually think that some of the criticism or concern about Robertson replacing Mariano is a little silly. This is a guy that if you held a draft going into 2014 and said 'pick a closer,' he might be a Top 5 pick," Curry said. "I do think that he'll be fine. To say he doesn't have to do anything differently is maybe off a little bit - I think he'll have to be a little more economical with his pitches, and there's going to be days where Joe Girardi will want to use him for a third day in a row, which is something he didn't do last year - but I think it might be harder to find someone to do what he did in the eighth inning."
The reality of that last statement might be an even bigger bug-a-boo, because by tapping Robertson as the successor, the Yankees are replacing two locks with two question marks. It's a far cry from the "Ro-Mo" and "So-Ro-Mo" scenarios of the last few years, and even the days of yore when Yankees baseball was a six-inning game before similar portmanteaus of late-inning relief (Quan-Gor-Mo, anyone?) took over and put the game on lockdown.
With Robertson now the man, though, someone will get the chance to add their shortened last name ahead of his - even if, as Curry says, it's not a "necessity" per se.
"I think you start out believing that it's Shawn Kelley's job, because he's the person who was closest to having been that guy last year, but having spoken to Kelley about it this spring, he said he's not even thinking about it," Curry said. "I think you like to have an eighth inning guy, but I don't think you have to have one. As we've watched spring training evolve, Dellin Betances has become a guy who threw his name in the ring, and a lot of other guys have pitched well. So yes, I think it is Kelley's job, but I wouldn't be surprised if Girardi tries to do some mixing and matching and give several guys a chance."
Because of the question marks in a bullpen that has, in recent years, been a strength, depth will be more important than ever. Robertson will be there, as will Kelley and lefty Matt Thornton, but it wouldn't be a surprise to anyone if those are the only three full-year constants.
Luckily, the Yankees have that depth, if only because so many got so much experience in a tumultuous 2013 - and to Curry, a guy who began last year as a starter and another who didn't even pitch at all in 2013 are the keys.
"Betances is one who I would jump on right away - he looks very determined, he's someone the Yankees have known for so long because they've had him since he was 18, and he looks like he can maybe stick in the Major Leagues this year and be a contributor," Curry said of the bullpen makeup. "And, if Michael Pineda can be the No. 5 starter long-term, you have guys in Adam Warren and David Phelps who have been in the bullpen before but can also maybe act as a swing starter. Pineda's success has a trickle-down effect, because then you have more depth."
Just who will get the final spots in the Yankees bullpen is something we may not know until rosters are finalized on Sunday. Several pitchers, including a handful not on the 40-man roster, have had solid springs, but how much roster flexibility plays into things is something only the brass knows.
"I think (roster space) will be part of the decision-making process, but you have to go with results, too," Curry reminded. "For instance, if Betances had an awful spring, I'm not sure the Yankees would take him just because he's on the 40-man roster, especially since he has an option."
One guy you shouldn't look for, Curry says, is lefty Manny Banuelos, even if he is on the 40-man roster. Banuelos has been a starter his entire career, and while the Yankees did just announce they'll be moving Jose Ramirez to a relief role full-time because of injury concerns, Curry doesn't expect the lefty coming off two missed seasons to be in any jeopardy of following suit.
"I think what you have to have happen with him right now is just let him pitch, let him get to Triple-A and start and see what he can give you," Curry says. "If a situation arises where the Yankees think he can help them at the major-league level in whatever role, they'll bring him up. But I think after the injury, and given that he's so young, you have to let him go to the minors and grow and get some innings under his belt, show he can pitch deep in games and not worry about him being a solution anywhere."
It may have worked as an avenue for Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes to get to (or stay) in the majors at certain times, but in closing, Curry reminds that the bullpen isn't meant to be a temporary home, especially for someone who has never lived in it.
"Brian Cashman has said that you can't solve your problems by asking one of your players to do something he hasn't done in the past, and that's what you'd be doing by asking Banuelos to be a short reliever. I think they see him as a starter, and that's where he's going to end up."