What If?: Could Dellin Betances or David Phelps become the "next" Mariano Rivera?

The timing, if anything, is right for parallel career paths
04/02/2014 10:09 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Could the career path of Dellin Betances parallel Mariano Rivera's?(AP)
Mariano Rivera is retired from baseball, and as much as people will eventually call someone "the next Mo," let's be realistic - there will almost certainly never be another like him.

But let us indulge for a moment: what if there was? And what if it was someone currently on the Yankees roster?

While fantasy right now, 20 years from today, it could be at least a fairly salient observation…because the timing, at least, is right for either Dellin Betances or David Phelps to start down that road.

Let's take a look back at the first five years of Mariano Rivera's career, shall we?

The Yankees signed Rivera in 1990 for just $3,000, plucking him out of a fishing village in Panama and plopping him in the Gulf Coast League. He wasn't yet "The Sandman" but he was dominant, allowing only one earned run in 52 innings, and he went on to have a 2.35 ERA over six years in the minors.

However, that didn't translate right away to the majors, as Rivera went 5-3 with a 5.51 ERA in 19 games (10 starts) as a rookie in 1995, surrendering more earned runs and home runs than he would in any other season and not gaining much traction until moving to the bullpen and making a strong showing in that year's ALDS.

So how does this have anything to with Phelps or Betances? To wit:

-Betances was a kid from the Bronx, drafted in the eighth round out of high school in 2006 and posting a 1.17 ERA as a rookie in the GCL. He was a starter throughout his career in the minors, but floundered and struggled with control, injuries, and simply harnessing his potential until a move to the bullpen in mid-2013 and a strong showing in a September call-up.

-Phelps, too, was an unheralded pick (14th round in 2008), and like Mo, was a dominant starter in the minors for four years before coming up as a swingman in 2012 and having a rocky first go-round, posting a 10-9 record and 4.11 ERA in 55 games (23 starts) before being moved to the bullpen full-time for 2014.

It was that 1995 ALDS that put Rivera's role into focus: his best use was as a multi-inning, late-game weapon, a bridge from the starting five to John Wetteland. It was a role that would let him go through the lineup only once, utilizing his best pitches (and eventually, best pitch) instead of relying on a secondary arsenal.

The result was a 1996 season that saw Rivera post a 2.09 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 107.2 innings, finish third in Cy Young voting as a nominal middle reliever, dominate again in the postseason and become "heir apparent" to free-agent-to-be closer John Wetteland.

Could you see that sounding a little like Betances? After all, once he moved to the bullpen last season, where he could focus on using less of his repertoire and more of his overpowering talent, the 6-foot-8 righty went 4-2 with a 1.35 ERA and struck out 83 in 60 innings at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and earned himself a spot in the 2014 bullpen after an equally dominant spring.

Phelps, too, could fit that profile, as in two years in the Majors, he has posted a much lower ERA, K/9, and WHIP as a reliever than as a starter, and could become that versatile, stretched-out bridge as he moves to the bullpen full-time in 2014.

We all know how the next 17 years went for Rivera; he took over the closer's role in 1997 when Wetteland departed, and retired last September with an MLB-record 652 saves.

So then, who's to say what happens in the Yankees bullpen this year?

David Robertson is the unquestioned closer, but he's also set to hit free agency for the first time this winter; Betances, meanwhile, has so little service time that he's under team control in some form through 2020 - when he'll be 32 going on 33 years old - and even if Phelps is a "Super Two" after this season, he has at least three more years of team control as well.

It's unfair in any and all realms to place that kind of expectation on anyone, and also unfair to simply dismiss Robertson in any way, shape, or form, as he could also just take the closer's ball and run with it for the next decade-plus.

But sometimes, when the stars align right, it's fun to reach for them, isn't it?

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