After yet another close game (though thankfully, last night’s was of the winning variety), the collective blood pressure of the Yankee fanbase is once again a little higher than optimal. While the Yankees were able to jump ahead of the Red Sox in the early going, the inability to accomplish the mythical shutdown inning allowed the Red Sox to stay within striking distance for the majority of the game. This has been a problem for much of the recent stretch of subpar play.
While David Robertson and Rafael Soriano have individually had very strong seasons, the Yankee bullpen, and these two stalwarts in particular, have shown mortality at particularly inconvenient times. Robertson’s fastball velocity is down slightly from last season, and his reduction in the use of his curveball in favor of the cutter is a little puzzling. Several recent Yankee losses can directly be tied to blowups by one or both of the Yankees’ top relievers. While Joba Chamberlain has impressed in his recent outings, he is probably still not at the point of being relied upon to be a consistent shutdown presence in the 7th inning. The Clay Rapada/Cody Eppley/Boone Logan trio have performed adequately, though none of them (possibly excepting Logan) really are useful against opposite-handed batters.
As the Yankees battle through the last few weeks of the season and hopefully into October, it is evident that they could use another bullpen arm with the ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate. Presumably, a trade is incredibly unlikely at this juncture, so whatever help the Yankees are going to find will have to come from within. With several players on track to return from injury, the Yankees will have a few options as they shuffle their rotation to accommodate the returnees. Here are some of the ways they can proceed, and variables to consider.
Nova should be back from injury relatively soon, but his uneven 2012 season raises questions about how he can be most effectively deployed. He’s currently in line to replace Freddy Garcia in the rotation, but given his propensity to surrender extra-base hits, there’s no guarantee that he will be a significant upgrade. While Freddy’s repertoire doesn’t really translate well to a short relief role (though he could be an effective long man), Nova could be an effective option for shorter stints, allowing him to focus on his fastball and slider and not worry about his other pitches.
Andy Pettitte is also on his way back, though his timeline for returning to the rotation is unclear at the moment. The Yankees are currently planning to let Pettitte build his innings back up on the Major League roster, which will likely entail him making piggyback starts with one of Nova, Garcia, or Phelps. If Nova and Pettitte both make it back into the rotation, Phelps likely gets bumped back into a relief role. Phelps has been very impressive when used as a reliever this season (albeit in a small sample), so he could be an intriguing option to add more depth to the Yankee bullpen.
Yes, Wade has been incredibly disappointing in the majors this year, but he has handled himself fairly well since being demoted to AAA (2.27 ERA). That said, his strikeout rate is down compared to 2011 and his walk rate is elevated, and both trends continued when he was sent down to the Scranton traveling road show. Even though Wade is not pitching as well as he did last season (or early this year), it could be worth giving him some innings to see if he can get his confidence and stuff back.
Mark Montgomery (obligatory)
I know the Yankees have said that they will not call up Montgomery this season, but I think it is an option worth considering. He has continued to dominate his minor league opposition, and I’m not sure if there is a serious developmental case to be made for keeping him in the minors much longer. AA hitters simply have no answer for his slider, and he is striking them out in droves. While there is some obvious risk inherent in calling up a minor leaguer to contribute to a playoff chase (some may fear that getting hit around could ruin him forever, a la Mark Melancon), Montgomery has the talent and upside to be a shutdown guy right away. I trust that the Yankees know better than me regarding his big league readiness, but the possibility that Montgomery could be a shot in the arm to the Yankee bullpen (a la rookie Joba Chamberlain or Francisco Rodriguez back in the day) is hard to ignore. Considering the Yankees’ recent bullpen struggles, it seems worthwhile to reconsider the calculus of whether keeping Montgomery down is really the best option.
While a Montgomery callup doesn’t seem forthcoming (though I will continue to dream), returning Phelps to the bullpen could give the Yankees the reliable middle-inning arm that they have been missing since Cory Wade began to struggle. While Montgomery has the highest upside, Phelps is the safest bet. Phelps has excelled in the role when called upon this season, and since the Yankees may not want to overwork Chamberlain and Robertson, it makes sense to have another reliable middle relief arm who can pitch to both righties and lefties. It would be hard to expect much out of Nova or Wade if they were given a relief role, and they would definitely have to impress in their few opportunities to earn their spot.
Of all the problems facing the Yankees this season, the bullpen is probably the least of them. That said, it has contributed directly to several losses, and the Yankees do have several decent options available that could improve the situation. I assume when Pettitte and Nova are back, we will start to see some pieces in motion, as the Yankees look to fortify the middle innings.