In replacing the 145 bullpen innings they’ve lost, the Yankees certainly need outside reinforcements. They might have a few internal players to fill some of those innings, but we can’t expect them to find all 145 within the organization. A couple of acquisitions seem probable.
One name linked to the Yankees is Joaquin Benoit, formerly of the Tigers. He seems pretty solidly in the former column, since Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski indicated that with the acquisition of Joba Chamberlain, he’s finished with his bullpen. Benoit, 36, has a number of suitors, the Yankees among them. The Padres and Indians reportedly have offers of two years and $14 million on the table, which seems reasonable. So where are the Yankees on this?
In 2013 Benoit, for the first time in his career, became a regular closer. He’d finished double-digit games in each of the previous three seasons, picking up a few saves in each, but he was never the full-time closer. Detroit, absent a “proven closer” in 2013, slid Benoit into the role with much success. The money is with closers, even older ones, as Joe Nathan proved with those very Tigers. It could be that Benoit seeks a full-time closer role, which would seemingly give the closer-absent Indians an advantage.
(The Padres have a “proven closer” of their own in Huston Street, which leaves their pursuit curious. In fact, reports have indicated that they are “in the lead,” whatever that means, so perhaps Benoit doesn’t value a closer role beyond all else.)
The Yankees could add a closer for the 2014 season, leaving David Robertson in the setup role he has so tremendously played for the past three or four seasons. That might be his ideal role, given his strikeout stuff and penchant for wiggling out of jams. But that doesn’t mean it’s the role he’ll play in the future. Ballplayers want to maximize their earnings during their relatively short window. Again, the money is there for closers.
If the Yankees don’t move Robertson into the closer’s role, they’ll probably lose him after next season to a team that will give him that opportunity. Sure, the Yankees could keep him in a setup role for 2014, and then re-sign him to be the closer in 2015 and beyond. That hardly makes any sense. Why give the guy closer money, and the closer role, when he hasn’t closed games for more than a couple weeks in his career? The prudent move, it seems, is to move Robertson into the closer role and sign a capable setup man. That way you can see what Robertson is made of, while giving him a safety net.
In that way, Benoit makes perfect sense. He’s a setup man who has had success as a closer, so if Robertson falters he could become the man. It will cost the Yankees — two years and $14 is a lot for a 36-year-old, and with three teams in the running the bidding could get higher — but he seems the perfect fit. Given the rest of the free agent market, and the unpredictable trade market, Benoit might be the Yankees best chance to help fill some of those 145 departed innings.
For the same reason, trading for a proven closer makes little sense for the Yankees. Yesterday, for instance, Buster Olney reported that the Phillies are “EXTREMELY motivated to move [Jonathan] Papelbon.” His time with the Red Sox sours him on Yankees fans, but looking beyond that he could be a good fit. You know he wants a trade to the Yankees, making him the heir to Mariano Rivera. He’d be more motivated than ever, going up against his former team six times a year.
It’s not even the money remaining on Papelbon’s deal, three years and $39 million if his 2016 option vests, that makes this a poor move. It’s the idea that with a proven closer in their ranks, Robertson could bolt for more money and a more prominent role on another team. Hell, he could bolt for the Red Sox, which is the worst possible idea. Imagine the Red Sox having an in-his-prime Robertson closing games while the Yankees have an over-the-hill (but still potentially effective) Papelbon closing theirs.
By itself, acquiring Papelbon wouldn’t be a bad idea. The Yankees obviously have the money, and Papelbon has made some adjustments to compensate for his diminishing stuff as he ages. The X factor is how this affects Robertson. If the Yankees bring in a proven closer, Robertson stands a better chance of leaving to find a closer role, and closer money, elsewhere. Why not just give Robertson the closer job in 2014 to see what he’s made of? Then they can spend that Papelbon money on Robertson if they’re satisfied.
Given the lack of relievers on the market, it might be easier to add a closer and keep Robertson in the setup role. But the easy move is rarely the correct move. The Yankees have to think beyond 2014, when they’ll need quality late-inning relievers like Robertson. To deny him the closer role in 2014 could be to lose him for 2015 and beyond. Given the mass exodus of relievers this off-season, that’s a scenario the Yankees can ill afford.