With four candidates left in camp, Shreve and Whitley are good bets for last two bullpen spots

Chase and Chasen. (Presswire)
Chase and Chasen. (Presswire)

The Yankees open the 2015 regular season in just six days now. And, at this very moment, it’s still not clear who will fill the last two bullpen spots. We know Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances will work the late innings — assuming Betances straightens himself out — and Justin Wilson and David Carpenter will get the middle innings. Esmil Rogers will be in the bullpen in some capacity too, like it or not.

Those last two spots are still unaccounted for. In fact, the Yankees haven’t even dropped any hints about which way they may be leaning. Another long man? Two more short relievers with Rogers being the long man? A third lefty? Nothing. The only hints we’ve gotten have come via roster cuts — players optioned or reassigned to minor league camp are out of the running for the Opening Day roster. I mean, yeah, one of those players could always make the roster, but that’s a rarity. Guys are sent out because they’re no longer considered MLB options.

By my count, the Yankees have 36 players remaining in big league camp, 17 of whom are pitchers. Three of those 17 are injured — Vicente Campos (Tommy John surgery), Chris Capuano (quad), Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — so it’s really 14 healthy pitchers. Ten of those 14 are locks for the Opening Day roster (the five relievers I mentioned earlier and the five starters), meaning the last two bullpen spots are down to a four-man race. And when you look at them individually, it’s easy to see who the two favorites are.

RHP Andrew Bailey

Bailey, 30, has throw four one-inning appearances this spring as he works his way back from a torn shoulder capsule, and he’s had at least two days off between each of those appearances. He hasn’t even worked with one day of rest between appearances, nevermind back-to-back days, which most relievers both in Yankees camp and around the league have already done at this point of spring. After spending nearly 20 months rehabbing from major shoulder surgery, four innings plus whatever Bailey throws this week doesn’t figure to be enough to land him on the Opening Day roster. Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi have continually downplayed Bailey’s chances of making the team and it makes total sense. He’s simply not ready yet.

RHP Chris Martin

Martin’s spring has been better than his 5.63 ERA would lead you to believe. He’s made nine appearances and five of the six runs he’s allowed have come in two of them, plus he has 13 strikeouts and one walk in eight innings. More importantly, the 28-year-old Martin’s stuff has looked good — hittable, but good — which might be enough to convince the Yankees they could hide him as the seventh reliever for a few weeks until Capuano returns or a Triple-A reliever forces the issue.

LHP Chasen Shreve

Not counting the guys who were competing for a rotation spot, the 24-year-old Shreve leads all relievers in camp with 10.1 innings pitched. The Yankees have given him plenty of exposure against righties — 29 of 43 batters faced have been righties — and he’s held his own, with seven strikeouts and one walk in 7.2 innings against hitters of the opposite hand. The overall Grapefruit League numbers are not good (5.23 ERA), but I don’t think the club will ding Shreve too hard given how much they’ve pushed him against righties. The Yankees are not a team that tends to dwell on spring performance. The way they’ve used him makes it seem like they want him to make the roster, or at least considered him a serious Opening Day roster candidate at one point. They might like Shreve’s split-changeup hybrid enough to carry him on the roster to open the regular season.

RHP Chase Whitley

Whitley was a fifth starter candidate but not really. He did get stretched out but only made one start, and he never did throw more than three innings in an appearance. Whitley has helped himself with a strong spring (0.79 ERA), which is better than getting hit around, especially since the Yankees know him from his time with the team last year. It’s hard to say no to a guy who was with you last year and has pitched well in camp, know what I mean? For example, in one hand the Yankees have Martin, who is new to the organization and requires you to squint your eyes to see the positive in his spring performance. In the other is Whitley, who’s three years younger than Martin, has been in the organization for years, and has pitched well in recent weeks. Seems like an obvious call to me.

* * *

The process of elimination leads me to believe Whitley and Shreve are likely to get those last two bullpen spots. Bailey simply isn’t physically ready for the big leagues yet. He hasn’t shown he can handle the workload. Whitley has pitched well and is an incumbent, and Shreve has been used in a way that suggests he is ahead of Martin on the depth chart. The signs point to Shreve and Whitley.

Of course, the bullpen is a very fluid part of the roster, and the Yankees have built enough depth that making the team on Opening Day isn’t a guarantee Shreve and Whitley won’t be in Triple-A come, say, April 20th, two weeks after Opening Day. Winning a roster spot is one thing. Keeping it is another. The Yankees have the ability to swap out relievers as needed and I expect that happen. Being on the Opening Day roster just means Shreve and Whitley (or whoever) will get the first shot at sticking all year.

Dellin Betances’ rough spring and reduced velocity are a cause for some concern, but not yet panic

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the fourth consecutive appearance, ace righty reliever Dellin Betances allowed a run yesterday afternoon, this one on a home run by the generally powerless Juan Lagares. The homer came on a hanging breaking ball, and while it was Dellin’s second straight day on the mound — his first set of back-to-back games this spring — it continued his recent stretch of tough outings.

Betances has allowed four runs on seven hits and two walks in his 5.1 innings this spring, striking out four. All four strikeouts came his first two outings. He hasn’t struck out any of the last 18 batters he’s faced after going no more than 13 batters between strikeouts in 2014 as best I can tell. Dellin allowed one run on five hits and four walks in 12.1 last spring, striking out eleven, just for reference.

The circumstances this year are much different than last year, however. Betances was trying to impress last spring because he wanted to make the team. He had a strong showing in September 2013 after moving to the bullpen full-time in Triple-A, but Spring Training was his best opportunity to impress the decision-makers. Betances has a roster spot locked up this spring, so he could afford to take it a little easier in March.

Now, that said, Dellin’s struggles appear to go beyond something we could chalk up to a veteran just getting work in. There is no PitchFX in any Grapefruit League park, so while we don’t have an accurate measure of his velocity, it is clearly down a few miles an hour. Joe Girardi acknowledged it the other day, telling Chad Jennings that Betances “wasn’t throwing 97, 98 in Spring Training last year at this time. He wasn’t. And power pitchers usually take a little bit longer to get going.”

While true, PitchFX clocked Betances at 97.1 mph during his first regular season outing last year, on April 1st. First game of the year adrenaline? Maybe. He was at 95.4 mph in his second game and 96.6 mph in his third. Either way, Dellin hasn’t come close to that average fastball velocity this month. His breaking ball hasn’t had the same sharp bite either — it certainly isn’t buckling as many knees — and his overall location has been poor. Betances knows it too and he’s getting frustrated.

“I’m obviously frustrated. I mean, it’s been four outings where every time out, I’ve given up a run. Today I felt better, but you got to make a better pitch than that to Lagares. It’s frustrating, but I’m sure I got four more outings left and I’ll do whatever I can to be better for the season,” said Dellin to Jennings and Brendan Kuty following yesterday’s game. “A lot of those guys know who I am now. Last year, I was unknown. Right now I need to get a few more (mph on my fastball) and maybe attack the zone better.”

Three years ago we went through a similar situation with a pitcher showing reduced velocity, though I think Michael Pineda‘s situation in 2012 was much different than what Betances is going through now. Pineda was having a tough time cracking 90 mph — Jennings spoke to a scout who had Betances at 92-93 mph yesterday, for what it’s worth — and he seemed to be laboring physically. Dellin doesn’t give off that same vibe. It seems like it’s a mechanical issue more than a physical issue, but I’m neither a doctor nor a pitching coach.

Betances of course has a long history of mechanical issues. Very long. Basically his entire career sans 2014. He struggled with extreme control problems in the minors and things didn’t click until he went to the bullpen, and Dellin attributed the regular work to his improved mechanics. That could be part of the problem this spring — he’s thrown roughly 40% of the innings he did last spring with only a week to go in camp. Maybe he hasn’t seen enough game action to get up to speed.

Last season’s workload — 90 innings across 70 appearances — could certainly be a factor, though the innings total itself was not out of the norm for Betances. He threw 89 total innings in 2013, 131.1 innings in 2012, and 129 innings in 2011. That said, he was a starter in 2011 and 2012, and throwing that many innings as a starter is different than doing it as a reliever in so many more appearances. Dellin threw a ton of stressful innings last year. Of course the workload could be a factor.

I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t worried about Betances’ rough spring and his stuff not being as crisp as it was in 2014. Between that, his minor league history, and last year’s workload, I don’t know how some concern doesn’t creep into your mind. But full blown panic? No, not yet. I want to see what happens when Betances gets into the regular season and gets some more innings under his belt. If he’s still throwing low-90s with no feel for his breaking ball say, three weeks into the season, then I’ll be much more concerned than I am right now.

As I wrote in our Season Preview post earlier this week, Betances is unlikely to repeat last season’s overwhelming dominance because basically no one does that two years in a row. That doesn’t mean I expect to him bad though. I still expect him to be an elite reliever, the same way David Robertson never repeated his 2011 performance but remained elite from 2012-14. The good news is the Yankees have a deep bullpen and have the relievers to cover the late innings if Betances’ struggles carry over into the regular season. They can be patient and let him work it out.

But let’s not kid ourselves either. Dellin is a major piece of the 2015 Yankees, a team built to win close games on the back of a shutdown bullpen, a bullpen Betances was expected to anchor. If whatever is ailing him this spring continues deep into the season, it’s going to hurt the team’s chances of contending substantially. This isn’t some generic middle reliever we’re talking about. For now, I am a bit concerned about Betances and hope to see improvement over his final few Spring Training appearances. And if he doesn’t get straightened out a few weeks into the regular season, the Yankees could have a big problem on their hands.

Yankees’ strongest Opening Day bullpen includes Jacob Lindgren

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At some point in the next ten days or so, Joe Girardi and his staff are going to finalize their pitching staff by selecting a fifth starter and the last two relievers. They might also pick a closer but that’s not the most important thing in the world since they have multiple candidates for the job. Adam Warren is the heavy favorite to be the fifth starter yet there hasn’t been any hint as to who might be selected to fill out the bullpen.

The Yankees have plenty of relievers in camp, both 40-man roster and non-40-man roster players, and they’ve already eliminated some players from the bullpen competition by sending them down to minor league camp. Jose Ramirez, Branden Pinder, Jose DePaula, and Danny Burawa were among the bullpen candidates sent down already. Jared Burton is hurt (lat strain) and out of the running as well. Here’s how the remaining bullpen candidates have performed this spring:

  • RHP Andrew Bailey: 2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K in only two games as he works his way back from major shoulder surgery.
  • RHP Scott Baker: 8.1 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 7 K in three games.
  • RHP Kyle Davies: 7 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 2 K in five games.
  • LHP Jacob Lindgren: 6.1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 9 K in seven games.
  • RHP Chris Martin: 6.1 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 8 K in seven games.
  • RHP Bryan Mitchell: 7.1 IP, 12 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 4 BB, 6 K in three games.
  • RHP Nick Rumbelow: 6.2 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 12 K in six games.
  • LHP Chasen Shreve: 8 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 10 K in eight games.
  • RHP Chase Whitley: 10 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 4 K in four games.

The Yankees have taken a long look at Shreve this spring and have been using him against right-handed hitters to see if he can get them out — 26 of the 37 batters he’s faced during Grapefruit League play have been righties. Seven of the 26 have reached base. Shreve’s last few outings have been rough though, and while making a roster decision based on Spring Training performance is sorta foolish, teams still do it and Shreve potentially pitched his way to Triple-A.

Davies was never a serious MLB roster candidate and the Yankees have indicated they would like Mitchell to open the year in Triple-A to continue working on things, specifically his command. Same with Rumbelow. Bailey has a lot of rust to shake off and not much Spring Training time left to shake it off. Martin started out well — Girardi mentioned him by name a week or two ago when asked who had impressed him — but he’s allowed at least one hit in each Grapefruit League outing and always seems to be in trouble.

That leaves three bullpen candidates: Baker, Lindgren, and Whitley. Whitley has been fantastic in camp with the caveat that Baseball Reference’s opponent quality stat says he’s been facing Triple-A caliber hitters. Still, when you toss up that many zeros in camp, people notice. And the fact Whitley was in the big leagues last year helps his case.  Baker got destroyed in his first spring outing (three runs on six hits in one inning) but has been excellent since. He’s been facing better than Triple-A caliber competition. The Yankees are likely to use one of last two bullpen spots on a long man (maybe two!) and right now I think we have to say Whitley has a leg up on Baker.

The last remaining name is the most interesting one. Lindgren has dominated in camp — his 19 outs are broken into nine strikeouts, eight ground outs, and two fly outs — yet he’s faced Double-A caliber competition. Lindgren manhandled Single-A and Double-A hitters during his pro debut last summer and it’s no surprise he’s doing it again this spring. His slider is lethal. He’s basically Andrew Miller minus about nine inches of height. The dominant showing this month has only reinforced what many felt coming into Spring Training: Lindgren is one of the seven best relievers in the organization right now.

The Yankees drafted Lindgren, who was a reliever at Mississippi State, with their top pick (55th overall) last year because they expected him to get to MLB in a hurry. There was talk they were going to call him up last year until they decided 79.2 high leverage innings were enough. Teams don’t draft college relievers in the first or second round only to leave them in the minors for two or three years. They pick them high because they can get to the big leagues quickly, and by all accounts Lindgren is as MLB ready as a one-inning reliever can be.

There are no roster space issues — the Yankees have 39 players on the 40-man roster right now and can clear another spot by placing Ivan Nova on the 60-day DL and potentially another when Austin Romine is moved — and manipulating service time with a reliever shouldn’t be a high priority. And let’s be real here, there’s also a “there are only so many bullets in that arm” factor too. Lindgren is a slider heavy reliever and may eventually blow out his arm because that’s what slider heavy relievers do. The Yankees should want to get as much as possible out of him before that happens.

At this point in time, I think the best Opening Day roster is one with Lindgren in the bullpen, even if he’s only working low-leverage middle innings at first to gain experience. This isn’t based on his spring performance either, I felt he could get MLB hitters out last summer. The Yankees have the luxury of a great bullpen, allowing Girardi to break Lindgren in slowly, like he did with Dellin Betances early last year and David Robertson years ago. And if Lindgren doesn’t perform well, so be it, they can send him down. That’s part of the development process. Robertson went up and down a whole bunch of times early in his career too.

No bullpen candidate other than Whitley has really stood out in Spring Training, making Lindgren impossible to ignore. If the Yankees had a bunch of guys performing great in camp, this would be a much more difficult decision. That is not the case though. Lindgren was basically MLB ready at the time of the draft last year and he’s done nothing to dispute that since turning pro. He’s one of the seven best relievers in the organization, so if the Yankees want to field the strongest possible bullpen heading into the season, Lindgren belongs on the Opening Day roster.

The quietly important David Carpenter is opening eyes this spring, apparently

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As the Yankees overhauled their bullpen this past offseason, they focused on adding power left-handed relievers, specifically guys who can get both righties and lefties out. Andrew Miller and Justin Wilson have both done that at the MLB level and Chasen Shreve projects to be that type of pitcher as well. Handedness doesn’t really matter if you have no platoon split, but quality lefties are harder to find than quality righties, so they’re good to have.

In addition to those lefties, the Yankees added one bonafide big league right-handed reliever in David Carpenter, who came over from the Braves with Shreve in the Manny Banuelos trade. Carpenter spent the last two years setting up Craig Kimbrel and he’ll slot into a similar setup role with the Yankees, basically replacing Shawn Kelley. That’s fitting because they’re both fastball/slider pitchers with fly ball tendencies, though Carpenter is slightly younger and cheaper (and under control two extra years).

According to Buster Olney, scouts have been impressed by the 29-year-old Carpenter in the early going this spring. He expanded on that ever so slightly in his Insider-only blog yesterday:

Evaluators have been greatly impressed with the spring showing of Yankees reliever David Carpenter, who has been working to add a splitter to his power stuff in his first season with New York. Carpenter mentioned in conversation how good it is to be teaming up again with catcher Brian McCann, who caught Carpenter when both were with the Braves during Carpenter’s impressive 2013 season.

Carpenter has only made four appearances this spring, allowing three runs on five hits and two walks in four innings, striking out three. His first two outings were very good, the last two were kinda duds. Whatever. Results don’t really mean much in March. Someone, somewhere was impressed by Carpenter according to Olney. That’s sort of cool but spring is always full of “this random guy looks great” stories.

Regardless of how he’s looked this spring, Carpenter is filling an important role with the Yankees as the No. 2 right-handed reliever behind Dellin Betances. Pretty quietly too. Carpenter hasn’t gotten as much press as Miller, Shreve, Jacob Lindgren, or pretty much every reliever in camp so far this spring. I guess that makes sense — Miller was a big free agent pickup, Shreve is trying to make the team, and Lindgren was the team’s top draft pick this year.

Carpenter had a 1.78 ERA in 2013 and a 3.54 ERA in 2014, but his peripherals were very close those two seasons: 28.9 and 25.9 K%, 7.8 and 6.2 BB%, 38.2 and 37.6 GB%, 0.69 and 0.74 HR/9, and 2.83 and 2.94 FIP. There’s a little of the normal year to year fluctuation in there but for the most part his 2013 performance was in line with his 2014 performance aside from the whole runs allowed thing. More importantly, look at Carpenter’s platoon splits across 2013-14.

IP wOBA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB%
vs. RHP 72.1 .265 2.52 28.0% 5.4% 37.7% 7.2%
vs. LHP 54.1 .284 3.37 26.6% 9.2% 38.2% 8.8%

Like most relievers, especially fastball/slider guys, Carpenter is less effective against hitters of the opposite hand. It’s not a huge platoon split, but it’s enough of a split that Joe Girardi will probably opt for Miller or Wilson against a tough lefty in a big situation in the late innings of a close games.

The new splitter could be a difference-maker for Carpenter, however. It could better allow him to combat left-handed hitters and become an even greater weapon late in the ballgame. And maybe the pitch is something McCann can help him develop. Carpenter has said he greatly enjoyed throwing to McCann while with the Braves and perhaps he’s more comfortable using the splitter in meaningful games with his old friend behind the plate. It’s one thing to toy with it in Spring Training, it’s another to use it in the seventh inning of a one-run game in the regular season.

Either way, splitter or no splitter, Carpenter has the tools to be an effective late-inning reliever. He’s done it the last two years and he’ll be expected to do it again in 2015. If he can develop that splitter a little bit — it doesn’t need to be a great pitch, just something to put in the back of a left-handed hitter’s mind to keep him off the fastball and slider — Carpenter would become even more of a weapon for Girardi. For now, he’s the No. 2 righty behind Betances, and that itself is a pretty significant role.

Capuano injury, plan for Tanaka could change way Yanks build early-season bullpen

Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be far-fetched. (Presswire)
Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be so far-fetched. (Presswire)

Last week the Yankees lost projected fifth starter Chris Capuano for several weeks with a Grade II right quad strain. Capuano is the team’s most replaceable starter but that doesn’t mean the loss is insignificant. Someone else has to fill that rotation spot now and chances are it will be someone who was slated to open the year in the bullpen, either Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers, most likely. The loss will be felt somewhere.

The Yankees have also been discussing using a six-man rotation early in the season — not necessarily a strict six-man rotation, but rather strategically using a sixth starter on occasion to give the other guys rest. That makes sense considering Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda all have some kind of health concern. In fact, the team is planning to use Tanaka specifically every sixth day early in the season, according to Kevin Kernan.

The Yankees have a plan to keep Masahiro Tanaka as healthy as possible, and that means giving him an extra day of rest now and during the season so he pitches every sixth day.

“It’s something we’d like to do,’’ one Yankees official told The Post on Friday of keeping the rotation on a six-day spin.

Tanaka worked on a six-day schedule in Japan until signing with the Yankees last winter, and given his elbow situation, the extra day could be beneficial both short and long-term. April off-days and a strategic sixth starter will help the Yankees accomplish their goal of starting Tanaka every sixth day, though Capuano’s injury complicates things a little bit because it changes the bullpen construction.

Assuming Warren or Rogers replaces Capuano in the rotation — I think it’ll be Warren personally, but there are still three weeks of Spring Training to go — five of the seven bullpen spots are set:

  1. Dellin Betances
  2. Andrew Miller
  3. David Carpenter
  4. Justin Wilson
  5. Warren or Rogers
  6. ?
  7. ?

There are no shortage of candidates for those last two spots. Finding bodies won’t be difficult. The Yankees have the luxury of filling those spots any way they want because of all the available options. And with Capuano hurt and the Yankees wanting to start Tanaka every sixth day, the most practical way to fill both spots may be with long men. At least temporarily.

Baker. (Presswire)
Baker. (Presswire)

The thinking is one of those two long men — it would really be three long men in the bullpen when you include the Warren/Rogers spot — could step in as the sixth starter as needed to spell Tanaka (and the other starters) every so often. That would leave at least one more long man for other days, in case Warren/Rogers or any of the other starters go short. This isn’t rocket science, the more relievers in the bullpen who can throw multiple innings, the better.

Planning to carry multiple long men is one thing, but actually having multiple viable long men is another. The Yankees started last season with three relievers who could have been considered long relievers (Warren, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno), but that was a bit of an outlier. You don’t see many teams break camp with three guys like that. (I thought the Yankees would sent at least one to Triple-A to stay stretched out as the sixth starter, but nope.)

Here are the club’s long man candidates still in big league camp (listed alphabetically), assuming Warren and Rogers will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity no matter what:

  • Scott Baker: Veteran guy who threw 80.2 generally ineffective innings (5.47 ERA and 4.78 FIP) for the Rangers last year. He’s thrown four innings across a pair of appearances this spring.
  • Kyle Davies: Threw 154.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year and hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2011. He’s thrown four innings in three appearances during Grapefruit League play.
  • Jose DePaula: DePaula has dealt with numerous injuries in recent years and was limited to 51.1 innings in Triple-A last year. He’s made just one appearance this spring, throwing two innings.
  • Bryan Mitchell: Eleven innings in MLB last year and another 103 in the minors. He threw 145.1 minor league innings back in 2013. Mitchell has thrown four innings in two appearances this spring.
  • Chase Whitley: Made the conversion from bullpen to rotation last year and threw a career high 107 innings, including 75.2 in MLB. He’s thrown seven innings this spring, appearing in three games.

We can group these five guys into three different … well, groups. The Yankees have nothing invested in Baker and Davies long-term. They’re older pitchers trying to hang on and the team will not hesitate to run them into the ground, then designate them for assignment. It sounds rough but that’s baseball. Baker and Davies aren’t stupid, they know where they are at this stage of their careers.

Mitchell is an actual prospect and the Yankees do have reason to protect him with an eye towards the future. Mitchell will turn 24 next month and he’s also the least MLB ready of the bunch despite making his debut last season. He could use some more Triple-A time for fine-tuning. DePaula and Whitley are somewhere in the middle. Not really potential pieces of the long-term puzzle like Mitchell but probably not guys the Yankees would abuse a la Baker and Davies either.

The Yankees don’t have to decide on those final bullpen spots for a few weeks and by then they should have a better idea of Capuano’s timetable. If he’s expected back relatively soon, within the first week or two of the regular season, they could opt to take a short reliever who can be optioned down when Capuano’s healthy to make life easy. If he’ll miss a few weeks and not return until closer May, carrying two long relievers like, say, Baker and Whitley early on could make sense if the Yankees intend to stick to their strategic sixth starter plan.

Girardi hints at co-closer setup with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With Spring Training one week away — pitchers and catchers report in one week, anyway — position battles will soon begin and the final roster spots will be sorted out. For the most part the Yankees’ 25-man roster is set — barring injury, of course — with the last bullpen spot and maybe the last bench spot up for grabs. That’s about it.

One position the Yankees have to figure out these next few weeks is the closer’s role. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are the two favorites for obvious reasons but the team has no real shortage of candidates. I’m sure Adam Warren or David Carpenter could close no problem if needed. Finding a closer in Spring Training isn’t really the issue. Joe Girardi and his staff just need to actually pick someone to do it.

For what’s it’s worth, both Miller and Betances have said the right things when asked about the closer’s job this offseason. “I’ve never been a closer so it’s not like I’m building a resume. I’m not worried about that kind of thing,” said Miller on the MLB Trade Rumors podcast earlier this week. “I think we’ve all seen the value of relievers getting outs in those sixth, seventh and eighth innings now … I just want to be part of a good team and I think that flexibility opens more windows and more doors for me.”

Betances, meanwhile, recently told Mike Vorkunov he hasn’t really thought about being the closer and is just going to focus on getting outs. “At times I think the middle innings – the seventh, eighth inning – sometimes you come in to a tough situation, bases loaded, two guys on, when the game is on the line. Even if you pitch one inning, sometimes you face the two-three-four hitters, sometimes that’s harder at times,” he said. “I think the ninth inning you put pressure on yourself that’s where you tend to fail a little bit. But I’ve learned a lot from Mo and from what David Robertson did last year. It’s to take it one day at a time and to have a short memory.”

Miller and Betances are right, sometimes the seventh and eighth innings are tougher than the ninth, and that’s why Dellin was so valuable last year. He didn’t just dominate, he was able to dominate for two innings at a time if necessary. Betances got all the big outs in the middle innings. As long as Joe Girardi is able to balance winning games with keeping his righty relief ace rested and fresh — he threw 90 innings with a 1.28 average leverage index last year, which is a friggin’ ton of stressful innings — it would be awesome to see him in that role again.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

“I think guys like to know their roles, so I think if we can iron it out, I think it would be a good thing to do,” said Girardi to Bryan Hoch recently. “But I think you can also create an atmosphere where you say, ‘You know what, guys? I’ll prepare you every day in a sense of what I think is going to happen, and here are your matchups, the guys that I’m probably going to bring you in against.'”

That’s a pretty interesting answer from Girardi, who seems to suggest he’s open to trying some sort of co-closer situation, presumably with Miller facing the tough lefties and Betances facing the tough righties in whatever inning that may be. I floated the idea of a co-closer setup last month when discussing the ninth inning and noted Girardi likes to have defined roles. He’s shown that since he was hired back in 2008. Perhaps now he’s softened on that stance.

The only team to even try a co-closer setup in the last decade or so was the 2009 Braves, who had lefty Mike Gonzalez and righty Rafael Soriano. With Miller and Betances, the Yankees clearly have the righty personnel to try something similar. I love the idea, it’s outside the box and puts everyone in the best position to succeed, but something like this isn’t as easy to put into practice as it may seem. Hopefully the Yankees and Girardi can pull it off.

Even with bullpen depth, picking a closer an important decision for Yankees

(Getty)
(Getty)

After the 2013 season, Mariano Rivera retired and left the Yankees with a closer problem. Or at least a lot of people acted like they had a closer problem. It was weird. David Robertson was as qualified as any closer-in-waiting in the game and, sure enough, he handled the ninth inning last year just as well as he handled the eighth inning from 2011-13. It was a seamless transition.

The Yankees again have a closer problem this offseason, but only in the sense that they don’t have a set closer right now, more than five weeks before the start of Spring Training. They’ve spent the winter adding bullpen depth and have a number of closer candidates already in-house. Replacing Robertson — who the Yankees let walk as a free agent — is not a question of whether the Yankees have anyone who can do it, but who they will pick to do it.

The two primary closer candidates are Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, both of whom were among the four or five best relievers in baseball last season. They’re actually quite similar, at least in the sense that they are both former top prospects who fought command problems due in part to their height — did you know Miller is 6-foot-7? I had no idea until the Yankees signed him — earlier in their careers and didn’t figure things out until they moved into the bullpen full-time. Either guy could step in and close no questions asked.

The Yankees don’t have anyone with actual closer experience — among pitchers currently on the 40-man roster, Adam Warren and David Carpenter have the most career saves with four apiece — but their closer options go beyond Betances and Miller. They could go with Warren or Carpenter, or give Justin Wilson a try. Jacob Lindgren could be the closer of the future, or he could be the closer of the present. The Yankees have a clean slate and are free to pick their closer.

Having lots of options doesn’t lessen the important of picking a closer, however. Everyone in the bullpen seems to fall in line once the closer is set, and relievers do like to know their roles. Who can blame them? No one would like going to work everyday not knowing what you’ll be asked to do. Relievers like to know their role so they know how and when to prepare. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and bullpen roles fuel that habit. Here are things the Yankees will surely consider when picking their next ninth inning guy.

Saves Pay

If you’re a reliever, the easiest way to make money is to accumulate saves. They pay in arbitration and they still pay in free agency. Addison Reed, with his 101 saves and career 98 ERA+, is projected to get $3.8M during his first trip through arbitration this winter. Robertson went into his first arbitration year (2012) with two career saves and a 112 ERA+ and received only $1.6M. Saves do pay. It’s dumb but that’s the system.

Should Betances get the ninth inning and rack up, say, 30+ saves this year and next, his 2017 arbitration salary will be much higher than it would be if he remains setup man. That also carries into future years too — his salaries in 2018 and 2019 will be higher as well. The same is true with Carpenter, Warren, Wilson, whoever. This might not be such a big deal with Betances, but if someone like Carpenter or Warren closes, their salary could exceed their actual value in a hurry, making them non-tender candidates.

Miller, on the other hand, has a multi-year contract. He’s getting paid $9M in each of the next four seasons no matter what. The Yankees could opt to use Miller — who is more than qualified for the job, remember — as the closer and keep costs down with the rest of the bullpen. That’s not being cheap, that’s being smart. Miller’s making what he’s making. That’s already set. If Betances starts making big money as the closer too, then that’s less money the Yankees can use elsewhere.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

Does Handedness Matter?

Right now, the only full-time left-handed closers in baseball are Aroldis Chapman, Sean Doolittle, Glen Perkins, and Zach Britton. Doolittle and Britton just got the job last year. Since 1990, nine lefties have saved 25+ games in multiple seasons while 88 righties have done so. The innings pitched split in baseball has historically been about 75/25 in favor of righties, but the closer split the last 25 years has been 90/10 or so. For whatever reason, there’s a bit of a bias against lefty closers.

Miller is no ordinary lefty, of course. He dominates both righties and lefties and is just as capable of pitching a full inning as any righty reliever in baseball. That isn’t the question. The question is whether the Yankees and Joe Girardi want a bullpen in which three of their six non-closers could be left-handed, with Wilson and either Lindgren or Chasen Shreve joining Miller. Betances, Warren, Carpenter or another righty would be closing in that scenario.

Personally, I don’t think the Yankees would care one bit about having three or four lefties in the bullpen if they are among the seven best bullpeners in the organization. If they were all matchup specialists in the mold of Clay Rapada, then yeah, it would be a problem. You can’t have three pitchers like that in one bullpen. But these guys aren’t Rapada types. They throw hard and don’t have platoon concerns. The Yankees have the luxury of having several quality relievers, and some of them just happen to throw left-handed. For New York, handedness is no concern right now.

Why Not Use Co-Closers?

The bullpen by committee idea just doesn’t work for whatever reason. A few teams have tried it — most notably the 2003 Red Sox — but it just doesn’t hasn’t worked. Things seem to fall apart once guys don’t have a set role and don’t know when they’ll pitch day after day. Having that one set guy in the ninth inning changes the entire bullpen dynamic for the better.

A few years ago though, the Braves used lefty Mike Gonzalez and righty Rafael Soriano as what were essentially co-closers. Gonzalez faced the tough lefties whenever they were due up, either in the eighth or ninth, while Soriano faced the tough righties and pitched the other inning. Gonzalez wound up with ten saves and Soriano with 27. The Yankees could try something similar with the lefty Miller and righty Betances.

In theory, the Yankees could use a similar co-closer system in 2015. They certainly have the right personnel to try it. But, Girardi has shown he very much likes to have a set closer and a set eighth inning guy, and will rarely deviate from that strategy. Would he be open to a platoon closer/setup man combination? Possibly, sure. But I’m going to bet against it. Girardi likes his relievers in set roles and that’s perfectly fine. He makes it work. Co-closers or a closer by committee can be chaotic.

Untuck Part II? (Mitchell Leff/Getty)
Untuck Part II? (Mitchell Leff/Getty)

Free Agents?

There are still some quality — and by quality I mean big name more than big production — closers on the market in Soriano, Francisco Rodriguez, and Casey Janssen. I wouldn’t ever rule out the Yankees signing a free agent, though I don’t expect it right now. They’ve accumulated a lot of bullpen arms this winter and the plans seems to be to use that depth. If they’re going to spend a decent amount of money on a player at this point, it’ll probably be someone who can help the rotation. A free agent closer signing is always possible. At this point it seems unlikely.

Dellin’s Destiny!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the eerily similar career paths of Betances and Rivera. Both guys were underwhelming minor league starters who moved into the bullpen and dominated as multi-inning setup men in their first MLB season at age 26, then, the next year, they took over as closer after the team’s incumbent ninth inning guy left as a free agent. This year it was Robertson. In 1997 it was John Wetteland. The parallels are freaky. Clearly it is Dellin’s destiny to take over as closer, right?

* * *

Okay, so let’s get back to reality. The Yankees will have to pick a closer at some point before the start of the regular season and this isn’t something they can determine with a Spring Training competition. They couldn’t send Miller and Betances out there in March and tell them the guy who performs best in his seven or eight Grapefruit League innings gets the glory of closing. That would be silly. The only way Spring Training should effect the closer situation is if someone gets hurt.

Girardi and his coaching staff and I’m sure the front office will get together to discuss the team’s closer for the upcoming season at some point That could have happened already for all we know, or they could mull it over until the very end of camp. The team’s bullpen depth is a great weapon but it doesn’t lessen the importance of the decision. Everyone else falls into place in the bullpen once the closer is picked. It’s not a decision that will make or break the season, but it isn’t one the Yankees should take lightly either. Closer is a position they want to get settled as soon as possible.

Who should be the closer?