Archive for Death by Bullpen
Even though he caught an awful lot of crap, the Yankees had a pretty reliable lefty reliever in Boone Logan over the last few years. They wisely walked away when the Rockies offered Logan a total of $16.5M across three years this winter, instead opting to sign the veteran Matt Thornton to a more sensible two-year, $7M pact. Lefty reliever is a hardly a position worth big free agent bucks.
Logan is recovering from offseason elbow surgery and has yet to appear in a Spring Training game for Colorado while the 37-year-old Thornton has made four Grapefruit League appearances so far this spring. They’ve been four pretty terrible appearances: 14 batters faced, seven hits, one strikeout, three runs charged. He has only faced four left-handed hitters but three have hits. The other grounded out. Not ideal, but it is only spring.
“I know where I need to make improvements,” said Thornton to Brendan Kuty earlier this week. “The off-speed is coming along. I can use it in any situation. I was talking to Brian McCann after [my last] outing. He feels confident with any pitch we’re throwing out there, whether it’s the four-seamer, two-seamer slider or split, but you still have to get ahead. The next few outings I’m going for strike one, no matter what it is. You can’t fall behind guys.”
Thornton was once one of the top relievers in the game regardless of handedness, but, as I detailed in the season preview, his performance has slipped with age and he’s strictly a lefty specialist at this point. The Yankees know this and Joe Girardi is usually very good with platoon situations, so I don’t expect it to be much of an issue. He’ll be a glorified Clay Rapada rather than someone who is asked to get righties out with any sort of regularity.
As it stands right now, it seems unlikely the Yankees will carry a second lefty in the bullpen come Opening Day. Cesar Cabral continues to pitch unimportant late innings in spring games and appears to have been passed by Fred Lewis on the depth chart. Lewis has been impressive in camp but doesn’t have a promising minor league track record. Vidal Nuno is the most likely candidate for a potential second lefty spot, and he could wind up in Triple-A stretched out as the sixth starter.
Michael Pineda looked fantastic yesterday and solidified his hold on the fifth starter’s spot, meaning David Phelps and Adam Warren moved one step closer to the bullpen. That leaves only two open bullpen spots, one of which will go to Dellin Betances based on his performance this spring. Nuno could grab that last spot, it wouldn’t be that surprising, but Cabral and Lewis are a bit more off the radar. The Yankees could take a second lefty north if they’re concerned with Thornton, but I think they’ll go with him as the only southpaw until he shows he’s not up to the task in the regular season.
Mariano Rivera has retired and he’s not coming back. After 16 years of enjoying eight inning games thanks to the best reliever in baseball history, the Yankees are beginning an era in which the ninth inning isn’t such a lock anymore. The bullpen anchor is gone, and even though we got a glimpse of what life without Mo was like when he hurt his knee in 2012, this is still going to be a new experience.
The Yankees have stopped short of officially naming David Robertson their new closer, but that is a mere formality at this point. Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, and even Hal Steinbrenner have indicated Robertson will assume ninth inning duties this spring. That’s no surprise. Robertson has been excellent these last three years and has pretty much every quality you’d want in a future closer. He strikes guys out, he gets ground balls, and he has experience working high-leverage innings for a (mostly) contending team in a tough division in a huge market. All the boxes are checked.
At this point, I think we all know what Robertson is and what he can do. He’s primarily a cutter pitcher at this point, mixing in the occasional curveball when ahead in the count. He’s also cut down on his walk rate drastically these last two years, going from 4.7 BB/9 (12.2 BB%) from 2008-11 to a 2.6 BB/9 (7.3 BB%) from 2012-13. Robertson is not the most efficient pitcher in the world, but he has said this spring that he is making an effort to throw fewer pitches and get quicker outs this season. Maybe that leads to him striking out fewer batters but being available three days in a row instead of just two. We’ll see.
There seem to be two opposing schools of thought when it comes to the closer’s role: anyone can do it and not everyone can do it. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Not everyone likes pitching at the end of games — Jeremy Affeldt and LaTroy Hawkins are two notable players who have admitted as much — but way more guys can close than most people initially thought. The fact of the matter is we don’t know how Robertson will react to closing until he does it. I think he’ll be more than fine but what do I know? All we can do is wait a few weeks and see.
Instead of focusing just on Robertson, I want to spend some time exploring what the Yankees are looking at in the post-Rivera years. How the other half lives. That is, basically, a revolving door at closer. Sure, Robertson might be the guy for the next half-decade, but he has not been a closer yet and he’s due to become a free agent after the season. It’s not crazy to think he might not be the team’s closer long-term. Closers like Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Billy Wagner, and Trevor Hoffman are very rare. Not many guys do the job for ten years or more. There is generally a lot of turnover in the ninth inning.
As of right now, only three teams project to have the same closer on Opening Day 2014 as they did on Opening Day 2012: the Phillies (Papelbon), Braves (Craig Kimbrel), and Padres (Huston Street). (Aroldis Chapman and Glen Perkins took over as their club’s closer a few weeks into the 2012 season, but were not the guys on Opening Day.) Three teams, that’s it. You can go back and check if you want. Furthermore, all four LCS teams last year (Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox, Tigers) changed closers at midseason. World Series closers Koji Uehara and Trevor Rosenthal weren’t even their team’s Plan B. Uehara got the job after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey got hurt, and Rosenthal got it after Jason Motte got hurt, Mitchell Boggs flopped, and Edward Mujica crashed late in the season.
That is the norm. Most teams wind up making changes at closer if not in season, than at some point in the span of two seasons. The Yankees are very fortunate to have Robertson, who is more Rosenthal than Mujica, but in a world without Rivera, they could be looking at a new closer every year or two. Remember what it was like before Mo? John Wetteland for two years, Steve Howe for a year, Steve Farr for three years … on and on. Let’s not forget the postseason either, Rivera was beyond brilliant in October and that is irreplaceable. That revolving door is what the next few years of the ninth inning could look like, especially if Robertson proves to be not up to the task or bolts as a free agent next winter.
For this coming season, the Yankees appear to have a more than capable ninth inning man in Robertson. If he can’t hack it, then whichever reliever happens to be pitching the best at the time figures to get a crack at the ninth inning. Maybe that’s Shawn Kelley or Dellin Betances or Adam Warren. Who knows? We’ll worry about that when the time comes. Robertson is as good as any prospective closer in the game, but because of his impending free agency, the ninth inning is still a question long-term. That’s the case for almost every team in baseball and new experience for the Yankees as we know them.
Depending on what happens with the fifth starter spot, the Yankees have either two or three bullpen spots up for grabs in camp. There are something like eight or nine relievers competing for those spots, though some obviously have a better chance than others. Dellin Betances and Cesar Cabral, both of whom pitched with the team last September, have already emerged as the early favorites for big league jobs just two weeks into the Grapefruit League schedule.
Betances, who turns 26 in less than two weeks, continued his strong spring yesterday by pitching around a one out double in an inning of work. He didn’t just pitch around the double, he did it by throwing six straight curveballs to big leaguers Matt Joyce (strikeout) and Wil Myers (ground out). That’s not something Betances would have been able to do in the past. Emphasizing his offspeed stuff is something he’s been working on this spring.
“I feel good right now. I feel good with where my offspeed is. I feel like I can throw it for strikes. It’s been working for me. I’m just trying to better myself with each outing,” said Betances to Bryan Hoch. “I know my offspeed was one of the things that helped me out when I got in trouble with my fastball. I would try to use that to keep myself a little calm with my mechanics. I just tried to take that into this spring, mix my pitches. In the big leagues, everybody can hit fastballs, no matter how hard you throw. I’m just trying to use all my pitches the best way I can.”
Betances is up to 6.1 scoreless innings in camp, striking out five against two walks and two hits. The opponent quality stat at Baseball Reference says he’s been facing mostly big leaguers, which isn’t surprising. He’s been the first guy out of the bullpen in most games. Betances has the size and power stuff the Yankees love, so maybe a roster spot was his to lose coming to camp following last season’s bullpen breakout. If it was, he’s done nothing to lose the spot. If it wasn’t, he’s pushed himself towards the top of the depth chart.
With Cabral, on the other hand, it always felt like he was on the outside of the bullpen competition looking in. At least it did to me. Carrying a second lefty specialist is a luxury, and with Matt Thornton already on board to be the primary guy, passing on Cabral to take a more versatile right-hander makes some sense. It still does, actually. Then again, the best pitchers are the best pitchers, and if another southpaw is one of the seven best relievers in the organization, he should be on the roster come Opening Day.
In 4.1 innings across four appearances this spring, the just-turned-25-year-old Cabral has allowed one hit and two walks, striking out four. Lefties are 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a walk against him. Cabral has not faced the best competition however, basically Double-A level according to that opponent quality metric at B-Ref. He can only face the guys he’s put out there against though, and if he keeps getting outs and handling lefties, he’ll get a longer look and more serious consideration as camp progresses.
So far, after only a handful of Grapefruit League appearances, both Betances and Cabral have done everything they’ve needed to do to secure a big league bullpen job. Neither guy has a spot locked up of course, but they have moved to the front of the pack. Preston Claiborne, Matt Daley, and Fred Lewis have pitched well too, so they’re not alone, but others like Robert Coello and Brian Gordon have already managed to pitch themselves out of bullpen consideration. Both Betances and Cabral have made a nice little statement early on and put themselves in good position for a big league job when roster decision time comes.
Remember back when the Yankees struggled to find a reliable setup man once Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson skipped town? They spent a ton of money on guys like Steve Karsay and Kyle Farnsworth over the years — in fairness, both of them had their moments — but it wasn’t until David Robertson emerged three years ago that they had a consistently dominant eighth inning guy ahead of Mariano Rivera.
Mo retired after last season and Robertson will take over ninth inning duties, meaning the setup role is again something of a question. Joe Girardi has indicated he won’t necessarily have a designated eighth inning guy in 2014, instead relying on platoon matchups to get the ball to his new closer. While these things are always subject to change, two veterans who throw with different arms figure to share setup duties at the start of the season.
RHP Shawn Kelley
Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees a year ago. They acquired him in a minor trade with the Mariners just as Spring Training started and he gave the team 53.1 innings of 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) ball. An ugly April and an ugly September were sandwiched around three excellent months as Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) in 39.2 innings from May 1st through August 31st. During that time, he struck out 51 of 162 batters faced (31.5%).
The Yankees unlocked the 29-year-old’s strikeout potential with a tried and true formula: get ahead in the count and bury hitters with a wipeout slider. Out of the 125 relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Kelley ranked fifth in slider percentage (49.4%) and 16th in first pitch strike percentage (65.6%). Simple, right? Get ahead in the count and go to the slider. That helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .225/.290/.417 (.308 wOBA) batting line with a 32.8% strikeout rate.
Kelley is not without his warts, however. Left-handed hitters knocked him around a bit (.329 wOBA) and, perhaps more importantly, he is very fly ball and homer prone. His 33.1% ground ball rate last summer was the 17th lowest among those 125 relievers with at least 50 innings, and when you give up fly balls, you’re going to give up homers. That’s just the way it is. Kelley allowed eight dingers in his 53.1 innings (1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB), and the scary thing is that only two came in Yankee Stadium. His homer rate might go up in 2014.
That propensity to give up the long ball is what scares me most about Kelley pitching high leverage innings. I won’t go as far as saying it will be like watching 2011-13 Phil Hughes, when every pitch feels like he was walking on egg shells, but it won’t be too far off. Kelley earned the opportunity to be the setup man with last year’s performance and because he both pounds the zone and misses a ton of bats, two things that tend to make pitchers very successful. That potential for the ill-timed homer is always going to be in the back of my mind though.
LHP Matt Thornton
Boone Logan gave the Yankees three and a half very nice years — he got way more crap than he deserved and I’m guilty of handing some of it out — and those years earned him a fat three-year contract with the Rockies this offseason. New York signed Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M to take over as Girardi’s primary left-hander out of the bullpen. He went from the White Sox to the Red Sox last year but was left off Boston’s postseason roster because of a lingering oblique problem.
Thornton, 37, was once one of the very best relievers in baseball, regardless of handedness. He posted a 2.84 ERA (2.50 FIP) with a 29.1% strikeout rate from 2008-11, and he didn’t have much of a platoon split either — lefties had a .247 wOBA while righties had a .267 wOBA. Thornton’s overall effectiveness has slipped in recent years, not coincidentally as his trademark fastball started to lose some juice:
|ERA||FIP||K%||HR/FB%||FB velocity||RHB wOBA||LHB wOBA|
Thornton’s game has clearly slipped over the years but he remains a viable matchup left-hander, which is what the Yankees signed him to be. At least that’s what I hope. Asking Thornton to consistently get righties out at this point of his career is not a good idea, not with his fastball shortening up and not even with Yankee Stadium’s left-center field death valley behind him. He’s a straight matchup lefty right now. As long as Girardi uses him properly, he should be fine.
* * *
Both Kelley and Thornton have been in the league a while now and both have experience pitching in the later innings (Thornton moreso), so it makes sense to have them share setup duties based on platoon matchups at the start of the season. The bullpen is ever-changing though, and chances are the setup crew at the start of the year will be different from the setup crew come September (and hopefully October). I’m not hating on Kelley and Thornton when I say that, it’s just that bullpens are known for turnover.
Via ESPN NY: The Yankees may use left-hander Manny Banuelos as a reliever this coming season. He is returning from Tommy John surgery. “Banuelos has got that big arm,” said one member of the team’s front office. “If it’s still there and the lightning still strikes then you’re going see people say, ‘F— it, bring him with us [on Opening Day].’”
Banuelos, 22, missed all of last season following elbow reconstruction and was limited to only 24 innings in early 2012 due to a different elbow injury. Spring Training will be the first time he pitches in a competitive game in nearly two full years. Banuelos wasn’t exactly a finished product before the elbow injuries, so I think making the Opening Day roster is unlikely, even as a reliever. I’m not opposed to having him (or anyone, really) start their big league career out of the bullpen as long as there is a clear plan to get him back into the rotation at some point relatively soon.
I swear, it still feels like the 2006 draft was just yesterday, but the 2014 season will be Dellin Betances‘ eighth (!) full season in the organization. The Yankees gave the towering right-hander from Washington Heights a $1M bonus as their eighth round pick back in ’06 and hoped he would develop into a frontline starter. That has not happened but the team has not given up on his enormous potential.
Last May, following six ugly starts with Triple-A Scranton, the Yankees moved the soon-to-be 26-year-old Betances to the bullpen full-time and the improvement was immediate. He struck out 43 of the next 136 batters he faced (31.6%) while allowing only eight runs and 12 walks in 34 innings. The Yankees called him up briefly in mid-August and then again as an extra arm when rosters expanded in September. Betances finished the year with a 2.06 ERA and 93 strikeouts (35.3%) in 65.2 total relief innings.
“I just feel like, confidence wise, I feel good,” said Betances to Anthony McCarron last August when asked about moving into a relief role. “I get to pitch more often, instead of going every five days. I get to go two or three times in that span, so I think the more time I get on the mound has helped me be more consistent … I think it’s just being more aggressive, attack the strike zone right away, where if you’re a starter, you kind gradually get aggressive as the game goes on.”
Repeating his delivery and keeping his long limbs in check has always been a struggle for the 6-foot-8 Betances, but apparently working more often out of the bullpen helped him stay in control even though he threw fewer total pitches. There’s nothing particularly impressive about a 10.6% walk rate (his walk rate as a reliever in 2013), but it’s substantially better than the 14.3% walk rate he posted from the start of 2011 through the conversion last May, when he looked close to a lost cause.
Betances struck out eight and walked one in 4.1 innings last September and barring some last minute additions, he’ll head to Spring Training as part of a wide open bullpen competition. The only relievers guaranteed to be on the roster come Opening Day are David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton, so that is potentially four open spots. I count as many as ten guys competing for those four spots, including potential fifth starters like David Phelps and Adam Warren and minor league free agents like Robert Coello and Brian Gordon.
Brian Cashman confirmed that, for whatever reason, Betances qualifies for a fourth option and can be sent to the minors this season without having to pass through waivers. Had he not qualified for the fourth option and instead required waivers to go to back to Triple-A, he might have won a bullpen spot almost by default. Now Betances will have to not only earn a big league job in camp, but he’ll have to continue to pitch well in the regular season to keep it. Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day.
For the first time in his nearly nine full years as a pro, there is a clear path for Betances to make the Yankees out of camp and play a rather significant role this coming season. Nothing in the bullpen is set aside from Robertson being the closer and Thornton being the lefty specialist, so if Betances shows last summer’s success was a true indication of his ability and not just a fluke, he could assume an important late-inning role rather quickly. This is his chance to justify that seven-figure signing bonus and more than a half-decade’s worth of patience.
“I’m thrilled to just come out here and whatever situation I need to be used in,” added Betances while talking to McCarron. “I’m ready for that.”
Via Joel Sherman: For the very first time, someone with the Yankees acknowledged David Robertson will be the team’s closer this coming season. “I have a lot of confidence in Robertson and so does [Joe Girardi],” said Hal Steinbrenner. “Robertson is going to be our closer, and I believe he will do a good job. We have done a lot to improve our team and we just have to understand that you cannot be perfect everywhere.”
Robertson, 28, has been one of the top setup men in baseball these last three years (1.91 ERA and 2.31 FIP) and has done pretty much everything you could ask a potential closer to do before actually giving him the job. I want the Yankees to add some more bullpen arms but making Robertson the closer is the right move. There’s nothing left for him to prove in a setup role and if the Yankees don’t let him close in 2014, some other team will give him that opportunity when he hits free agency after the season.
The Yankees didn’t get much help from their farm system as the injuries mounted last season, but one of the few (only?) young players who stepped up to grab a job was right-hander Adam Warren. He made the Opening Day roster as the long man and, aside from one short stint in the minors that had more to with adding a fresh bullpen arm than his performance, he stayed with the team all season, pitching to a 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 77 innings.
Warren, 26, earned himself a spot in Spring Training‘s fifth starter competition with that performance. He’s all but guaranteed to be on the Opening Day roster given the state of the pitching staff, but his role is unknown. Warren might be a starter, might be a long reliever, or he might be shoe-horned into a short relief role. Joe Girardi used him in what amounts to a seventh inning setup role three times during a four-game series against the Orioles last September, when David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Shawn Kelley were nursing injuries. He retired seven of the nine men he faced.
The Yankees need bullpen help, particularly a late-inning arm to pair with Robertson and Kelley. Warren hasn’t been considered for that role and understandably so, but it’s possible his skillset would make him a great fit for a one inning, air-it-out bullpen role. First and foremost, he excels the first time he faces a hit …
|1st PA in G, as RP||32||223||2.16||.276||.341||.438||.779||.312||126|
|2nd PA in G, as RP||14||67||2.50||.279||.343||.475||.819||.356||118|
|3rd+ PA in G, as RP||2||7||0.00||.200||.429||.200||.629||.200||48|
… crap. There goes that idea.
Well, maybe not. We are talking about 74 plate appearances the second and third time through the lineup, which is nothing. I’m not sure there’s enough information here to tell us how Warren fares each time through the order. He was worse the first time around last year, yes, but is that a true measure of his ability? Probably not given the limited amount of data. It would be nice if we had more than 32 games — he also made two starts, which are not included in the table — worth of stats to look at it.
What we do know about Warren is that he throws five different pitches and used all five in relief last year. Prior to last season Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he “pitches off his four-seamer and mixes in a two-seamer at times, then goes to his curveball, slider and changeup,” which the PitchFX data backs up. With a big assist from Brooks Baseball, here is how Warren approached right-handed batters in 2013:
|Total Thrown||% Thrown||Whiff %||GB%||Opp. AVG||Opp. ISO|
It’s important to add context to those hitting stats. The .283 opponent’s average against fastballs seems high, but the league hit .284 against fastballs overall in 2013. Warren’s fastball was exactly league average, for all intents and purposes. The .192 opponent’s average against the slider was a bit better than the .229 league average.
Warren was primarily a fastball-slider guy against same-side hitters, and he held them to .231/.304/.322 (.281 wOBA) batting line overall. He didn’t thrown enough sinkers, curves, or changeups for the numbers in the table to tell us anything useful about the effectiveness of those pitches. It would be cool if his curveball was impossible to hit in the air, but I doubt that’s the case. Now here is how he approached lefties last year:
|Total Thrown||% Thrown||Whiff %||GB%||Opp. AVG||Opp. ISO|
Left-handed hitters destroyed Warren last summer. I mean .301/.370/.526 (.387 wOBA) destroyed him. Hopefully someone on the Yankees hits that well this year. Warren was mostly fastball-changeup against lefties and man did his heater get crushed. His changeup was very effective though — the .160 opponent’s average was way better than the .257 league average. A changeup that generates a miss once out of every five swings while getting a grounder on more than half the balls in the play is pretty damn awesome. There are some good looking changeups in here, for your viewing pleasure:
As a long reliever who faced hitters more than once, using five pitches was a necessity for Warren. Being limited to one or even two innings at a time would allow him to scrap his fourth and fifth offerings and go fastball-slider against righties and fastball-changeup against lefties. Pretty basic stuff. The thinking (hope, really) is the more he sticks to his very best offspeed pitches, the more his fastball would play up. It’s similar to what Kelley has done these last two years, emphasizing his slider and using his fastball as a show-me pitch. Warren isn’t an Al Aceves type, a guy with a full bag of tricks who can throw anything at any time. He needs to stick to his strengths, and that’s sliders against righties and changeups against lefties.
Warren earned the opportunity to compete for a starting job after his performance last year and if he impresses in camp, he absolutely should be given the chance to start. If that doesn’t work out though, he might be most valuable to the team as a traditional short reliever rather than a long man. Someone with a late-game responsibility while Vidal Nuno or David Huff or Bruce Billings or whoever handles long relief duty. Maybe those struggles against lefties continue and Warren is nothing more than a righty specialist, but if that’s the case, they could simply move him back into a lower leverage long relief role. It would be an easy move to back out of.
To answer the question in the title of this post: I don’t know. I don’t know if Warren is capable of stepping forward to become a solid if not an impact setup reliever. I want to believe he can but until he actually does it, we’re just guessing. His slider and changeup are good enough pitches against righties and lefties, respectively, to think he can pull it off if he uses them a bit more often and strategically. I am curious to see what Warren can do if he airs it out for one inning at a time. Considering the state of the bullpen, he just might get the chance to do some setup work in 2014.
The Yankees have spent more than $300M so far this offseason, but only a small part (roughly 5%) of that money has gone towards the pitching staff. Specifically, it went to Hiroki Kuroda‘s new $16M deal. That’s it. The other $285M or so has gone towards improving the offense for pretty obvious reasons.
Finding another starting pitcher remains atop the winter agenda at this point, but the Yankees also have to start digging around for reliable bullpen help. The bullpen was pretty average this past season (3.66 ERA and 3.91 FIP), and that was before Mariano Rivera retired and the generally reliable Boone Logan left via free agency. There’s a lot of uncertainty beyond the right-center field wall right now.
“Oh, I [think so],” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings when asked if there are any givens in the bullpen aside from David Robertson. “I think (Shawn) Kelley’s going to be in the bullpen. I think, obviously, (Preston) Claiborne’s going to be in our bullpen. Then you have a mixture of (David) Phelps or (Adam) Warren, depending on if they’re in the rotation, those type of guys. So some of the guys that possibly are competing for rotation spots, the ones that don’t make it are probably going to slide to the bullpen. That’s why it’s hard to tell where everyone’s going to be.”
That’s the bullpen right now. Robertson and Kelley, maybe Claiborne, and whoever doesn’t win a rotation spot. Not exactly promising. Sure, someone like Dellin Betances or Cesar Cabral or Jose Ramirez could emerge as a bullpen force, but a team that just spend $300M+ shouldn’t go into the season counting on those guys to be a factor. Girardi has a skeleton crew behind Robertson at the moment.
“In terms of the bullpen, we need to improve all the options,” said Brian Cashman at the Winter Meetings. “So when people compete in Spring Training for slots in the bullpen, hopefully it’ll be pretty obvious who slots where. There’s nobody I’m anointing as our closer. Let’s put it that way … We’d like to improve if we can. I’m looking to improve our bullpen. I’m looking for guys to come in and compete for that spot.”
Last week we heard the Yankees were in on Joaquin Benoit, who has yet to sign but appears headed to the Indians or Padres. Jen Royle reports Grant Balfour is seeking a three-year deal worth $8M annually (plus a vesting option), which seems very reasonable considering how reliable he’s been the last four or five years. The Yankees were said to have interest in him at one point a few weeks ago. The list of unsigned free agent relievers includes Jose Veras, Scott Downs, Jesse Crain, and Francisco Rodriguez, among others.
Relievers are the riskiest investment in baseball because they’re so very unpredictable, but the Yankees are stuck in a position now where they have to spend some money on bullpen help. The farm system hasn’t provided much help and outside of Kelley, the haven’t really traded for many bullpen arms in recent years. Thanks to the Rivera-Robertson tandem, the team was always able to roll the dice a bit in the middle innings because they knew the final two were locked down.
Unless the Yankees surprise everyone and add two quality starters in the next two months, they’re going to head into next season with a whole lotta question marks in the rotation. That makes the bullpen, especially the middle innings, even more important. The pitching staff as a whole is weakness right now and the bullpen stands out as something that could really derail the team next season if not addressed. The Yankees spent a ton of money to improve the club this winter, but they still have to spend a little more to upgrade the relief corps.
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.