Robertson injury will be a big test for Yankees’ bullpen depth

First baseman Kelly Johnson high fives closer Shawn Kelley. Just like we all expected. (Elsa/Getty)
First baseman Kelly Johnson high fives closer Shawn Kelley. Just like we all expected. (Elsa/Getty)

Outside of signing lefty specialist Matt Thornton to a two-year contract, the Yankees spent no money on their bullpen this winter. They didn’t bring in a late-inning arm to replace Mariano Rivera, instead bumping everyone up a notch on the depth chart and hoping a youngster like Dellin Betances can fill the void. I can’t say it was the ideal offseason for the bullpen, but it is what it is.

The Yankees lost their anchor the other day as David Robertson went down with a Grade I groin strain. He said he expects to be back after the minimum 15 days because of course he does. Just about every player thinks that when they get hurt. Shawn Kelley went from seventh inning guy last year to closer now, Adam Warren from swingman last year to setup man now. Thornton, Betances, and David Phelps are there to fill in the gaps.

“(Robertson) started off great, and he’s our best pitcher,” said Kelley to Chad Jennings following Monday’s game. “It forces all of us to throw another inning later, so obviously that’s not good for the whole pen, but injuries are part of it and we’ve got to overcome it. You saw today what we’re capable of, and hopefully we can string it together until he gets back.”

The first game without Robertson went fine as Warren and Kelley preserved a two-run lead in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. Vidal Nuno took a pounding in mop-up duty yesterday, but that’s what he’s there for. Ivan Nova failed to get out of the fourth inning and someone had to take one for the team. Robertson’s injury doesn’t necessarily push someone like Nuno into a bigger role; the last bullguy in the pen tends to stay the last guy in the bullpen. The injury tests the late-inning guys, and right now Thornton is the only one with any kind of meaningful late-inning experience.

Of course, experience doesn’t mean a whole lot in the bullpen. Does it help? Sure. But relievers come out of nowhere every year to dominate. Experience is preferred but far from a requirement. The ability to miss bats and the willingness to be aggressive are more important, and, for the most part, guys like Kelley, Warren, and Phelps have that. (Being aggressive doesn’t automatically mean throwing strikes. Throwing strikes is hard, remember.) Until Robertson comes back, those guys will do the heavy bullpen lifting.

To me, Joe Girardi is the key while Robertson is out. He can’t control what someone does on the mound, but he can control when and how his relievers are used, something he is very good at based on what we’ve seen the last six years. Girardi knows Thornton is only a lefty specialist at this point of his career and he knows Warren is at his best in one-inning bursts, so that’s how he’s using them. He doesn’t ask his pitchers to fill a role they are not equipped to fill unless he has absolutely no choice.

Kelley, Warren, and especially Betances have big opportunities with Robertson out. This is a chance for all three to show they are up to the task of being go-to late-inning arms, which would benefit both themselves and the team. Girardi’s responsibility of putting these guys in the best possible position to succeed — it would be nice if the offense gave the staff some breathing room once in a while — while be even greater these next few weeks. A Rivera and Robertson-less bullpen is scary, so this will be a great test of the relievers left standing.

Betances and Nuno win final spots as Yankees finalize bullpen

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The bullpen for the start of the 2014 season is set. Joe Girardi announced that Dellin Betances and Vidal Nuno have won the last two spots and will join David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, David Phelps, and Adam Warren in the bullpen. Robertson, of course, is replacing Mariano Rivera as closer. The bench has not yet been finalized.

Betances, 26, moved into the bullpen full-time last May and his career took off after years of command issues. He pitched to a 2.08 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 28 walks in 65 total relief innings between Triple-A and MLB last season, and this spring he’s allowed only one run with eleven strikeouts and four walks in 12.1 innings. Betances, who lives and dies with his mid-90s fastball and hard curveball, figures to cut his teeth in middle relief before possibly assuming greater responsibility.

The 26-year-old Nuno had a 2.25 ERA in 20 big league innings last summer before suffering a season-ending groin injury. He allowed three runs in eight innings this spring, walking one and striking out eight. Girardi could use Nuno as a matchup left-hander or a multi-inning guy, so the bullpen has some added flexibility. I think the best case scenario for Nuno is a lefty version of 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed reliever who can face one batter or throw four innings if need be.

The Yankees start the season with 13 games in 13 days, so having three stretched out relievers in Phelps, Warren, and Nuno allows them to take it easy on Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda out of the gate. Tanaka is transitioning from a seven-day schedule to a five-day schedule while Pineda is returning from shoulder surgery. Girardi, who is very good at getting the most out of his relievers, has insisted they would take the 12 best arms for the bullpen and that’s pretty much exactly what they’ve done.

Bullpen beginning to take shape in final days of Spring Training

Numero Nuno. (Presswire)
Numero Nuno. (Presswire)

At the outset of Spring Training, only three spots in the bullpen were truly set. David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton were not just locks to make the team, but locks to be Joe Girardi‘s primary late-inning trio at the start of the regular season. Penciling David Phelps or Adam Warren into a spot was a safe bet, but far from a sure thing. We had no idea what Michael Pineda would look like in camp and a trade to address the infield was always possible.

Fast forward a few weeks to today and the bullpen picture is much clearer. Pineda looks healthy and he pitched well during Grapefruit League play, earning the fifth starter spot. That pushed both Phelps and Warren into the bullpen after Girardi confirmed they were all but guaranteed to make the team in some capacity. They will not necessarily be pigeonholed into a long relief role either. Both guys could serve as one-inning setup relievers if their performance warrants the responsibility.

Dellin Betances really seemed to find himself after being moved to the bullpen with Triple-A Scranton last year and he’s carried his success over into Spring Training. Based on how willing he’s been to use his curveball in any count, he also seems to have more faith in his breaking ball than ever before. Betances has all but locked up a bullpen job. Preston Claiborne, on the other hand, has pitched himself out of Opening Day roster consideration. He wasn’t particularly good in the second half last year and he’s been dreadful this spring.

So, just like that, six of the seven bullpen spots are full. Well, it’s not official yet, but c’mon. Vidal Nuno and five veteran non-roster players — Chris Leroux, Matt Daley, Jim Miller, David Herndon, Yoshinori Tateyama — have pitched very well in camp, though my hunch is Tateyama (a trick pitch righty specialist) has no chance of making the club. Fred Lewis generated some buzz but seven of the 18 lefties he’s faced in camp have reached base. That’s probably not going to win him a spot. I think he’s this year’s Claiborne in the sense that he put himself in position for a midseason callup. That’s all. For what it’s worth, a second lefty is a priority but not a necessity.

“I mean, we always want to have two lefties,” said Brian Cashman to Brendan Kuty. “No question about that. So our manager, especially, likes to do the match ups. So I think the way he runs the late-inning situations, two lefties are in theory a mandatory interest for us. It might not work out that way, but it’s something we will definitely shoot to have.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

We’ve reached the point of the spring where the regular relievers are pitching on back-to-back days in preparation for the season, and so far Daley is the only one of the non-roster veterans to do that. This late in camp, that is kinda telling. Herndon can reportedly opt out of his contract on Sunday and while that could influence the bullpen decision, I doubt it would be the deciding factor. Leroux has been impressive and he is reportedly working with a new two-seamer, so there might be some tangible evidence for that success. Miller is said to be working on a new slider as well, so the same applies to him.

Actions speak louder than words and the Yankees used have Daley differently than their other bullpen candidates. To be fair, Nuno has not had a chance to work like a normal reliever because he’s been been competing for a rotation spot, but compared to guys like Herndon and Leroux, Daley is getting preferential treatment. He’s worked back-to-back games and he’s seen more action against big league caliber competition according to Baseball Reference’s opponent quality numbers. That’s how a team handles a pitcher they are leaning towards carrying when the regular season begins.

Girardi said the final bullpen announcement will come either today or tomorrow at the latest — “These guys do have to pack for a road trip on Saturday. Probably help them if we could make it by Friday,” he said to Chad Jennings — so we’ll have an answer soon enough. Robertson, Kelley, Thornton, Phelps, Warren, and Betances are locked into place and I would be surprised if someone other than Daley or Nuno got the final spot. Since Nuno is stretched out, he could wind up in Triple-A as the sixth starter. Either way, that last bullpen spot figures to be a revolving door this summer. It always is. For now, the Opening Day relief unit appears to be set.

Update: Lewis. Leroux, Claiborne, Miller, Herndon, Tateyama, and Danny Burawa were all sent to minor league camp this morning, the team announced. The competition for the final two bullpen spots is officially down to Betances, Nuno, Daley, Shane Greene, and Cesar Cabral.

Second lefty seems unlikely despite Thornton’s rough spring

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

2014 Season Preview: The New Closer

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.