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.

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2014 Season Preview: Contract Years

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last year, the Yankees were faced with the impending free agency of Robinson Cano, the best second baseman in the game and a player who was always going to require a massive contract commitment. The Yankees don’t have a player of that caliber set to hit the open market after this season, but they do have a number of guys entering their walk years. Some, obviously, are more important than others.

David Robertson
After spending the last three years as one of the top two or three setup men in the game, the 28-year-old Robertson is about the begin the most important season of his career. He will be tasked with replacing Mariano Rivera at closer and he’s also pitching for a new contract, two things that are very much tied together. If he steps in and pitches well in the ninth inning, his next contract will be much larger than if he had remained a setup man. That’s the way the economics of the game work.

There is little reason to think Robertson won’t be able to close games out in 2014. He misses a ton of bats (10.45 K/9 and 29.4 K% in 2013) and gets a ton of ground balls (50.9%), plus he’s managed to cut his walk rate in half these last two years (2.62 BB/9 and 7.3 BB%). When Robertson stopped walking guys in the second half of 2012, it was easy to wonder if it was a half-season fluke given his track record. When he continued to not walk hitters last year, we knew it was legitimate improvement. Robertson does everything you could possibly want a prospective closer to do.

Brian Cashman recently confirmed the Yankees have not had extension talks with their new closer and it seems unlikely they will sign him long-term at any point during the season. Obviously the club would love to have Robertson back in the future, especially if he steps right in and replaces Rivera without a hiccup. Closers make good money though, and it could wind up costing the team upwards of $10-12M annually on a four-year term after the season. Maybe more, the market has been pretty unpredictable.

Aside from Rivera and the ownership mandated Rafael Soriano, the Yankees have not signed a reliever to a multi-year deal worth more than $4M annually since Kyle Farnsworth almost a decade ago. Will they buck that trend for Robertson next winter? I suspect they will. Another question is whether the team is willing to risk the qualifying offer so they recoup a draft pick if leaves. My guess right now is they would — Robertson is unlikely to top ~$15M annually but he would get more total money across multiple years.

Hiroki Kuroda
Man, how good have the Yankees had it with Kuroda these last few years? Not only has he been their best starter and one of the best in all of baseball (ninth by bWAR from 2012-13), but he’s also been willing to work on a series of one-year contracts. How great is that? The Yankees have had a very productive pitcher on a bunch of low risk, short-term deals. It’s awesome.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Kuroda, 39, is on yet another one-year contract, meaning in a few months we’ll do the “will he play or retire?” dance once again. He has been quick to make his decisions the last two winters — re-signed in late-November last offseason and early-December this past offseason — and that has made the whole process even better. If he had been dragging things out until after the holidays and into mid-to-late-January, it would be quite annoying. Thankfully that has not been the case.

As with Robertson, I’m sure the Yankees would love to have Kuroda back in 2015 if he has another strong, productive season in 2014. That strong season is not a guarantee given his age but the one-year deal means the team can simply walk away if he does hit that final wall. The Yankees spent a boatload of money on Masahiro Tanaka and they have some young arm knocking on the door, but there is no such thing as too much pitching. They can always make room for Kuroda on another one-year deal and they should if he continues pitching well.

Alfonso Soriano
Up until now, I hadn’t thought about the possibility of re-signing Soriano after the season all that much. That massive eight-year, $136M contract he signed with the Cubs way back when finally expires this year, though the Yankees are only paying him $5M in 2014. Soriano just turned 38 last month and he continues to hit dingers with very little signs of slowing down.

The Yankees have Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran locked up to big money deals for the foreseeable future, but Soriano is someone who would have a role on almost any team if he is willing to sign a one-year deal after the season. The Bombers could use him basically like they will this year, as a regular who splits time between the outfield and DH. If his game starts to slip and he becomes a platoon guy, that’s still a useful player.

The question with Soriano will be his willingness to sign a one-year contract. He could push for a two-year deal with another strong, typical Soriano season in 2014, at which point it makes sense to walk away. A one-year deal is much a different story. The Yankees could retain him as a power bat and if some prospect comes up from the minors and forces his way into the lineup, the team will have the flexibility to make it work.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ichiro Suzuki
It is very hard to envision a scenario in which the Yankees re-sign Ichiro following the season. They tried to trade him over the winter and he’s already been pushed into a fifth outfielder’s role by the team’s free agent signings, so bringing him back for another year seems very unlikely. Younger guys like Zoilo Almonte and maybe even Slade Heathcott don’t have the same name value but they could do the same job next year and maybe even do it better considering how much Suzuki’s game has slipped in recent years. If they don’t trade him at some point this year, the smart money is on the Yankees parting ways with Ichiro when his contract expires after the season.

Kelly Johnson & Brian Roberts
Simply put, Johnson and Roberts are hired guns. They were signed to low cost one-year deals to plug short-term holes and if they play well this year, the team could re-sign them for 2015. It should go without saying that Johnson is more likely to be brought back after the season than Roberts, just given their age and recent history. Because of his versatility and left-handed bat, Johnson is someone the team would have little trouble squeezing onto the roster even if they make some big moves for infield help next winter.

* * *

Technically, there is one other player due to become a free agent next winter, but Derek Jeter‘s final season and impending retirement is another post for another time. He’s not in a contract year in the traditional sense. Someone like Frankie Cervelli, Eduardo Nunez, or Shawn Kelley could play themselves into a non-tender candidate and thus free agency, but the Yankees control them as arbitration-eligible players beyond 2014.

The six guys above are the team’s only notable free agents to be, with Robertson and Kuroda standing out as the most serious cases. Soriano and Johnson are a little further down the priority list. Keep in mind that so few impending free agents means there isn’t much money coming off the books, which could affect how the team approaches trades and free agency in another few months.

Cashman: Yankees have not had extension talks with David Robertson

Via Dan Barbarisi: Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees have not had any contract extension talks with David Robertson. The GM told Mark Feinsand the team’s no extensions policy is a thing of the past after they signed Brett Gardner long-term earlier today.

Robertson, 28, will earn $5.125M this year before becoming a free agent after the season. He will be a full-time closer for the first time this summer, and closers make a lot more money than setup men. Unless the Yankees pay him like a closer or he is concerned about getting hurt this year, Robertson has little reason to take an extension right now.

Mailbag: Kimbrel, Robertson, Infield, Key, Wells

Got six questions for you this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything and everything throughout the week.

(Mike Zarrilli/Getty)
(Mike Zarrilli/Getty)

Bill asks: Does Craig Kimbrel’s new extension with the Braves give us a better idea at what it would take to lock up David Robertson to an extension?

No, I don’t think so. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Braves signed Kimbrel to a four-year, $42M deal earlier this week and it is the largest contract ever given to a pitcher in his first year of arbitration eligibility, starter or reliever. Even if they went to an arbitration hearing and Kimbrel had lost, he still would have made more in his first year of arbitration ($6.55M) than Robertson will earn in his final year this season ($5.215M). These two are at very different places in their careers.

Not only do saves pay very well, but Kimbrel is just flat out better than Robertson. Don’t get me wrong, Robertson is awesome, but Kimbrel is in his own little world right now. He’s clearly the best reliever in baseball at the moment. I looked at a potential extension for Robertson months ago and wound up at three years and $21M, which is basically high-end setup man money. Robertson will be a free agent after the season and if he has a typical Robertson year but with say, 35+ saves, then something like three years and $35M (Rafael Soriano money) or four years and $46M (Francisco Cordero money) might more appropriate. I guess that is Kimbrel money, we just got there in a roundabout away.

Anonymous: Let’s say the Yankees sign Stephen Drew and he indeed opts out after the first year. Is there any way they can get a supplemental pick from whoever signs him? Is it guaranteed, a property of the specific contract they agree upon, or impossible?

Yep, they can get definitely get a pick. If they were to sign Drew to a multi-year deal with an opt-out after the first year, they can make him the qualifying offer if he uses the opt out. They’d then get a pick if he declined. It’s exactly what happened with Soriano — when he opted out a year ago, the team made the qualifying offer and received a draft pick when he declined. Because they would only surrender a second rounder to sign him, the Yankees could conceivably “trade” their 2014 second rounder for a 2015 supplemental first rounder by signing Drew.

Dan asks: If I told the Yankees they could get 200 combined games out of Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts, do you think they’d sign up for that? If they’d even think hard about it, they should be calling up Boras right now to sign Drew.

Against my better judgement, I think I would say no to 200 combined games from those two. I think it’s possible they’ll combine for 240-250 games or so — 100 from Roberts, 140-150 from Jeter — but that’s basically the best case scenario. The Yankees haven’t exactly done a good job of keeping people healthy over the alst few years. The thing is that, even if he plays 100+ games, will Roberts even be any good? He’s 36 and has hit .246/.310/.359 (82 OPS+) when healthy over the last four years (192 games).

AJ asks: With the one infield spot open, would their be any thought of keeping three catchers on the roster? Someone will have to backup firstst base and Frankie Cervelli has proven versatile in the past backing up second base. John Ryan Murphy has played third and Brian McCann could backup Mark Teixeira at first.

Well, Cervelli hasn’t really proven himself to be versatile. He’s played five innings at third base and three innings at second base in his career, plus he spent one game in left field in the minors nine years ago. Those are emergency assignments, nothing more. Murphy has only played 14 total games at third base in his career as well, so it’s not like he has a ton of experience at the hot corner either. Both guys are catchers, that’s all. Given their roster, that last bench spot absolutely has to go to a real infielder. Carrying a third catcher rarely makes sense and it certainly doesn’t for this squad.

Jacob asks: Do you think the Yankees will re-sign Brett Gardner and should they?

I think the Jacoby Ellsbury signing pushed Gardner right out the door. I’m not sure how many no power, defense first outfielders one team can carry on expensive free agent contracts. It’s fine now while Gardner is playing for relative peanuts, but he’s looking at $10M+ per year as a free agent. Would they really commit $30M+ annually for the next three or four (or five) years for these two guys? Should they even want to do that? I don’t think so. One such player is enough. Besides, I’m guessing Gardner wants to play center field and bat leadoff, two things that won’t happen with the Yankees now.

(AP Photo/Bill Sikes)
Key. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

Anonymous asks: Better FA pickup in your opinion, Jimmy Key or David Wells (first time)?

Without looking, I’m thinking Wells.

The Yankees gave Key a four-year, $17M deal during the 1992-93 offseason and he pitched to a 3.68 ERA (13.5 bWAR) in 604.1 innings during the life of the contract. He was also limited to five starts during the 1995 season due to a torn rotator cuff. Key was a big part of the 1996 team though, including beating Greg Maddux in the deciding Game Six of the World Series.

Wells, on the other hand, signed a three-year deal worth $13.5M during the 1996-97 offseason, replacing Key. He pitched to a 3.85 ERA (9.1 bWAR) in 432.1 innings across the first two years of the contract and finished third in the 1998 AL Cy Young voting. Wells helped the team to the 1998 World Series title and was then the center piece of the Roger Clemens trade after the season.

On a rate basis, Key and Wells (first stint) were very similar with the Yankees. Key missed almost an entire season to injury and Wells was traded away mid-contract, plus both guys were key parts of a World Series winner. Without going ridiculously in depth (this is only a mailbag, after all), I’d say Wells was the better pickup because he was more durable and then flipped for arguably the best pitcher in baseball at the time. Not sure there’s a wrong answer here, both were very good in pinstripes.

Hal Steinbrenner anoints David Robertson closer

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.