(The man, the myth, the legend. Courtesy of The AP)
When last year's rotation was expected to be a weak link, the Yankees attempted to make up for it by signing Rafael Soriano and building a modern day version of the Nasty Boys in their 'pen. The plan didn't exactly pan out, as Joba went down early with TJS and Soriano spent the bulk of the season either on the DL or being only marginally effective, but all in all the 'pen still ended up being a strength for the Yanks. Mo was Mo, D-Rob stepped up in a big way to fill the void left by Joba and Sour Puss, and the rest of the group stepped up to provide quality innings. The majority of that group is back in the fold this year, with a few new faces sprinkled in, and the Yankee 'pen should once again be a strength for the team. With some breaking news today on the health status of one of the key pieces, there could be some last-minute changes coming to this group for Opening Day. But relief arms are a position of depth for the organization, and if the Yankees could piece together a solid relief corp last season there's no reason they can't do the same this year.
No matter who's filling in the 6 spots behind him, the Yankee bullpen always starts and ends with Mariano Rivera. This season could be the last time we're able to say that, but when it can still be said, that inspires a lot of confidence in the Yankees' ability to close out games. Mo bucked his usual Spring Training trend this year by showing up earlier, starting his work earlier, and pitching in games earlier, and it doesn't seem to have changed the results one bit. In 8 IP over 8 appearances this spring, Mo has allowed just 4 hits and has struck out 4 batters while walking none. He did allow an earned run for the first time since 2008 in a recent outing, but even Mo isn't perfect. He's healthy, his velocity and command is right where it always is, and he's right on track to have another dominant season. He's coming at hitters with the cutter, they know he's coming at them with the cutter, and there ain't a damn thing they can do about it. Every save he earns this season will be a record-setting one, and with the rest of the team around him there should be save opportunities aplenty for the G.O.A.T.
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The 8th-inning bridge to Mo will be D-Rob's job again this season, and after what he did in 2011 there isn't much of an argument for it being anybody else's. His 1.08 ERA was 2nd best amongst all qualifying relief pitchers, his 1.84 FIP 4th, his 13.50 K/9 3rd, his 89.8 LOB% 4th, and his 2.8 fWAR tied for 3rd. He had arguably the best all-around season by any relief pitcher in baseball and that's before you even get to his absurd numbers with the bases loaded. D-Rob even made strides in improving his command consistency and walk rate, and even though he can still be erratic from time to time, the fact that he's trending in the right direction in those departments should inspire confidence that he can continue to be effective even if his numbers take a hit this year. D-Rob missed a chunk of time in camp after his fluke bruised foot/box moving fiasco, but he looked very good in his most recent outing, a perfect inning with 2 strikeouts. His fastball-curveball combo is devastating and he only turns 27 in a few days. There's a lot to look forward to from D-Rob in 2012 and beyond.
The "7th Inning Guy" role will belong to Rafael Soriano this year, although he could very easily be subbed into the setup or closer spots if injuries occur to Mo or D-Rob, a luxury that not many other teams have. 2011 was a tough first season for Soriano in New York, as he struggled early with his stuff and then went down with an elbow injury. His final numbers were skewed by the small sample size demons, and he did finish the year strong after returning from the DL, hopefully creating some positive juju for him going into this season. He's been pretty effective so far in his spring outings (7 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 7 K) and a bounce-back year similar to what he did from 2008-2010 would go a long way in helping this year's 'pen get closer to being the modern day Nasty Boys that it's capable of being. Bare minimum, a full season of healthy Sour Puss will be an improvement from 2011.
Until he was sent for an MRI on his back today, Boone Logan was set to be the leading lefty out of the 'pen this year. For as much crap as he's taken during his tenure in pinstripes (some of it from this site), Logan has actually been very good for the Yankees. His K and BB numbers were both great last year, even better against lefties, and when he's locating he is capable of holding his own against right-handed hitters. Logan's problem is that when he does get hit, he gets hit hard, and the one really bad outing will always stick out in people's minds more than a bunch of good ones. Logan's got plus stuff and has shown excellent command this spring (0 BB in 8.1 IP) and it would be a damn shame to lose him for an extended period of time. Whatever his injury status ends up being, Logan will be the #1 lefty option for Joe as long as he's healthy.
Behind this core group of key late-inning arms, the middle relief section of the bullpen will likely be a rotating cast of characters throughout the season. All indications are that Cory Wade, Clay Rapada, and David Phelps will be the trio holding down the fort to open the season, but at some point all could find themselves sent back down. Wade has had a horrific spring and could have been in danger of being left off the 25-man before the injury bug hit. Rapada earned his roster spot with a dominant ST (4 H, 1 ER, 12 K in 9.2 IP) and could come in very handy as LOOGY coverage for Logan. Phelps will start with the long man role that was supposed to be Freddy Garcia's. If moves have to be made (and they will), the Yankees will most likely draw from the group of D.J. Mitchell, George Kontos, Manny Delcarmen, and David Aardsma when he's fully recovered from TJS to plug holes. Joba Chamberlain and Rule 5 pick Cesar Cabral could also contribute later in the season if their recent injuries turn out to be less serious than they seem.
A strong bullpen has been a staple of the last handful of Yankee teams and 2012 should be no exception. The late-inning trio of Mo, D-Rob, and Soriano is right up there with the best in baseball, and combined with the improved rotation should make runs hard to come by for most opponents. Logan, if healthy, is an above-average lefty specialist at worst, and whoever is penciled into the back end spots will be someone who at the very least can go out and provide solid innings to keep the Yankees in games. There are going to be bumps in the road for all of these guys, such is the life of a relief pitcher, but overall it should be another year where the Yankee relief corp is among the best in the business.