(Not Mo. But potentially just as good. Courtesy of Getty Images)
For the better part of the last 2 decades, any talk about the Yankee bullpen began and ended with Mariano Rivera. No matter the combined skill and depth of the other 6 relievers in front of him, having Mo there for the 9th inning was the great equalizer, the 1-man advantage that no other team could compete with. 2013 was the final season of Mo's reign of terror over the rest of the American League and the Yankees embark on the start of a new bullpen era this season with Mo's successor assuming the 9th inning throne.
Mo was not the only major loss from last year's bullpen. Recent mainstays like Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain have also moved on, and the Yankees enter this season far less settled in their relief role definition and hierarchy than they've been in quite some time. The potential is there for this group to be every bit as effective and occasionally dominant as the last group was. It's a matter of seeing who steps up, who falters, and how everything eventually shakes out.
After years of studying Mo and learning what he had to teach, David Robertson finally inherits the closer role more befitting out of his outstanding yearly performances. D-Rob has been one of the best relievers in baseball for years and now he'll get the recognition he deserves for it as the Yankee closer. Between the improvements in his delivery and command, the addition of the cutter as his primary fastball, and the all-day nastiness of his curveball, Robertson has everything needed to be a top tier, shutdown closer and there's little reason to expect the shift from setup man to THE man to negatively impact his performance. If his ST results are any indication (6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K in 7 games), D-Rob is ready to pick up right where Mo left out. The bigger story with him is what will happen after this season. Robertson is in his final year of arbitration eligibility and he stands to earn himself a hefty raise on the FA market if the Yanks don't work out an extension first.
The void left by D-Rob in the setup role will be taken on by Shawn Kelley to start the season. Kelley was sneaky awesome for the majority of last year, bookended by a bad first and last month. His pure stuff is good enough to handle the 8th inning. It's his command history and flyball tendencies that make him less reliable than D-Rob. If the setup role proves to be too much for him, Joe could decide to make it a 2-man job with Matt Thornton as his new primary lefty. Thornton came cheaper than Logan and in his late 30s with declining fastball velocity that's understandable. He hasn't had the best Spring Training himself, raising some doubt about what he has left, but as a strict LOOGY with limited exposure to right-handed hitters he should just fine replacing Logan.
Moving to the middle relief innings is where the landscape becomes even more unknown. Now that Michael Pineda is officially the 5th starter, David Phelps and Adam Warren are both on their way to the 'pen and I could see both contributing in a variety of middle relief roles. They each have experience as long men, the role that probably best suits them as former starters, and in smaller sample sizes they've each had some success in short relief appearances. Phelps looks like the better short relief option if Joe's looking to add another reliable 1-inning arm because he's got better stuff. Personally, I'd like to see him improve his command regardless of how he's used. A 9.2% career BB rate is not that good. I'd also like to see Warren turn one of his pitches into a go-to, something he can use to get swings and misses whenever he needs them. Those 2 things happen, and the Yankees will be in good shape for their middle and long relief.
The biggest wild card in this year's 'pen is those last 2 open spots. While he hasn't been given a spot yet, Dellin Betances appears to be a shoo-in for 1 of them based on his ST performance. Betances, a pretty wild wild card in his own right, could rise up the hierarchy into any number of roles if he's able to maintain this performance in the regular season. His size and stuff would make him a potentially devastating option in the 8th inning role. His mechanical and command problems that have always been negative byproducts of his size could turn him into a DFA candidate. He's
After Betances it's anybody's guess as to who the final spot will go to. Matt Daley appears to be the favorite, but a case could be made for Preston Claiborne, Cesar Cabral, Vidal Nuno, and David Herndon to all get call-ups and see time at some point. By now, we know that the bullpen that opens a season is never the same as the bullpen that closes a season, and there are going to be multiple guys who come up and get the opportunity to contribute. It could end up being prospects like Mark Montgomery or Jose Ramirez for all we know. The bottom line is that the Yankee 'pen, while full of unfamiliarity in terms of roles and personnel, has plenty of depth and quality talent from which to pick. Based on recent history and Joe's knack for finding and utilizing undervalued relief talent, they should be just fine without Mo.
** Coming up tomorrow- The Bench. **