Thursday, March 21, 2013

2013 Season Preview: What We Know & What We Don't Know (The Bullpen)

(Sleep with one eye open... Courtesy of the AP)

As it tends to do every year, the Yankee bullpen came up big in 2012.  As it's never had to do in any year, it came up big without it's best pitcher.  The 'pen situation got thrown into a bit of a tailspin last May when Mo went down with his season-ending knee injury, but was quickly righted by some great work from Sour Puss and D-Rob.  As usual, a rotating cast of under-appreciated middle relievers chipped in and did their thing, and from that group who stepped up last year will come the bulk of this year's bullpen, with the King of all Relievers rightfully re-assuming his place at the throne.  Add a few injury returnees to full-time duty, and the 'pen is looking fully stocked again in 2013.

What We Know- There's Plenty of Depth

Whether it's through drafting and development, trades, or savvy free agent/waiver signings, the Yankees are never short on capable relief arms and this season should be no exception.  The basic outline of the bullpen core is clearly defined, with Mo, D-Rob, Joba, Logan, Aardsma, Rapada, and Phelps expected to be the top 7, and the list just starts there.  Shawn Kelley and Cody Eppley are the top two swingmen ready to step in should injuries or poor performance necessitate a change; Jim Miller and Josh Spence are a couple of cheap veteran arms plucked off the waiver wire; young guys like Chase Whitley, Preston Claiborne, and Mark Montgomery are right on the edge of breaking in.  Even starters by trade like Adam Warren or Vidal Nuno could get a look as long relievers.  No matter what happens, the Yankees aren't going to be scrambling to fill their seven bullpen spots.

What We Don't Know- How the Middle Relief Situation Will Shake Out

We know Mo is the no-doubt closer and we know David Robertson is the no-doubt setup man in front of him.  The 8th and 9th innings aren't an area of concern for Joe as long as there are no problems with Mo's knee.  The 6th and 7th innings could be a different story.  Joba Chamberlain and David Aardsma, as I've touched on before, are both coming off serious injuries and haven't gotten a lot of work in the last few seasons.  They've both looked pretty good in camp, but pitching against a team's second string in March and pitching against the heart of the Angels' order in July are two different animals.  There's also Boone Logan's lingering elbow concerns to consider.  Joba seems like the best bet to nail down the main middle relief role, but those positions are far from set in stone.

What We Know- Joe Loves Him Some Lefties

The aforementioned Logan is still the leader of the LOOGY pack and Clay Rapada established himself as the #2 in that hierarchy with a surprisingly strong 2012.  The Yanks didn't stop at just those two.  They retained Cesar Cabral for this season after he missed all of last year with a fractured elbow, which shows how high they are on him, and added the relatively unknown Francisco Rondon to the 40-man roster.  Spence has gotten a long look in camp and will likely be stashed in the Triple-A bullpen, and Nuno has proven to be very effective in getting lefties out.  The value of playing the LOOGY matchup game can always be questioned, but it's what Joe is comfortable with and he's got plenty of arms at his disposal to fill that role.

What We Don't Know- Which Ones Will Be Around to Start (and Finish) The Season

He might need to dip into that well at some point this season with the injury clouds hanging over some of these players.  Logan's elbow continues to make me nervous, and I fear a repeat of Joe's overuse of Logan early in the season will cause it to start barking again.  Rapada is dealing with arm problems of his own now, problems that might cause him to miss the start of the regular season, and Cabral is still rehabbing from offseason surgery and might not be ready until May-June.  Rondon is unproven at the Major League level and Spence has been more of a Quad-A player than a legitimate Major League reliever in his career, so if injuries do lead to Joe shuffling the LOOGY deck it could turn into a season-long cycle.

What We Know- This Is It for Mo

This is take two for the Mariano Rivera Farewell Tour, and whether it ends with him healthy and active or injured and on the DL it certainly seems like a lock to be the final take.  Mo wouldn't have gone through with the press conference announcing the retirement before the season even started if he wasn't committed to that plan, so after years and years of robot/cyborg/inhuman deity jokes we will all have to come to grips with the fact that the greatest closer in baseball history and one of the greatest Yankees in history is retiring.  He's looked healthy and like his old self in Spring Training, so signs point to Mo being as dominant as ever on his way out.  And honestly, that's the way it should be.

What We Don't Know- To Whom He's Passing the Torch

The downside to celebrating Mo's great career in his victory lap season and starting the countdown to his inevitable unanimous HOF induction is having to find his replacement.  It's something the Yankees haven't had to consider since the mid-90s, before I was even old enough to fully understand baseball.  The most logical choice is D-Rob based on his status as the setup man, his shutdown stuff, and his knack for coming up big in tough situations.  The Yankees have been hesitant to commit to D-Rob as a real closing option, though, snatching the job away from him at the first sign of trouble last year and giving it to the more proven Rafael Soriano.  Soriano isn't here anymore, nor is anybody else more proven than D-Rob, who should be the next in line but might not be the long-term solution if the Yankees don't work out a new deal for him.  Younger guys like Mark Montgomery and Branden Pinder could enter the picture in the next year or so.

** Coming up tomorrow- The Bench. **

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