After spending close to $500 million on talent this offseason, it's easy to assume that the New York Yankees are a finished product heading into the 2014 season.
Unfortunately for their fans, that's far from the case.
While the talent infusion of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka is impressive, the team still has holes to fill before the season begins. If they stand pat, an 86-89-win team should surface on paper. While better than their 2013 outfit, the 2014 Yankees would still project to be on the outside of the AL postseason picture.
Outside of the lottery tickets currently slotted into second and third base, the most obvious area of need in New York resides in the bullpen.
With Mariano Rivera off to retirement, the back end of the Yankees bullpen is in doubt for the first time in nearly two full decades. Recently, team owner Hal Steinbrenner told Joel Sherman of the New York Post that David Robertson, Rivera's set-up man since 2010, is going to be the closer.
Even if the 28-year-old succeeds, depth behind him is an issue. If Robertson fails, the bullpen could be a disaster, relegating a deep, talented everyday lineup to mediocrity in the AL East standings.
During Steinbrenner's aforementioned conversation about Robertson, he acknowledged that the team can't be perfect in every facet:
I have a lot of confidence in Robertson and so does Joe Girardi. 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.
The following options aren't perfect, but they represent an upgrade. For a team teetering on the edge of postseason contention, a big season from a veteran reliever could be enough to send the Yankees back to October.
David Robertson has earned the right to follow in Mariano Rivera's footsteps as the Yankees closer, but better closing options are still available on the open market.
If the Yankees are insistent on Robertson taking over the closer's role, signing a top closer to serve as insurance would be a worthwhile idea.
Over the last two years, few relievers have been more dominant than former Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Fernando Rodney. Buoyed by a world-class 2012 (0.60 ERA in 74.2 IP), Rodney's numbers stand out among all relief pitchers over the last two seasons..
Over that span, Rodney ranks fifth in ERA (1.91), 16th in strikeouts (158), and 19th in WHIP (1.040).
Due to the lack of lucrative, long-term offers rolling through Rodney's door, it could behoove the 36-year-old to accept a one-year deal before returning to the free-agent market next winter.
If Rodney excels as a dominant setup man in New York, his star will rise. If Roberston fails and Rodney ascends to the closer's role for the Yankees, the team may look to retain his services on a multi-year pact in 2015 and beyond.
Baltimore's loss could be New York's gain.
After a bizarre contract fallout with the Baltimore Orioles, Grant Balfour is still very available on the open market. Despite his age, 36, the veteran, hard-throwing righty is deserving of a long-term deal.
Last year, while serving as the closer in Oakland, Balfour posted his highest K/9 mark (10.3) since 2008, saved 38 games and made the American League All-Star squad.
While injury concerns have persisted from Orioles camp, the veteran reliever has made 383 appearances since 2008, good for 10th in all of baseball. While that workload could catch up to Balfour soon, it's ridiculous to call Balfour anything but durable.
If New York's new rotation—led by a slimmed-down CC Sabathia, Mashiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda—can consistently pitch into the seventh inning, a lefty-righty combination of Matt Thornton and Grant Balfour would be an excellent veteran bridge to Robertson in the ninth.
Few positions in professional sports can compare to the short shelf-life of Major League Baseball relief pitchers. Outside of rare, long-term anomalies like Mariano Rivera or Joe Nathan, relief pitchers—especially closers—flame-out quickly.
In 2011 and 2012, Joel Hanrahan was atop the sport as a two-time NL All-Star in Pittsburgh, sporting a 2.24 ERA and saving 76 games for a rebuilding team.
After a trade to the Boston Red Sox, Hanrahan was poised to enter the national spotlight as Boston's closer in 2013. Months before Koji Uehara arrived, the job belonged to Hanrahan. Yet, after four saves, the 31-year-old lost his season to arm surgery.
Now, he's available on the open market, hoping to find a team willing to allow him to resurrect his career.
Unlike Rodney or Balfour, Hanrahan and the following names on this list come with risk. Of course, they also come with upside. According to Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors, the veteran righty will throw for teams in spring training, hoping to prove he's healthy after season-ending surgery last May.
If the Yankees still are without an extra reliever in early March, Hanrahan is worth a contract.
Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan aren't just linked as ex-Red Sox relievers, free-agent hopefuls and former All-Stars; they're the two men who went down last season in Boston, allowing Koji Uehara to show the world his overwhelming dominance.
Ironically, once upon a time, it was Bailey who projected as a dominant, game-changing force in the bullpen.
During his early days in Oakland, which included winning the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year Award, Bailey dominated opposing batters. Over his first two seasons (2009-2010), the former Athletics closer pitched to a 1.70 ERA and held a WHIP of 0.907 across his first 132.1 innings in the majors.
Those numbers helped Bailey tie Mariano Rivera for the second-highest WAR (5.9) among relief pitchers during those two years, trailing only Kansas City's Joakim Soria.
After shoulder surgery, the Red Sox non-tendered Bailey, leaving him unsigned with spring training on the horizon. At the age of 29, the former All-Star still has excellent years ahead of him if his health cooperates.
The Yankees could find a diamond in the rough here.
If Rodney or Balfour prove to be too expensive for the Yankees skyrocketing payroll, low-cost, high-upside options like Hanrahan or Bailey could emerge as sensible for general manager Brian Cashman.
In the event that the medical reports on those recently injured arms don't come back positive, however, the Yankees can attempt to thwart a team-player reunion between the Philadelphia Phillies and veteran relief pitcher Ryan Madson.
In late-December, Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly reported that the Phillies and Madson could reunite after a two-year split. When Madson left Philadelphia as a free agent after the 2011 season, he was morphing into one of the most durable and dominant relievers in the sport. From 2009-2011, Madson pitched to a 2.78 ERA across 191 innings. Furthermore, over that span, his 204 strikeouts ranked 19th among relief pitchers.
Now, after signing with both the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Angels—yet not pitching an inning due to injuries—Madson is available and hoping to finally get back on a mound.
He's a long shot, but, if healthy, he could outperform every option on the open market.
Your turn to play GM: Which relief pitcher should the Yankees sign?