When the New York Yankees take the field in Panama for an exhibition series in Mariano Rivera's native country, the shadow of their former closer will hang over a bullpen that's expected to replace him during the 2014 MLB season.
As long as Rivera is seen around the team, the Yankees can reminisce about the dominant bullpens anchored by the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history.
But when the Yankees depart Panama and enter the home stretch of spring training, reality will set in for a team with World Series aspirations: Rivera is gone forever, leaving a talented Yankees lineup and starting rotation to wonder if leads and games will be lost at an alarming rate.
To be fair, the Yankees have some experience traversing through a season—or at least the majority of one—without Rivera.
In May 2012, in what could have been Rivera's final season, the then 42-year-old injured his knee while shagging fly balls during batting practice in Kansas City. With Rafael Soriano replacing Rivera, the Yankees bullpen thrived en route to an AL East title.
That season—along with a look at some of the most valuable relief-pitching campaigns since Rivera's 1996 emergence—paints an interesting picture for Yankees fans to consider: Rivera's greatness wasn't rooted in how dominant he was on a year-to-year basis, but rather that he was dominant on a year-to-year basis.
As referenced, Rivera's best years comprise many spots on the top 20 relief seasons of the last 18 years, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Yet, luminaries such as Keith Foulke, Gabe White, Rafael Betancourt, Octavio Dotel, Steve Reed and Byung-Hyun Kim are littered throughout the list.
The Yankees didn't open each year knowing they would receive the most valuable season among all relievers. Instead, they knew that consistent excellence would be there in the ninth. That allowed an ease to infiltrate the other areas of the staff, specifically the setup men.
More than anything, that's now gone.
With David Robertson set to inherit Rivera's role in the ninth, extra attention will be placed upon the 28-year-old strikeout artist with an AL All-Star appearance and a Cy Young vote under his belt.
Based on his track record (2.76 ERA since 2008) and effusive praise from Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, there's little reason to expect a huge drop-off from Rivera, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
"I think [Robertson] is outstanding," Maddon said. "He has a combo of pitches with his cutter and curve and his pitches really explode through the strike zone. He gets righties and lefties out, so there are no platoon advantages against him [like Rivera, his cutter makes him particularly effective versus lefties]."
However, with Robertson evacuating his former setup role to move to the ninth, the entire bullpen must be reshuffled to accommodate the role changes in the late innings. It's there that the Yankees have question marks.
|New York Yankees Projected Bullpen (2013 Statistics)|
|MLB Depth Charts/FanGraphs|
If the Yankees are going to count on arms such as Dellin Betances and Matt Thornton, improvements will be necessary for both to succeed.
With Betances, command and control represent the biggest hurdle for New York's big right-handed flame thrower. Across 641.1 minor league innings, Betances has posted a 10.1 SO/9 mark. Considering that most of those innings came as he progressed as a starter—when conserving energy for late innings is vital—his ability to miss bats as a reliever could be eye-opening.
Of course, there's the issue with putting the ball where he wants it. During that same span, Betances has posted a 4.9 BB/9 ratio. For every two strikeouts generated, a man has been put on base for free.
The talent is there for the 25-year-old to give the Yankees excellent innings, but control will be key.
When Matt Thornton arrived as a free-agent signing this winter, much less projection was needed. Since debuting in 2004, the now-37-year-old lefty has posted a 127 ERA+ and struck out more than a batter per inning (9.2 SO/9).
Despite the sustained success, it's hard not to call Thornton a pitcher in decline. Over the last four years, Thornton's SO/9 mark has plummeted from 12.0 in 2010 to a measly 6.2 in 2013. If the trend continues in 2014 and 2015, Thornton's two-year, $7 million deal will be a sunk cost on the Yankees' payroll sheet.
If there's a name to count on ahead of Robertson, look to setup man Shawn Kelley. Despite a 4.39 ERA in 2013, the 29-year-old has an ability to miss bats that places him alongside some of the most dominant relievers in the game.
|Strikeout Machines: 2013 SO/9 Leaders Among RP|
|Steve Delabar||Blue Jays||12.58||58.2|
|Koji Uehara||Red Sox||12.23||74.1|
With so much attention cast upon New York's $503 million offseason, uncertainty within an old and fragile infield, Alex Rodriguez's suspension saga, the battle for the No. 5 starter job, Masahiro Tanaka's arrival and Derek Jeter's retirement announcement, it's easy to overlook this bullpen during spring training.
When April arrives, that no longer will be the case.
If a few blown leads become backbreaking losses, fans will clamor for a veteran arm to save the day and the season.
Perhaps that arm is Andrew Bailey, the former Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox closer signed to rehab and possibly enter the mix in August, per Brendan Kuty of NJ.com. Or, like many great bullpens over the years, the Yankees could unearth gems to dominate the late innings.
By September, a clear picture will have developed. For now, don't expect greatness or overwhelming consistency. Instead, a good, not great, bullpen will likely emerge, led by strikeout arms such as Robertson, Kelley and Betances.
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