On a day the New York Yankees welcomed back Mariano Rivera for a pregame ceremony, they lost his replacement to the disabled list. David Robertson will miss at least the next 15 days with a groin strain, leaving Joe Girardi's bullpen in a precarious position.
According to Erik Boland of Newsday, a Grade 1 groin strain was the root of Robertson's absence from Monday's victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Through the first week of the season, the 28-year-old righty has pitched three scoreless innings, recorded two saves and walked only one batter.
Now, a major question—along with a trickle-down effect—faces Girardi and decision makers in New York: Who deserves the role with Robertson on the shelf?
At first glance, the answer is simple: Shawn Kelley, after recording his first career save in place of Robertson against the Orioles, should receive the bulk of the work. According to Dan Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal, Girardi acknowledged that Kelley will receive most of the work moving forward.
However, the Yankees manager didn't go as far as to appoint Kelley a guaranteed role or paint himself into a corner if struggles ensue.
By opening up the entire bullpen to usage in the ninth inning, Girardi can hide behind the wall of matchup decisions and ride the hot hand over the next couple of weeks. Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno and David Phelps are far from perfect options, but they all represent intriguing fallback options if Kelley struggles or needs a breather after high-volume usage.
|Late-Game Options (MLB Career Statistics)|
Interestingly, Girardi didn't initially mention 26-year-old flame-thrower Dellin Betances. Based on small-sample-size results of spring training (0.73 ERA, 8.0 K/9) and the first week of the regular season (2 G, 2 SO, 0 ER), the starter-turned-reliever probably deserves consideration if a particular ninth inning calls for a strikeout with men on base.
Across 641.1 minor-league innings, Betances struck out 723 batters. That mark was good enough for a ratio of 10.1 K/9. Amazingly, most of those innings came as a starting pitcher. Due to the nature of attempting to conserve energy through games, starters tend to strike out less batters per inning than relievers.
Since arriving in the big leagues as a reliever, Betances has posted a ridiculous 15.4 K/9 mark. Of course, that figure spans only seven innings out of the Yankees bullpen. While Betances' upside suggests stuff of a potential star in the ninth inning, a lack of experience is likely the reason for Girardi's hesitance to include him as a potential closer right now.
Semantics and forward thinking by Girardi aside, Kelley should receive save opportunities over the next two weeks—or longer if Robertson experiences a setback or takes longer than expected to return to the team.
Much like Betances, Kelley profiles as an excellent late-game reliever due to his ability to miss bats. The concept is simple, but practical. With save opportunities occurring in close games, a flurry of jam shots, slow-rolling singles or defensive miscues could ruin a winning effort. By striking out batters at a high rate, relievers limit variance and avoid disaster.
Last season, Kelley's K/9 rate of 11.98 was good for 12th in baseball among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched. The pitchers surrounding him on the following chart include some of the most dominant late-inning relievers in baseball, including both of the ninth-inning men from the 2013 World Series: Boston's Koji Uehara and St. Louis' Trevor Rosenthal.
|2013 Strikeout Kings|
|Steve Delabar||Blue Jays||12.58|
|Koji Uehara||Red Sox||12.23|
Given the opportunity and late-inning stress factor, Kelley could rack up strikeouts, saves and peace of mind for a bullpen now devoid of the consistent excellence of both Rivera and his successor, Robertson.
Of course, losing Robertson doesn't just leave a void in the final inning; it changes the entire anatomy of the Yankees bullpen. If Kelley closes, someone will have to replace Kelley in the setup role. If arms like Warren, Phelps or Nuno earn a chance in the final frame, the middle innings—potentially crucial in games pitched by Michael Pineda and 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda—could be short on options.
If the Yankees unofficially hand the job to Kelley, the next man up to pitch in the eighth inning should be Betances. While he's likely too green and inexperienced for Girardi to consider for a closing role right now, anyone with top-tier strikeout ability and a game-changing fastball—95.1 mph in 2014, according to FanGraphs—should be used late in games.
Regardless of how Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild choose to deploy the arms at their disposal, the Yankees are about to endure a test of depth that wasn't talked about enough when Rivera officially retired at the end of last season.
Replacing a legend is difficult, but bullpen depth is now the biggest issue in New York. Realistically, Robertson can replace Rivera and Kelley can replace Robertson for a short-term period. From there, concerns arise over the Yankees' lack of options during the middle innings of crucial games.
Kelley is the right answer for now, but unavoidable follow-up questions will soon emerge in the Bronx.
Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Numbers from tables valid entering play on April 7, 2014. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster breakdowns via MLB Depth Charts.