What was once considered the New York Yankees' greatest strength in 2011, their bullpen, is suddenly an unmitigated disaster, ravaged by an unforeseen injury plague.
Prior to the season, observers watched in awe as the Yankees signed one of the league's premier closers, Rafael Soriano, to a massive contract in order to serve as the setup man for incumbent save artist Mariano Rivera.
Yes, the Yankees vastly overpaid for the services of Soriano, but his talents were undisputed, and it was seen as a major step toward solidifying an occasionally unstable bridge to the greatest closer of all time.
Who but the Yankees could tempt a certifiable, top-notch closer to take a demotion by giving him a three-year, $35 million contract? Though Soriano's desire was to remain a closer, sometimes money talks, and this time, it was shouting so loudly that the reliever simply couldn't ignore it.
Not only had the Yankees completed a major coup by signing the in-demand Soriano, but they also acquired a talented lefty specialist in Pedro Feliciano, another move that significantly strengthened the relief corps.
Feliciano, inked to a two-year, $8 million contract, was a bullpen stalwart for the crosstown Mets, pitching eight seasons in Queens. Over the last five seasons, four of his campaigns had been excellent, and he was widely viewed as one of the more reliable and effective left-handed relievers in baseball.
Combining the incoming veterans with the incomparable Mariano Rivera, strikeout specialist David Robertson and the talented, if unpredictable, Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees had apparently built an impressive collection of arms capable of matching up with any bullpen in the game.
However, two months into the 2011 schedule, the Yankees' dream bullpen has morphed into a hideous nightmare right before our very eyes.
First, the news came that Feliciano had a dead arm before ever throwing a meaningful pitch for the Yankees. The dead arm was soon diagnosed as a capsule tear in his throwing shoulder, and the lefty was slated for surgery that could potentially sideline him for the entire year.
Reports have varied on the reliever, some saying that his year is finished, others stating that by opting for rest instead of surgery, he could return sometime in July.
The early returns on Soriano were dreadful, as the hard-throwing right-hander was suddenly struggling to find both his velocity and his command, giving up a hit an inning and walking 6.6 batters per nine innings. Certainly not what the Yankees expected after watching him dominate the AL as the closer for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010.
Soriano struggled mightily and further exacerbated his woes by making questionable comments to the media, seemingly blaming his teammates for the team's struggles and downplaying his own role. This led to fans and media alike wondering whether the Yankees had made a mistake by bringing the always-mercurial pitcher to the pressure cooker in the Bronx.
Not only did he struggle in his early-season outings with the Yankees, but he also exhibited poor judgment with his commentary, and then he was shut down with elbow inflammation. That's never a good sign from a pitcher who has already had two elbow surgeries in his career.
After a visit to renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews, Soriano was placed on the DL and given a timetable of being six to eight weeks away from pitching.
Thankfully, Joba Chamberlain, 2007's wunderkind, the flame-throwing, chest-thumping Nebraskan, was experiencing a long-awaited return to form, exhibiting the dominance that he had tantalized with early in his Yankee career. He had rediscovered his velocity after it had been M.I.A. for two seasons, and his filthy slider was once again making hitters look foolish as it disappeared into the dirt as they flailed hopelessly before walking slowly back to the dugout in shame.
As if too good to be true, Joba began experiencing elbow discomfort as well, and the Yankees shut him down to relieve the issue. Shortly thereafter, the dreaded news arrived, as doctors discovered that Joba had a torn ligament in his elbow and would likely require Tommy John surgery in order to pitch again.
Suddenly, the once promising return to form of the 25-year-old Yankee hurler was over.
This trio of devastating injuries has left the Yankees in a dire predicament. Once considered the class of the AL, the New York bullpen was suddenly a collection of no-names, veteran castoffs and a man named Mo. Only David Robertson could be viewed as a pitcher with an upside.
With this dramatic turn of events, the Yankees are now fully engaged in a search for reliable relief help that can help ease the pain of losing three of their top relievers in a span of three months.
While Brian Cashman and co. scour the baseball world for replacements, let's take a look at a few options the Yankees may be able to pry away from their current teams.
All statistical and salary information from:
It seems utterly ridiculous in a way, doesn't it?
Kerry Wood, the oft-injured yet always dominant hurler, was a bullpen savior for the Yankees in 2010 after they plucked him from the Cleveland Indians near the trade deadline. In 26 innings with the Yankees, he struck out 31, posted a 0.69 ERA and only allowed 14 hits.
As he hit free agency in the offseason, they somewhat surprisingly let him walk, as he re-signed with the Chicago Cubs for a measly (in MLB terms) $1.5 million, or less than half of what the Yankees are paying Damaso Marte to not pitch for the third consecutive season.
Instead, the Yankees opted to replace Wood with Soriano for nearly $10.5 million more a season. I'm not an economics major, but that doesn't seem reasonable in my estimation.
Currently, Wood is pitching well for a Cubs team that is floundering, sitting in fourth place and 11.5 games out of first place. A dominant setup man would seem like surplus to a team headed nowhere.
There is not a desperate need for the Cubs to unload Wood, as his one-year, $1.5 million deal is not a financial burden to the franchise, but if it could net them a decent prospect in return, they would have to entertain the notion. They could always re-sign him again in the offseason, when the Yankees opt for another overpriced arm in free agency.
Wood, in 24 innings for Chicago, has struck out 21 hitters, posting a 2.25 ERA. He has not been dominant, as his 1.375 WHIP is higher than desired, as is his .756 OPS allowed, but the Yankees may attempt to catch lightning in a bottle twice, hoping that he could replicate his Bronx tale from last season.
In my opinion, Grant Balfour, currently of the Oakland Athletics, could be a very realistic option for the Yankees.
Signed to a two-year, $8.1 million deal in a dramatic revamp of the A's bullpen, the 33-year-old right-hander could be a valuable trade chip for the always-active Oakland club.
If the A's determine that they are out of contention soon, Billy Beane may very well move a few of his veteran signings in order to restock his perpetually rebuilding franchise.
Balfour, serving as a late-inning option ahead of closer Brian Fuentes and now the back-from-injury Andrew Bailey, has thrived in Oakland. In 25.2 innings, he has struck out 28, posting a 2.81 ERA with a 1.208 WHIP. He has held opponents to a .196 batting average, while only allowing a .606 OPS. His 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings would slot nicely into a setup role ahead of Mariano Rivera.
Perhaps even more inviting to the Yankees is that he already has AL East experience, pitching four seasons for Tampa Bay from 2007-2010. He had difficulties in two of those seasons but was utterly dominant in 2008 and 2010. Overall in those four seasons, he posted a 3.33 ERA, a 1.212 WHIP and struck out 234 in 203 innings, with an ERA+ of 129.
Now, there is no imminent need for the Minnesota Twins to trade Glen Perkins, especially to their nemesis in the Bronx. He is signed to an extremely friendly deal this year, making only $700,000, and he won't be a free agent until after the 2013 season.
However, mired in last place and 11 games out of first, relief pitching is one of the most expendable resources that a struggling team possesses.
Perkins, never impressive in his first several seasons as a starter, has hit his stride as a full-time reliever this year for Ron Gardenhire in Minnesota.
The 28-year-old lefty, in 22.2 innings, has struck out 22 and owns a 1.59 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. Perkins has allowed a .237 batting average, a .617 OPS and has not served up a single home run yet.
Like I said, there is no desperate need to move Perkins, but if he were perhaps packaged with soon-to-be-free-agent Michael Cuddyer, he might help net one of the Yankees' prized catching prospects, which could eventually enable the Twins to alleviate the strain on Joe Mauer by helping him catch less often.
Of course, both the Twins and Mauer say that he is a catcher and solely a catcher, but a team would have to be foolish to continually risk the health of such a talented hitter by insisting upon subjecting him to the daily rigors of catching.
Though they currently sit in last place, the Padres are only 5.5 games out of first, so they may wait further to decide upon the future of free-agent-to-be closer Heath Bell.
With a stable of capable arms in their bullpen, the Padres could likely compensate for the loss of Bell, who is making $7.5 million in the last year of his deal with San Diego. That is, if they determine that they aren't likely to re-sign the dominant reliever.
As with most last-place clubs, a shutdown closer is usually an unnecessary luxury, and if the opportunity arises to land a haul of a few promising prospects, the option has to be considered.
Bell is once again dominating at the end of San Diego's bullpen, converting 17 of his 18 save opportunities, striking out 22 in 27 innings with a 2.33 ERA and 1.037 WHIP.
The San Diego area-born pitcher may be reluctant to leave his hometown team, but the likelihood is that he will as a free agent in several months anyway, and he began his career in New York, pitching three seasons with the Mets.
Although the transition from the NL West to the AL East is a daunting prospect, Bell has been one of the premier closers in all of baseball over the last three seasons and would surely accomplish the feat with ease.
Earlier, there had been talk of a potential extension for Bell in San Diego, but the hurler will likely command in excess of $10 million on the free-agent market, so his future with the Padres is doubtful.
Though the Kansas City Royals began 2011 as one of baseball's exciting success stories, their recent results haven't been as encouraging, and they have faded to 8.5 games out of first place.
Joakim Soria, one of baseball's greatest closers since he took over the KC role full-time in 2008, has long been coveted by the New York Yankees. At only 27, it has been speculated that he could be an eventual replacement for Mariano Rivera once the legend decides to retire.
Soria, signed through 2011, still has three team options with the Royals that could keep him in Kansas City through 2014.
However, the right-hander has struggled at times in 2011, at one time losing his lock on the closer position. In 28 innings, Soria has only struck out 21, posting an ERA of 5.14 while blowing five of his 13 save opportunities. The struggles are highly uncharacteristic of the usually flawless Soria, who had a 2.01 ERA, 0.988 WHIP and 281 strikeouts in 255 career innings prior to 2011.
While Soria is not expensive yet, making only $4 million this season, his cost escalates in the coming seasons, as his salary climbs to $6 million in 2012 and up to $8.75 million in 2014.
The Royals have seen great things out of rookie reliever Aaron Crow this season, leading many to view Soria as potentially expendable.
They may not be inclined to sell low on the star reliever; however, saving money is always an attractive option to smaller-market clubs, especially in the realm of relief pitching.
Kansas City, loaded with high-ceiling prospects and youthful big league talent, has an extremely bright future in the next few seasons, but that time may still be a year or two away. If it found an opportunity to acquire a couple top prospects, nearing major league readiness, from a team like the Yankees, it might very well cash in on its closer to bolster its young squad over the coming seasons.
Of course, the Royals don't necessarily need to unload Soria now, but they might have an opportunity to take advantage of the Yankees' desperation at the moment by trading a pitcher that may not fit into their long-term plans anyway.
Of course, the possibility always exists that the Yankees bide their time until Phil Hughes returns, slotting him into the bullpen role that he excelled in during 2009.
I really do not expect that scenario to occur, especially in light of the criticism the Yankees have already taken over their occasionally bizarre handling of Hughes and Joba during the early portion of their careers.
Some segments of fans have already been clamoring for the Yankees to return Hughes to the role that he has experienced the most success in, but making him a reliever once again would only confuse the pitcher further and set back his development more so than he has already endured.
Besides, the Yankees have already gotten far more out of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia than they could have possibly expected and cannot likely expect that run of good fortune to continue all season. Hughes is needed in the Yankee rotation, and they will have to explore other options to patch up the bullpen, allowing the young right-hander to resume starting once he completes his rehab from his mysterious "dead arm."