Would Joba Chamberlain Have Replaced Mo Rivera as Yankee Closer?

Peter AlfanoContributor IIMay 8, 2012

Would Joba Chamberlain Have Replaced Mo Rivera as Yankee Closer?

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    Yankee fans may be happy to hear that Mariano Rivera plans to return from his torn ACL even though he is 42 years old and already the best reliever of all time.

    David Robertson and Rafael Soriano are expected to handle the closer's role, but it is interesting to speculate whether Joba Chamberlain would have have been the closer-of-choice during the second half of the 2012 season if he hadn't fractured his ankle jumping on a trampoline during spring training.

    Until the unfortunate accident that has cost Chamberlain any chance of coming back this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the Yankees had decided to throw out the Joba Rules and put the hard-throwing right-hander back in the bullpen.

    If Chamberlain does return next season and if Rivera's comeback plans are derailed, there may be plenty of internal competition for the closer job.

    And because it's the Yankees, you can't rule out a trade or free-agent signing to acquire Mo's eventual heir.

    This being a presidential election year, let's look at the candidates for Yankee closer in 2013.

Here's to You, Mr. Robertson

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    David Robertson has never been a closer. But, remember, neither was Mariano Rivera, who actually started 10 games in 1995, his first season with the Yankees.

    Rivera then was the setup man for John Wetteland in '96 before inheriting the closer's role. The rest can be found in the baseball record book.

    Robertson has youth on his side—he is only 27. And he has been even more effective as a setup man than Rivera. He was 4-0 in 2011, with a 1.08 ERA and 1.125 WHIP in 70 appearances.

    A career year? Not the way Robertson has pitched so far in 2011. He had not given up a run in his first 12 games and had 21 strikeouts in 12 innings. He has also finished three games, although none was a save situation.

    This is Robertson's job to lose, and wouldn't it be interesting if it's lights out the rest of the season and Rivera returns in 2013?

    A closer controversy?

    Not likely, but the Yankees would love to have that problem. 

Rafael Soriano: Been There Done That

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    Rafael Soriano didn't have a great start as a Yankee. He was only 1-1 with an ERA of 5.40 when he went on the disabled list in May of 2011 with a sore elbow.

    It looked as if the Yankees had made a foolish investment giving Soriano a three-year contract for $35 million after he led the American League with 45 saves as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010.

    Soriano, however, was more effective when he returned from the disabled list last season to finish 2-3 with a 4.2 ERA in 42 games. Still, these were not the kind of numbers the Yankees envisioned when they signed Soriano to be Mariano Rivera's setup man and potentially his successor.

    What's more, he lost the setup job to David Robertson.

    Soriano has looked much better this season with a 2-0 record and 1.80 ERA as the seventh-inning specialist.

    Now he moves up to the eighth inning again and perhaps gets a chance to close if Robertson falters.

    Working in his favor are his track record as a closer and his motivation.

    Soriano can opt out of the final year of his deal with the Yankees, although he is guaranteed $14 million in 2013. If he gets a chance to close, however, and looks like the pitcher he was in Tampa, Soriano might command a new multi-year contract from another team.

    He is 32 years old, and this might be his last chance to show he is still a quality closer.

    The Yankees will take into consideration that Soriano has not had the responsibility of closing in a major market and that in an uneven career, he has had only two successful seasons as a closer.

Can Joba Rule the Ninth Inning?

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    He is big, burly and intimidating.

    Joba Chamberlain looks as if he was born to close.

    The Yankees have not done him any favors, however, by micro-managing his pitch count and innings when he was a full-time starter in 2009 and seemingly not being able to decide the role that suited Chamberlain the best.

    He has started 43 games in five years with the Yankees and has come out of the pen in 150 games.

    He also has four saves and merits some consideration in 2013.

    There doesn't appear to be as much concern over the Tommy John surgery as there is for the ankle he mangled on the trampoline playing with his son at a kids' playground.

    Chamberlain is only 26, but he is not particularly light on his feet.

    He is 6'2" and weighs 250 pounds if you go by the Yankee media guide. His weight has been an issue, however, and will have an impact on his recovery from ankle surgery.

    For one inning, however, he may be the Yankee pitcher best suited to close. Although he wants to pitch again this season, it might be best for Chamberlain to take his time and make a big push for a significant role in the bullpen in 2013.

    He could ultimately be the heir to Mariano Rivera.

Closing a Hughes Responsibility?

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    The Yankees have been unable to make up their mind about Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, two highly-regarded prospects who have had checkered careers right now.

    While Chamberlain has been used more in relief, Hughes has started 77 games during his five-plus seasons and come out of the bullpen 49 times.

    He has had significant success in both roles.

    In 2009 he was 8-3 in relief with a 3.03 ERA and even had three saves. He struck out 96 in 86 innings.

    The next year he was made a starter and responded by going 18-8 with a so-so 4.19 ERA and a WHIP of 1.248.

    He had an injury-filled 2011 and wasn't in great shape.

    Hughes responded with a strong spring this year and earned a spot in the rotation. 

    Mostly, he has been disappointing. He turned in his best start against the Kansas City Royals but overall is 2-4 with a 6.67 ERA in six starts.

    This may be Hughes' last chance to be a starter. Unless he can string together several strong performances, he may find himself back in the bullpen as a middle-inning reliever.

    Hughes is big and strong and throws hard when he uses his fastball. 

    If he fails as a starter and is not traded, he could become a setup man and, who knows, perhaps a candidate to close.

    Hughes won't be 26 until June 25—too young for the Yankees to give up on as part of their future. 

Is There a Mystery Closer in the Yankees' Future?

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    If the Yankees add bullpen help this season, it is most likely for the seventh or eighth innings, not to close.

    Brett Myers of the Houston Astros is a name tossed around a lot when available relievers are mentioned.

    He would fit in great with the Yankees, as he has shuffled between the rotation and bullpen in his career much like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes.

    The closer of the future? 

    It's doubtful, but he might be an integral part of the bullpen after the trade deadline.

    We've also heard that the Yankees might be interested in Seattle Mariners closer Brandon League in 2013.

    League is capable but isn't better than Rafael Soriano or David Robertson.

    And after the Michael Pineda debacle, would the Yankees be interested in another Mariners pitcher anytime soon?

    Stranger things have happened, but barring a trade, it looks like the Yankees closer in 2013 is already wearing pinstripes.

    And his name could be Mariano Rivera.