The New York Yankees are entering the season without No. 42 as their closer for the first time since 1997.
That’s a very long time with the same closer, and it’s going to feel weird for the fans and longtime players and coaches not to hear “Enter Sandman” and watch Mariano Rivera trot out in the 9th inning this season.
It’s a concerning time for sure, with plenty of confusion as to who will slide into what role in this bullpen. David Robertson is projected as the heir to Rivera, and rightfully so. But now not only are you losing last year’s closer, you are losing last year’s setup man in Robertson.
So who will fill that role, which some would argue can be more important than the closer’s role?
Well, among the five players the Yankees avoided arbitration with and re-signed last week was middle reliever Shawn Kelley, and he seems like the perfect fit.
Kelley’s arrival to the Yankees was a quiet one last season, but the February trade with the Seattle Mariners turned out to be one of GM Brian Cashman’s thriftiest moves of the off-season.
It looked as though Kelley’s Yankee career would be short-lived after he allowed four home runs in eight games and had a 7.84 ERA in the months of April and May. But then Kelley got it together and utilized his slider to rack up a career-high 71 strikeouts the rest of the way with an elite swinging strike percentage of 10.9.
He was especially great in June and July when he really took over the seventh inning role. During those months he allowed just three earned runs and recorded 23 strikeouts in 19.1 innings pitched. While his season ERA of 4.39 doesn’t look great, most of the damage was done in May and at the end of the season in September and October after he worked his way back from a triceps injury.
Kelley’s has had a consistent strikeout rate throughout his short career thanks to his filthy mid-80s slider and low-to-mid 90s fastball. Teams want a setup man to miss bats, so Kelley fits the bill perfectly.
At $1.765 million this year, Kelley will be a bargain and a vital part of the team if he can match what he did in the summer months last season.