When Mariano Rivera walked off the field for the last time everyone knew that he was never going to be replaced. It would be impossible for any player to come close to the standard that he set during his time in baseball. Maybe that standard shied away free agent closers like Joe Nathan (Tigers), Fernando Rodney (Mariners), and Grant Balfour (Rays). Who knows? But it’s no big deal. The problem isn’t the closer role now that David Robertson has ascended to the throne. The biggest problem may be finding a successor for the eighth inning role that Robertson has vacated. The Yankees passed on Joaquin Benoit, Francisco Rodriguez, and Chris Perez who have all been closers in the past and could have provided depth in the bullpen. They weren’t ever connected to setup man, Joe Smith, who had three straight stellar years with the Cleveland Indians before signing with the Angles this off-season. The Yankees signed former Red Sox and Oakland Athletics reliever, Andrew Bailey but he wont be ready until at least August as he recovers from surgery. So, with Robertson now the closer and a thin bullpen in need of key pieces…what are the options? Well, there are a few that come to mind.
Shawn Kelley seems to be the favorite to take over the eighth inning role as the Yankees near the start of spring training games. But is he capable of handling the high pressure situations that come with it? Kelley had a decent year in the Bronx after being traded from the Mariners. He had a high ERA (4.39) but in 53.1 innings he struck out 71 batters and walked only 23. Kelley hasn’t been tested in a role like that and may have a hard time adjusting. If he can prove he’s capable of being the everyday setup man, then the problem is solved. However, that remains to be seen.
Preston Claiborne may be a long shot but don’t count him out yet. Claiborne broke down at the end of his rookie season last year but displayed a lot of potential early on in the season. While he obviously needs more work in the Major Leagues he impressed a lot of people in the Yankees organization and is expected to improve this year. Claiborne fits the profile of a setup man, shutting down the opposing offense quickly and effectively in usually single inning outings. Claiborne may not be in consideration now but if Shawn Kelly can’t get it done look for this sophomore to make a strong push for the job.
Joel Hanrahan pitched in only nine games for the Red Sox in 2013 before requiring Tommy John surgery and ending his season. The Red Sox non-tendered him and he’s still a free agent in search of a team. But he’s throwing again and reportedly worked out in front of Mets officials. With all the concerns involving Hanrahan, the Yankees may be able to sign him to a club-friendly deal and take advantage of his high upside. The 32-year-old right-hander was an All-Star for the Pirates in 2011 and 2012 as he racked up 76 saves over those years. If the Yankees can get Hanrahan on the right deal, they may be able to coax out some of what he was when he pitched in Pittsburgh.
J.J. Putz has put together three very good seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks, serving as both the closer and the setup man in that time. Over the past three seasons, Putz has pitched to a 2.45 ERA over 146.2 innings pitched while earning 83 saves and striking out 164 batters. He’s still under contract with Arizona for the 2014 season but the Diamondbacks have a surplus of closers on the roster. If the Yankees are willing to make a trade, Putz may be able to provide a lot of support to the Yankees bullpen. Throughout the off-season Putz has been linked to Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki as the Diamondbacks are in search of an extra bat. If Ichiro were to be dealt for Putz I’d say the Yankees got a great deal.
Ryan Madson has struggled with a multitude of injuries throughout his career and finds himself having to make yet another comeback. I think the Yankees have had their share of injury risks over the past few years and will have more this season. If Madson goes to the Yankees it’d most likely be on a minor league deal so that he can get his feel back and make sure he’s 100% healthy.