Can you believe it, Yankee fans? Opening Day 2014 is right around the corner. The final pieces to the jigsaw puzzle that the New York Yankees bullpen appears to be are not yet in place. It has been a very close competition throughout the entire spring. Joe Girardi will have some tough decisions to make over the next few days.
For the first time in nearly two decades, the Yankees had to decide on who their closer would be. That choice was relatively easy for Girardi as he anointed David Robertson the new Yankee closer. That move, however, caused more of a problem. Robertson was one of the premier set-up men in the league. Who will take his spot? That answer is still a work in progress.
Only two spots have officially been claimed. Robertson is now the closer and veteran Matt Thornton was brought in to replace the overused Boone Logan as the left-handed specialist. The rest of the competition is wide open. Will it be a veteran of the minor leagues ready for his big opportunity? Will it be one or all of the three who lost out to Michael Pineda for the fifth rotation slot? Or will a once-elite starting pitching prospect finally earn his role? It will be interesting to see how it ends.
Girardi made it official Tuesday evening by naming Pineda the fifth starter. That leaves David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno without a defined or guaranteed role. Earlier this spring, Girardi vowed that even if Phelps and Warren lost out on the fifth starter spot, they would both start the year in the bigs. Phelps has to make the big league squad. His experience in both long relief and as a spot starter last season are invaluable. Warren still has a great shot at making the 25-man roster, but it seems like Nuno will be heading for Triple-A. If Girardi is true to his word, and Warren and Phelps are both on the roster, there are three spots that remain in the bullpen.
Girardi also seems to think Shawn Kelley is a lock in this bullpen and most feel that he will replace Robertson as the set-up man. Kelley has had a decent spring but his career numbers (14-11 with a 3.77 ERA and 193 Ks in 181.1 career innings) are not overly encouraging. Girardi loves him though, and we can all but assume that he is on the roster. That means two spots remain.
Preston Claiborne and Cesar Cabral on paper would seem to have the upper hand. Both are on the 40-man roster. Claiborne was underwhelming in his rookie debut but he did stick with the club to make 44 appearances. They will be competing against prized prospect Dellin Betances and a handful of veteran non-roster invitees who have impressed thus far: Matt Daley, Danny Burawa, Jim Miller, and Fred Lewis.
Cabral, Daley, and Lewis have yet to allow a run yet this spring and all three have made at least 7 appearances, while . Miller has allowed just one run in his 7.2 innings pitched while also earning a win and save when the opportunities presented themselves. Lewis has really stood out and taken advantage of his opportunity. Lewis is a career minor league with his first real shot at making this roster especially with his left-handed cannon of an arm that hits 95-mph regularly. He pitched well out of the pen and as a starter last season on all three levels in the minors and his success has certainly carried over this spring. Girardi has praised Lewis along with fellow career minor leaguer Burawa (1-0 with a 2.16 ERA) for having spectacular springs.
Lastly, the eyes that all of the Yankee Universe are on is Dellin Betances. The Yankees have long awaited the arrival of their once most prized pitching prospect. Originally slated to be the starter of the future, he may have finally found his niche in the pen. Betances is having an outstanding spring allowing just one run in 9 appearances with 10 Ks. “Obviously, for me, every time I go out there it means something because I know I’m fighting for a spot,” Betances told reporters. “So I’m just trying to make the best impression I can.” He made quite the impression this past Sunday against the Blue Jays. Entering the game with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning, Betances stuck out Jose Bautista and got Edwin Encarnacion to fly out to get out of the jam. That surely had to turn some heads.
“You’d like to have a guy you could say to, this is your job. It’s not always that simple,” Girardi explained. “Sometimes you have to mix and match a little more. I would love to be able to say, ‘Here’s my seventh-inning guy, here’s my eight-inning guy, here’s my left-handed specialist and here we go.’ But we’ll see how it works its way out.” Well, Joe, in just five short days, I guess we will all find out exactly how this bullpen works out.