After Mariano Rivera’s retirement last season, the closer duties were passed to the Yankees’ dominant setup man, David Robertson. Now, less than two weeks into the season, Robertson finds himself on the DL with a strained groin and the Yankees find themselves without a closer. They were already playing fast and loose with the bullpen before Robertson’s injury, carrying three long relievers (David Phelps, Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren) and without a designated seventh or eighth inning guy. Now the bullpen appears completed bungled.
Interim closer Shawn Kelley, who was a revelation last year as a middle reliever coming off Tommy John surgery, was lit up on Wednesday taking the loss after surrendering two runs on four hits. Coming into this season, Kelley had exactly zero saves in the major leagues. Kelley had not even nailed down the job as the permanent eighth inning guy before taking over the closer’s duties. He was sharing the primary setup man job with Matt Thornton. It remains to be seen if Kelley can keep the closer’s seat warm until Robertson makes it back.
Last night with Kelley unavailable to pitch, in a save situation, the Yankees let David Phelps pitch the ninth against the Red Sox. Phelps came into the game to get the final out of the seventh and then pitched the eighth. However, Joe Girardi’s options for the ninth were limited. He had already used Cesar Cabral and Kelley, Nuno and Warren were all unavailable to pitch. His choice came down to unproven Shane Greene, Matt Thornton, or leave Phelps in the game. Prior to this game, Phelps had been abysmal, with an ERA approaching 10. Girardi stayed with Phelps and he rewarded his manager by earning his first career save.
Going forward the closer job will be Shawn Kelley’s to lose, but if he makes a habit of throwing so many pitches in his appearances or giving up runs, lose it he will. At that point, who will be best suited to take over the ninth for the Yankees? No one currently in the ‘pen has any real closer experience. Matt Thornton saved eight games in 2010 to give him the most single season saves of anyone in the bullpen. Manager Joe Girardi’s only real option seems to mix and match his relievers the same way he does in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings until someone steps up and grabs on the more clearly defined bullpen roles with both hands.
Match-ups are useful. However, it means using a lot of pitchers every night. It means racking up appearances and innings for all the relievers early in the season. There is also the caveat that comes with all the decisions based upon match-ups: past performance does not guarantee future outcomes. The Yankees need David Robertson to return to the ‘pen in two weeks. The bullpen can tread water for a time by effectively using match-ups, but over a longer timeline they will be exposed. The Yankees need him to be the rightful heir to Mariano Rivera that the Yankees believe he can be, and start to stabilize the bullpen because teams with bad bullpens tend to play golf in October instead of competing for championships.