New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi couldn’t have been happier with Derek Lowe‘s first performance in pinstripes. Lowe pitched four innings of scoreless relief, earning his first save since 2001. He struck out four batters and allowed only two base runners, both via singles. He reinvented his sinker ball at least for one night and further exemplified the depth and quality of the Yankees bullpen. For Girardi it meant one more veteran arm in the bullpen who he can call on to eat up innings.
Lowe’s appearance also portends to the rosy future of the bullpen. Before looking at what will come to fruition, let’s talk about the pen’s performance to date. Throughout much of this season the bullpen has performed well above expectations which were lofty to begin with. When you have the greatest closer of all time anchoring the bullpen, expectations reach a zenith. But, the ability to rely on Mariano Rivera went down with his batting practice ball-shagging mishap at the end of April. His heir apparent David Robertson was shaky in a couple appearances before he too went on the disabled list.
The injuries led to one of the bigger “surprises” of the season. I placed surprises in quotes because Rafael Soriano had saved plenty of games prior to signing with the Yankees as the highest paid set-up man in history. But, his performance on the Yankees last season was up and down which brought various questions to the forefront as he was thrust into the role of closer in May. He has completely run away with the job and for now has quelled some of the Rivera talk.
Once Robertson returned, he seemed better in the eighth inning role and has been fairly consistent at getting the ball to Soriano with the lead intact. The Yankees have received very good efforts from Boone Logan and Clay Rapada as lefty specialists. Rapada came out of nowhere and has recorded some very big outs along the way. His righty counterpart, Cody Eppley, has also done more than a respectable job as a middle reliever.
Eppley’s role was very important with Joba Chamberlain on the mend. Chamberlain has since returned and is slowly getting back into form. Until Joba completely rounds into shape, Eppley provides Girardi a complementary right-hander.
With Lowe now set to take on the role of long reliever, it allows Phelps to show his worth as a starter at least for one more turn with CC Sabathia out until at least August 24th. A little more than a week from that point the rosters expand and this is when the bullpen is going to be extremely important for the Yankees stretch run. There is a chance that lefty Pedro Feliciano makes his way back to the majors in September, as should Andy Pettitte, pushing one other current rotation member to the pen.
That leaves Soriano, Robertson, Chamberlain, Logan, Eppley, Lowe, Rapada and possibly Feliciano as members of the bullpen along with whichever starters Sabathia and Pettitte supplant. I won’t venture a guess as to who will draw the short end of the stick but, Phelps and Freddy Garcia seem likely to be the choices based on their status (in Girardi’s pecking order) throughout the season. That said; Ivan Nova‘s and Phil Hughes‘ inconsistency could push them to the pen if Phelps or Garcia is considered better served in the rotation. Plus, there is a chance that the Yankees call up some arms from the minors as September progresses.
Either way, I like the chances that this bullpen can shorten plenty of games in which the Yankees have the lead, and have quality, not scrub, arms to take the brunt of games which get away from the starters. Both instances eliminate extra weight on the shoulders of the rotation. They won’t have to pitch past the sixth inning under many circumstances. I’m not saying they won’t, I’m just stating that is it not going to be a requirement each time out thanks to the depth and style of pitchers they’ll have at their disposal.
September will further foster some competition among members of the pen serving as an audition so Girardi can create his postseason roster. While each of the current members of the bullpen have played major roles in the Yankees’ success, whoever is performing best come early October will be in Girardi’s binder as he hopes to bring the World Series Championship back to Yankee Stadium.