A concerning look at the 2014 bullpen

When was the last time the Yankees ever had to worry about the bullpen? With Mariano Rivera‘s retirement, along with the departures of Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain, the 2014 ‘pen has plenty of question marks. Mo was the anchor of the bullpen since 1996, a group that has been the club’s backbone until now.

Obviously, Rivera will be missed the most, Logan to a lesser extent, while there will probably be no yearning for Joba. Without those three, the only guaranteed spots for next year’s bullpen are David Robertson and Shawn Kelley. In all likelihood, Adam Warren, David Phelps, or Vidal Nuno will be the long-man depending on the outcome of the fifth starter competition.

In the day of a twelve-man pitching staff, there are still four more spots to fill. The internal options aren’t overly inspiring: Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral, Preston Claiborne, and David Huff. Perhaps Jim Miller, who signed a minor-league deal in November, will be in the hunt. The Yankees are also hopeful they can bring back Matt Daley on a minor-league pact.

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If we left it up to Steamer to decide, Daley, Claiborne, and Huff would be the favorites, at least per WAR. Based on ERA and FIP, Daley, Miller, Claiborne, and Cabral would be the best choices. Outside of Daley, who is still a free agent, nobody’s projection has much promise.

Assuming the Yankees don’t find an external lefty reliever, at least one of Cabral or Huff will make the roster. Based on the projections, it’s really a toss-up between the two of them, should only one be selected. In that case, it would likely come down to who would have performed best in Spring Training. Both could make the roster, with Huff relegated to a long relief role.

Of the rest of the group, Claiborne is probably the favorite to make the bullpen Opening Day. He has 50 major-league innings under his belt already, which should play in his favor. One concern: he was awful from August through the end of the season, when he allowed 15 runs in 15.1 innings. Betances could be an X-factor, given his remarkable performance in a relief role at Triple-A. He didn’t impress during his September call-up, but stuff isn’t a question. He’ll get a long look in Spring training, but apparently has a fourth option, meaning it’s not make-or-break time just yet.

Interestingly, Daley and Miller have the best ERA projections of the group. We saw Daley for six shutout innings in September, in which he struck out eight and walked none. Hopefully, he can be brought back, because he could be a very cost-effective option. Miller got lit up in his one outing with the Yankees’ last season, but the organization clearly likes him enough to give him another look, at least for depth.

Looking at the internal options, it’s evident some external help is needed. It’s been the lesser discussed need this winter considering the positional and rotational voids, but it’s definitely an issue. Last year, the bullpen was worth 4 WAR. For 2014, Steamer projects 1.4 WAR between Robertson and Kelley. That seems pretty conservative, considering Robertson has been worth at least that total by himself the past two seasons. Nonetheless, two to three wins (or 145 innings of 3.22 ERA, as Mike Axisa notes) doesn’t look like it can be found within the organization. Hopefully, some external help could be had, with names like Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit available.

Two wins doesn’t sound terribly difficult to replace, but when you consider who was lost, it feels like a much larger difference. Rivera has been the pillar of relief pitching for almost two decades, and is at least emotionally irreplaceable. There’ll be a lot less confidence at the end of the game than ever before, and that’s going to feel like the greatest loss of it all. I am confident in Robertson’s ability to lock down the closer role, but bridging the gap to him looks pretty bad. There’s a lot of offseason left, so the front office still has time to patch this weakness up.

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