Sunday, November 11, 2012

Season Assessment and Off-Season Outlook: The Bullpen

A consistent strength of the Yankees since Joe Girardi took over is the quality of their bullpen.  In a season without Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, the bullpen still remained strong.  Some guys appeared consistently (Boone Logan, Clay Rapada, Cody Eppley), some spent time shelved on the DL (David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, David Aardsma), some shuffled back and forth between starting and relieving (David Phelps, Freddy Garcia), one joined the relief corps late in the year (Derek Lowe), and one simply didn't pitch to a single batter over his contract (Pedro Feliciano). 

As a unit, the Yanks' bullpen sat in the middle of the pack in 2012, 14th in baseball in ERA (3.43), 15th in BAA (.241), 15th in WHIP (1.27), and 15th in home runs allowed (47).  In 444 IP, they've racked up 440 K, 158 BB, and 404 H.  Perhaps the most telling statistic is a cumulative bullpen winning percentage of .585, good for sixth in baseball and showing that New York's bullpen keeps them in games.

Of course, the bullpen is made up of many guys, so I'll run a brief season assessment and off-season outlook for each.

Season Assessment:

David Robertson should return for the 8th (Wikipedia)
David Robertson: The Yankees' set-up man and Rivera's heir-apparent, Robertson missed a month of the season with a strained muscle in his rib cage.  The injury didn't affect his overall performance, as he built on his All-Star 2011 season with a great 2012.  His strike-out rate dipped slightly, but he also cut walks in half from last season.  He finished with a 2.67 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.  At 27, he got a taste of the closer role for a brief period in May. 

Boone Logan: The Yanks' crunch-time lefty out of the pen, Logan remained consistent over his Yankee career.  In three seasons since being acquired from the Braves as part of the Javy Vasquez deal, Logan's ERA has hovered in the 3's, with a WHIP within percentage points of 1.35 every season.  He also passed his career-high in strikeouts this season with 68.  The impressive part about that?  He struck out 42 left-handed hitters, which by itself would be the second-highest season total in his career.  At 28, he can do more than get lefties out. 

Clay Rapada: Another great find by Cashman, Rapada, 30, had his best season in the bigs as a Yankee.  The lefty-specialist had a career-best 2.82 ERA.  Lefties hit .189 off Rapada, striking out nearly a third of the time (33 in 102 AB).  He and this next guy matched were used by Girardi as a superior mix-and-match tandem in late-game scenarios. 

Cody Eppley: A second-season pitcher at 27, Eppley was the righty counter to Rapada, dropping down to throw sidearm sinkers.  His WHIP was a relatively high 1.37 for a contact pitcher.  He held righties to a .229 BAA but lefties crushed him to the tune of .352 in 54 AB. 

Joba Chamberlain: Joba's 2012 season began with an infamous ankle injury on a trampoline, but he rejoined the bullpen on August 1st. He was inconsistent this season leaving Girardi to admit he would not be used in pressure situations in September.  In his fifth big league season at 27, had a 4.35 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP, a new career high.  Righties raked off him with a slash line of .345/.362/.600.  His fastball, however, averaged about 95 MPH, the same velocity as in his stellar 2011 campaign. 

David Phelps was a nice surprise (NY Daily News)

David Phelps: As a rookie at 25, Phelps burst onto the scene after a strong spring.  He split time between the rotation and bullpen, pitching well in each but really setting into the bullpen role by season's end.  Opponents hit .209 off Phelps when he came out of the pen (compared to .233 as a starter).  Phelps, now 26, will be one of the more important questions this winter in terms of his future role with the team. 

Freddy Garcia: A savior in the rotation in 2011, Garcia alternated between starting and relieving, beginning the year as a starter before being demoted to a long man.  He spent all of May and June coming out of relief and had a 1.56 ERA in 10 appearances.  He returned to the rotation amid injury issues before rejoining the bullpen in mid-September.  Overall, the 36-year-old righty had a .198 BAA as a reliever.  He is a free agent. 

Derek Lowe: Signed after being released by the Indians, Lowe had a solid tenure with the Yanks.  The sinkerballer was a long man in the regular season and sported a 3.04 ERA and 1.27 WHIP out of the pen.  The 39-year-old righty is also a free agent this winter.

David Aardsma: Formerly one of the game's better closer, Aardsma tossed only one inning in 2012 after returning from Tommy John, giving up a solo homer to J.P. Arencibia and recording one strikeout.  Of his 13 fastballs thrown, none exceeded 92 MPH.  He'll be 31 this December.

Pedro Feliciano: The lefty-specialist Feliciano went under the knife for arthroscopic surgery during the 2011 season and hasn't played at all in pinstripes.  At 36, "Perpetual Pedro" is a free agent. 

Off-season Outlook:

Robertson, Logan, Chamberlain, Rapada, Eppley and Phelps are all under contract to remain with the team for 2013, so the core of the bullpen remains both intact and young.  As mentioned, Phelps' role with the team will be determined by the moves made this off-season.  If he does return to the bullpen, he and Chamberlain would keep for that 7th inning slot, assuming that Rapada and Eppley will continue to mix-and-match and Robertson/Logan handle the big bats in the 8th.  The Yanks' won't necessarily need to replace Phelps' production if he does become a starter.

Aardsma is also coming back in 2013, and the Yankees really have an opportunity to strike gold if he returns to elite form.  The rest of the bullpen is made up off free agents.  Feliciano is not worth the gamble coming off surgery and at 36.  Besides, New York has two high-caliber lefties in their pen already with Logan and Rapada.  The Yankees will probably have to decide between Lowe and Garcia for their long man, and both have their risks and rewards.  For Lowe, he's a veteran contact pitcher who could eat cheap innings quickly.  If his sinker is on, nothing will leave the yard.  That said, his numbers with Cleveland were downright awful.  Garcia put up better bullpen numbers than Lowe in 2012, but is more prone to home runs - something you don't want in relief.  Both will come cheaply, but it would be redundant for the Yankees to retain both.

The market for relief pitchers this winter is very deep, with plenty of opportunities to add depth behind Rivera.  The Yankees could chase top-tier relievers, like Joakim Soria and Ryan Madson, to set-up Rivera and eventually succeed him as closers if they agree to longer deals.  However, Cashman's design to get under the luxury tax by 2014 will more likely open them up to second-tier relievers in search of an Aardsma-like gem, such as Jason Grilli, Mike Adams, Carlos Villaneuva, Jeremy Affeldt, Matt Lindstrom, Juan Oviedo, or Koji Uehara.  Talent like this comes at a better price, as one of the game's better set-up men, Joel Peralta, resigned with the Rays for two years, $6 million.

The Yankees had success with a middle-of-the-road bullpen lacking Rivera.  When they get him back, and hopefully it will be the same Rivera, it will improve.  But with the talent available on the market, outside improvement is certainly possible.  Most of the key pieces will remain, but it would be nice to see a former closer come out for the 8th. 


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