Exit Sandman: No Mo, No Problem? Well, Maybe Not Quite

The Yankees bullpen will have a drastically different look in 2014, if for no other reason than that the back end will be propped up by someone other than Mariano Rivera for the first time since 1997. Think about that for a second: Rivera is the bridge from John Wetteland to David Robertson.

Rivera isn’t the only one gone from a bullpen which ranked 20th in ERA, 26th in FIP, but 6th in K/9. Also gone from last year are Joba Chamberlain — addition by subtraction, in the eyes of most Yankees fans — and Boone Logan — just plain subtraction — as well as even David Huff, whose 34.2 innings as a swingman aren’t completely insignificant.

The Yankees didn’t pour any money into the bullpen in the offseason, instead focusing on adding Masahiro Tanaka and retaining Hiroki Kuroda in to an otherwise ordinary rotation. This means that the club will likely have to find somewhere between 150-200 innings out of guys who were non-factors for the Bombers in 2013. That is, previous lower-tier guys as well as minor league fill-ins.

The Closer

David Robertson (9.9 K/9, 2.97 ERA, 35 saves via 2014 Steamer Projections)

After six straight years of 10.0-plus K/9, for some reason Steamer thinks Robertson will take a slight step back as he inherits the closer’s role. It certainly won’t be easy to replace immortality, but in reality Robertson has been nails from the get-go, with a career K/9 of 11.7, an ERA of 2.76, and FIPs that are more or less exactly in line with it. Robertson missed a few less bats last year — still a solid 10.5 per 9 — but found some extra grounders en route to an outstanding 2.04 ERA. To me, Steamer is a bit down on a guy who I think has a shot to be an elite closer right out of the gate. This Yankees team may not be amazing, but I think they’ll be good enough for me to take the over on Steamer’s 35 saves projection. Robertson is legit.

The Holds Guys

Shawn Kelley (9.4 K/9, 3.44 ERA via 2014 Steamer Projections)

Asking Kelley to step in and be the new Robertson might be a steep proposition, but the reality is that Kelley has been a useful reliever for three or four of the last five seasons (1.52 WHIP in 2010 is iffy), and should have every opportunity to be the eighth inning guy for the Yankees this season. Kelley has shows a slight susceptibility to left-handed hitters the past two years, but on the whole he’s had more trouble throwing strikes to lefties (2.3 K/BB) than he has keeping their line against him down overall (.242/.326/.356). The possible lefty issues are something to watch at Yankee Stadium, especially given a career GB rate of 30.4 percent. Any blip on the radar in the HR/FB rate — like last year’s 13.1 percent mark — can result in a quickly inflated ERA, like last year’s 4.39 mark. With so many good relievers in the game today, Kelley — at least to me — is just one in a long list of guys who could be an asset in non-saves leagues. Don’t overpay, but keep him on your mind.

Preston Claiborne (7.4 K/9, 4.05 ERA via 2014 Steamer Projections)

Steamer pretty much forecasts Claiborne to be about the same guy from last year going into 2014, and that’s probably not quite good enough to solidify him as a late-inning option in fantasy leagues. He’s worth watching because he throws hard (93.1 mph fastball), got whiffs in the minors (8.8 per 9), and there’ll certainly be opportunity in this bullpen. He wouldn’t be one of my targets, but bullpens are weird. He could carve out some value.

Vidal Nuno/Adam Warren/David Phelps

By the looks of it, these three are duking it out — along with Michael Pineda — for the No. 5 spot in the rotation behind Ivan Nova. Nuno struck out nobody and stranded everybody in a 20 inning cup of coffee last year, and is a soft-tossing lefty working his way back from a groin injury. He might have some LOOGY potential. Warren’s numbers looked a lot like Claiborne’s last year. In other words, decent strikeout numbers, shaky home run rates, and decent enough ERA marks with almost identical fastball velocities. Warren started a couple games, and as a result was also able to toss about 20 more innings. Still, it looks like Warren trails Phelps as well as Pineda for that No. 5 spot. Phelps was an invaluable swingman last year, making 12 starts and appearing in 22 games total. He had healthy whiff rates (8.2 per 9), kept the ball in the ballpark, and managed to keep his walk rate just shy of hypertension. Should Pineda need more time to get his arm ready, or a stint at Triple-A, Phelps is the prohibitive favorite to act as his stand-in. In the bullpen, he could have a shot to work the late innings with Kelley, I think.

The Sleepers 

Cesar Cabral (8.7 K/9, 4.08 ERA via 2014 Steamer Projections)

The big lefty has nearly as many transactions (7) as big league appearances (8). Cabral throws relatively hard, and has posted some very solid strikeout rates in the minors. There’s definite LOOGY potential here, with huge lefty-righty splits most years in the minors.

Dellin Betances (9.5 K/9, 4.21 ERA via 2014 Steamer Projections)

A former hot-shot prospect who still throws gas, Betances has surely seen some of the luster wear off after a rough 2012 and simply a good 2013. Betances transitioned to the bullpen nearly full time in 2013, and while the walk rate was still a bit high, it was below his minor league averages. That’s something to work with. He’s been battered in the big leagues so far — 19 of the 42 batters he’s faced have reached base safely — but with his arm and skillset in the pen, the sky’s the limit. Relief prospects are a dime a dozen, but it’s genuinely worth watching what role Betances eventually works his way into.

Manuel Banuelos (6.9 K/9, 4.53 ERA via 2014 Steamer Projections)

Like Betances, Banuelos has seen his stock drop precipitously in the past couple years. Banuelos peaked as MLB.com’s No. 13 prospect before 2012, but hasn’t been ranked since as he’s continually had trouble with walks, and baserunners on the whole (1.55 and 1.63 WHIPs the past two seasons). Unlike Betances, Banuelos has remained in the rotation, though a move to the pen can’t be ruled out if Manny doesn’t get his control woes under wraps. Given Andrew Brackman’s career struggles as well, this group of Killer B’s haven’t exactly panned out for the Yankees as Cashman and company had planned. As far as super deep bullpen sleepers go, well, that’s where you’d find Manny B.

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In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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Tom B
Tom B

LOOGY – A concept that needs to die.

Tom Cranker
Tom Cranker

Be nice. What if Randy Choate’s mother were reading this?