Less than a week into the season, the David Robertson Era has hit a snag. On the heels of Monday's 4-2 win over the Orioles, the Yankees placed their new closer on the disabled list due to a Grade I groin strain.
Taking over ninth-inning duties for the retired Mariano Rivera — only the all-time saves leader, so no pressure, kid — the 28-year-old righty had converted his first two save opportunities of the year this week, and thrown three scoreless innings in all while allowing just one hit and walking one. He apparently injured himself during Sunday's game against the Blue Jays, but didn't inform the Yankees until Monday that he was feeling sore (an MRI confirmed the strain). With the Yankees holding a two-run lead heading into the ninth inning of Monday's home opener, manager Joe Girardi instead called upon Shawn Kelley, who needed just nine pitches to set the O's down in order for his first career save.
If this has a ring of "déjà vu all over again," you're not mistaken. When Rivera tore his ACL in May 2012, Robertson took over as closer, but after a week in the role — converting one save opportunity, blowing another, and making two other scoreless appearances — he suffered a strained oblique and missed five weeks. During his absence, Rafael Soriano took over closer duties, and pitched so well that he spent the rest of the season in that role. Soriano had 90 saves under his belt to that point in his career, and had led the AL with 45 as recently as 2010. Kelley, on the other hand, had never pitched the ninth inning in the service of a save chance prior to Monday afternoon, though he'd pitched in tie games in the ninth or later a handful of times, including twice last year.
Now he's going to be Girardi's first choice for save opportunities, though not necessarily the only one. On the heels of a season in which he struck out 12.0 per nine in 53 1/3 innings, the Yankees had already tabbed Kelley to be one of the team's top setup men, albeit part of a largely inexperienced core. Neither he, David Phelps, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances or Vidal Nuno has more than one full season on a major league roster; Betances and Nuno are still rookies, with lefty Matt Thornton the only grizzled veteran in the pen besides Robertson, and the staff leader in career saves with 23. In this young season, Phelps is the only Yankees reliever to allow a run; he's been touched up for four while allowing three homers in 3 1/3 innings. The rest of the unit has combined to deliver 13 2/3 scoreless innings thus far, with 13 strikeouts against just three hits and six walks.
So far, so good from that bunch, but as I suggested at the outset of the season, the bigger question for the Yankees isn't whether Robertson could fill Rivera's role, but whether someone else could step up to fill Robertson's shoes. From 2011-13, while setting up for Rivera and Soriano, Robertson merely compiled the majors' second-highest Wins Above Replacement total among relievers (8.1), the third-lowest ERA (1.91) and the sixth-highest strikeout rate (12.0 per nine). It's a tall order to expect anybody on this staff to approximate that.
Robertson isn't expected to miss much more than the minimum 15 days. Via the New York Post's Joel Sherman, the Yankees will call up either lefty Cesar Cabral or righty Shane Greene to fill his roster spot. Cabral made eight appearances totaling 3 2/3 innings for the Yankees last year, while Greene has never pitched above Double-A, though the latter impressed the Yankees' brass during spring training. In all, Robertson's injury shouldn't derail the Yankees, but when combined with Mark Teixeira's hamstring strain, the crowd on the disabled list is already growing, which has to rate as a concern for a team whose 2013 season went down the tubes due to injuries.