Thursday January 20th, 2005

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez called closer Mariano Rivera "the greatest weapon in modern baseball, the greatest I've ever seen or played against."

While the closer position has become more specialized as it evolves, there remains no one like Rivera, an efficient pitcher who can work often and does not need to be kept inside a glass case until the ninth inning. The fact that he can be deployed nearly every night in the eighth inning is a huge asset for the Yankees, and has been one of the major reasons why they have gone 16-4 in postseason series since 1996.

If that's not enough, Rivera is a humble, hardworking pitcher who is extremely popular in his clubhouse. His regal presence and professional attitude have made him a respected leader on a team full of stars. Rivera's value was spotlighted last weekend when he registered the 300th save of his career, joining San Diego's Trevor Hoffman (361), Oakland's Dennis Eckersley (320) and Kansas City's Jeff Montgomery (304) as the only closers to get 300 saves with one team.

"He's the best," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "I don't care how many saves [others] have. I think you have to put him at the top of the list."

Rivera is a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer, which may be odd when you consider that he became eligible for Cooperstown only this year. (A player must have appeared in a minimum of 10 seasons.) What Rivera has done in the postseason separates him from all other closers in the history of the game. No one is close to his postseason resume -- 7-1 with a 0.75 ERA in 96 innings, with two home runs allowed and only 12 walks. Take a quick look at where Rivera ranks on some postseason lists (see chart, right).

This year the Yankees have what manager Joe Torre called "the best we've had here" as a setup man to Rivera: Tom Gordon, a former closer. Gordon has allowed Torre to stay away from using Rivera in the eighth inning in spots he might have called on him in the past. So with Rivera breaking bats and Gordon locking down the eighth inning, the Yankees should have no bullpen worries, right?

Wrong. New York is a good example of why closers are specialists who need a lot of help to be of maximum use. The Yankees' bullpen isn't nearly deep enough, which is why Paul Quantrill -- who seemed better suited to the National League -- Gordon and Rivera began the week first and tied for second, respectively, in games this year. The Yankees have lost faith in left-handers Gabe White and Felix Heredia, and with good reason. They might finally learn that not all lefties are left-handed specialists. (See: Chris Hammond, 2003.)

Neither White nor Heredia has good enough breaking stuff to get a tough left-handed batter out with any reliability. Torre is better off using Quantrill and Gordon in those spots, but then he risks overworking them. New York could make a trade for a left-hander, but stop and think about any decent such lefty who is available. No one. So where does the answer come from?

The Yankees are closely watching the rehab of perennially injured Steve Karsay, their $5 million-a-year walking medical chart. Karsay has hit 94 mph in extended spring training games and could be back with the big club by the end of the month. It's tempting for the Yankees to picture a strikeout tandem of Gordon and Karsay setting up Rivera, with Quantrill available to take care of the seventh, especially when a double-play grounder is in order. But counting on Karsay, because of his injury history, is risky. Even if he gets back, how often can he work and for how long? How sharp can he be after missing more than a year?

The Yankees' other option may be Jose Contreras, the $32 million mystery man. Contreras is strangely raw for a pitcher with so much international experience. Every baserunner against him, for instance, has the green light to steal because he is poor at holding runners and is slow to home plate. That especially becomes a liability in late relief. But Contreras does have strikeout stuff and, because of his strangely low pitching aptitude, may be better off facing hitters once rather than two or three times in a game.

In a perfect Yankees world, they would trade for a left-handed starter (Randy Johnson, Al Leiter, Eric Milton, Jamie Moyer or Ted Lilly) and put Contreras in the bullpen. Karsay's development in the next six weeks will go a long way in shaping the Yankees' midseason agenda. They do have a great weapon in Rivera, but they still need work in making sure they get to him.

The Yankees may have a sure Hall of Famer in Rivera, but their bullpen entered this week ranked 12th in ERA. Here's how I rank the top bullpens in baseball, based on how they've pitched the first two months of the season:

1. Boston The Red Sox pen began this week with the best ERA in baseball (2.72) and the fewest home runs allowed (eight). Keith Foulke has been lights out after a brutal spring training.

2. Los Angeles You just don't expect to beat the Dodgers' bullpen. Los Angeles' relievers have lost only two games all year, the fewest in baseball. This is a strikeout bullpen, headed by closer Eric Gagne, whose streak of consecutive saves is at 75 and counting. The worst knock on this pen is that it walks too many hitters, about four per nine innings.

3. Anaheim The Angels have the perfect profile for a bullpen: a strikeout group that doesn't yield many home runs. One AL GM, however, wondered how long manager Mike Scioscia would keep Troy Percival in the closer's spot when Frankie Rodriguez is obviously the better option. "When you have a guy who blows one out of every four saves, what good is that?" the GM said.

4. Philadelphia Thanks in great part to outstanding rookie Ryan Madson, the Phillies' bullpen has allowed the fewest baserunners per nine innings. Only Boston's relievers have a better ERA. Unlike last year, when he had no bullpen, Phillies manager Larry Bowa has no excuses this season if his team doesn't win the NL East.

5. Pittsburgh Yes, that's right, the Pirates have a solid bullpen, with Jose Mesa providing reliability as the closer. The Pirates rank third in bullpen ERA and get the most double-play balls. They've been hurt by 13 unearned runs, the most against any pen except the woeful Indians' unit.

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