In Rivera's absence, Yankees have options but no perfect answer
Few scenarios in baseball are so unnerving as the lack of reliable late-inning relief, and few places are so inhospitable to that uncertainty as the back pages of the New York tabloids.
Among the many virtues of Mariano Rivera's storied 16-year reign as Yankees closer is that the Yankees had been spared open competitions, votes of confidence, changes in plans and all the other chicanery that goes along with not having a proven ninth-inning reliever.
It has been said before and bears repeating: Rivera is indisputably the greatest closer in baseball history, the only player at any position of whom there is a definitive No. 1.
Since Rivera inherited New York's fulltime closer role in 1997 he has saved 608 games in 681 opportunities, an 89.3 percent conversion rate that is more than 20 percent better than the league-wide average during that time of 67.2.
There have been, of course, other Yankees who saved games. In fact, there have been 111 non-Rivera saves since 1997, owing to occasional situations where Rivera was injured or had pitched several days in a row or a teammate pitched the last three innings of a blowout, receiving a rulebook save that carries little of the customary stress.
Only once in those 16 seasons has a Yankee not named Rivera saved more than six games. Steve Karsay saved 12 in 2002 when Rivera made three separate stints on the disabled list with groin and shoulder injuries. Mike Stanton also had six saves that season, while Ramiro Mendoza had four and Jeff Weaver had two.
Even as Rivera has gotten older, he's been consistent and not in need of help. No teammate had saved more than three games since 2006.
The argument that a closer's importance is overstated has risen in popularity and has merit; frequently the most important outs that a team's bullpen needs to get happen before the ninth inning. But there's no way to understate the value of Rivera, for his utter dominance as a pitcher and the fact that he may be the only closer (or one of the few) who does enjoy a psychological advantage, particularly at home where the Yankee Stadium crowd erupts at the first chords of
Now the Yankees must seek a replacement for the career leader in saves (608) and in ERA (2.21) in the post-1920 live-ball era among pitchers who have thrown at least 1,200 innings. He had a sub-2.00 ERA in eight of the last nine full seasons.
There is no way to truly replace Rivera, but the Yankees are equipped to handle the situation as well as any club could withstand such a blow.
In evaluating the best relievers since the start of 2011, set-up man David Robertson would have to be on anyone's short list. An All-Star last year who also received Cy Young and MVP votes, Robertson has allowed just eight earned runs in 77 2/3 innings, a staggering 0.93 ERA to go along with an otherworldly 13.7 K/9. Already the presumed heir apparent to Rivera, he may simply get his shot a little sooner than expected.
The next option is Rafael Soriano. He has the benefit of more experience -- 90 career saves, including 45 for the AL East champion Rays in 2010, as opposed to Robertson's three -- but he, quite simply, isn't as effective a pitcher. Since joining the Yankees before last season he's had a 3.72 ERA in 48 1/3 innings and an unsightly 1.41 WHIP.
Moving their seventh- and eighth-inning pitchers into the eighth and ninth innings would seem to create a void in the seventh inning, but the Yankees might have success moving struggling starter Phil Hughes back into the bullpen, where he excelled during the club's 2009 World Series title season. Doing so will be facilitated by Andy Pettitte's return to the rotation; ironically, one member of the Core Four, Pettitte, will be helping pick up the slack for the injury of another, Rivera.
But, of course, these are the Yankees, and they will leave no stone unturned in evaluating all of their options. It is certainly possible they could seek to trade for a reliever, either a veteran closer on a team not headed for contention this season or simply another late-inning arm to add to the mix, just in case. There aren't, however, any closers out there who are demonstrably better than Robertson.
Adding another top set-up man might be the better alternative; the Padres, for instance, appear open for business after trading Ernesto Frieri, so perhaps Luke Gregerson might also be available. That's pure speculation, but Gregerson is the type of reliever the Yankees might want -- 1.59 ERA in 11 1/3 innings this year; 3.02 ERA with 85 holds in his career -- and who might also reasonably be an option.
Then again, they might have a latent contributor in Triple A. Though neither of the prized prospects, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos, appears ready for the majors -- Betances has a 6.35 ERA and Banuelos has thrown only nine innings since returning from a back injury -- the Yankees do have a different Manny, veteran reliever Manny Delcarmen, who has a 1.93 ERA in 9 1/3 innings this year and has experience in six big-league seasons, most of which came with the Red Sox, making him no stranger to high-pressure situations.
Whatever general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi decide to do, they'd be best served in voicing unwavering confidence in their choice, even after his first blown save. Otherwise, they'll implicitly encourage a barrage of inquiries critiquing every nuance of every usage, for which the only real answer is, These guys aren't Rivera.