Plenty of Relief In Sight

Every season I like to believe the Yankees bullpen is going to be better than it was the season before. For the first time since Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson were building the bridge to ninth inning, it looks like the bullpen in the Bronx will be the best it’s been in quite some time.

I won’t have to convince myself this spring that the Yankees can catch lightning in a bottle four times in one season with four different relievers. There’s no more Brian Bruney. No more Phil Coke. No more watching late leads disappear into the right field bleachers. No more needing to worry about how the day’s bridge to Mariano will be constructed, or if it will be sturdy enough to reach the ninth inning.

The acquisitions of Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez this offseason will overshadow Brian Cashman’s decision to ship away Bruney and Coke, but I think these moves deserve just as much recognition. Cashman was able to take away two of Joe Girardi’s most used relievers, two pitchers who inspired zero confidence among fans, and whose only roles in the major leagues should be serving as mop-up men. Bruney and Coke combined for 116 appearances last season, and not once in any of those 116 pitching changes was there a feeling that the opposition wouldn’t add to their run total.

The obvious problem with the Yankees during the beginning of last season was behind the outfield wall in their bullpen. The absence of A-Rod from the lineup and Mark Teixeira’s early offseason woes didn’t help matters, but the real dilemmas began when Girardi went to the mound to pull his starter. The Yankees were a $200 million team with a $200  bullpen. On Opening Day, the bullpen consisted of Rivera, Bruney, Coke, Damaso Marte, Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras. Outside of Rivera, there wasn’t one pitcher capable of getting important outs on a consistent basis. (Marte only remembered how to pitch in the postseason, and thankfully he did then).

All of the books and DVD specials about the 2009 championship season will focus on a number of elements: the return of A-Rod; Mark Teixeira turning it around offensively; the walk-off wins against the Twins; and Joe Girardi’s Billy Martin impression in Atlanta. All were notable turning points in the quest for No. 27, however, three dates that won’t be recognized when it comes to the club’s remarkable turnaround are May 18, June 8 and June 13.

May 18 was Edwar Ramirez’s final game with the team before being sent down until September call-ups. June 8 was Phil Hughes first appearance out of the bullpen – the most significant decision the team made all season. June 13 was Jose Veras’ last game as a Yankee before being traded to the Cleveland for three pouches of Red Man and two daily passes to the Rock and Hall of Fame.

The destruction and rebuilding of the bullpen midseason was more necessary than any walk-off home run or come-from-behind win. The reconstruction of the bullpen allowed for the late-inning heroics to take place, and turned the Yankees from postseason hopefuls into postseason favorites.

The decision to make Hughes the setup man and the emergence of David Robertson changed the late innings for the Yankees, by shortening games and allowing starters to know their winning decision wouldn’t vanish at the hands of Bruney, Coke, Ramirez or Veras.

This season, the Yankees enter spring training with Rivera, Robertson, Marte and Alfredo Aceves as sure things in the bullpen. Chad Gaudin will likely join them as the long reliever as will someone from the Mark Melancon-Jonathan Albaladejo-Boone Logan group. That leaves one spot for either Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes.

Even when the Yankees have finally decided on a set role for Joba, the debate as to whether he belongs in the rotation or bullpen will never end. The discussion is not going away anytime soon and will likely control the baseball talk once the Yankees make their decision on him for 2010.

I have been an advocate of Joba being a starter since the transition was made in 2008. More importantly, I am an advocate of the Yankees winning games and right now, putting him in the bullpen gives the Yankees the best chance to win.

It would have been satisfying to see Joba mature as a front-end starter and be a staple of the rotation for years to come, but it doesn’t look like he is going to get that chance. In this market on this team, there isn’t time for Joba to gain experience as a starter by failing at first. There just isn’t room in the rotation for a 4 1/3 inning pitcher, especially when that pitcher has had immediate and exceptional success as a reliever.

After Joba’s postseason dominance – aside from one fastball to Pedro Feliz – and the return of his high-90s velocity, it doesn’t seem possible that he will begin 2010 in the rotation, and it doesn’t appear likely that he will ever return there.

There will be enough words written in the city between now and Opening Day about Joba’s role on the team, but common sense has him beginning the year as a reliever. With Joba in the bullpen, Phil Hughes will slide into the No. 5 spot in the rotation, in what is currently the best rotation in baseball. Sorry, Boston.

Someone will take the fall as the mop-up man this season, but at least there won’t be several people deserving of that role. On paper, this bullpen has the potential to be the best in baseball, and the best in the Bronx since the last time Yankees went back-to-back and belly-to-belly in October.

No bullpen is perfect and no bullpen is unbeatable. There is usually a Kyle Farnsworth or a Scott Proctor on every club. There will always be a game where a three-run lead turns into a two-run deficit, but as currently constructed it’s hard to pick out who will be this season’s LaTroy Hawkins. For the first time in a while, there might not be one.