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Thursday, March 7, 2013

WHAT IF MARIANO RIVERA CAN'T PITCH WELL?

Mariano Rivera's return to camp this spring was a moment that brought joy to the hearts of many Yankee fans. We all feared the worst - that it was all over - last May when he went down with a torn ACL. At his age, many wondered if he would have the wherewithal to come back from an injury like that. Now he is throwing simulated games in spring training and showing that he is on track for an Opening Day return. What many of us may not have considered - and this may be denial on our part - is that his return may not be as perfect as we are imagining it will be. The definition of denial is "an unconscious defense mechanism in which emotional conflict and anxiety are avoided by refusal to acknowledge those thoughts, feelings, desires, impulses, or facts that are consciously intolerable".


Many of us refuse to acknowledge the fact that Mariano Rivera is 43 years old, that he is recovering from a major injury, and that he will not pitch forever. Responsible leadership must acknowledge the risks that come with these circumstances and must have an adequate backup plan. Mind you, I am not saying that we can easily replace someone like Mariano Rivera, but we need to have a plan as to what happens if, at some point in the season, he can no longer pitch well. What happens then?

The way I see it, there are four pitchers on the current roster that the Yankees should consider to fill the closer role. Since we know that eventually Mariano will have to retire, these guys should be under consideration for successor to Rivera.


David Robertson was the first person the Joe Girardi went to when Rivera was injured. He pitched in three games before suffering a strained oblique muscle that knocked him out and allowed Rafael Soriano to take over as closer. In those three games, he got a save on a very shaky performance, he blew the save on the next night, and he got the last two outs in a non-save situation in the third game. Personally, I do not think those three games paint the whole picture on his capabilities as a potential closer. Over the last two seasons, he has an ERA of 1.78 and an opposing batting average of .177. His 2012 postseason ERA was 0.93. These stats are the hallmarks of a good closer. Besides, who could forget his performance in Game 2 of the 2009 ALCS against the Angels, holding them down in extra innings, to earn the win? He should get some serious consideration.
Then there is Joba Chamberlain. Personally, this one is my favorite option, having been very impressed by his mindset when he first came up. Before the failed "convert to starter" experiment, Joba was a dominant member of the bullpen. In 2012, he suffered a serious leg injury that knocked him out until August 1. Then, for the first month after that, he was bad. However, starting September 9, he did not surrender an earned run. Not even in his four appearances in the postseason. He reminds me a lot of Rafael Soriano - a pitcher who does well under pressure but poorly otherwise. You don't believe me? In 2012, in games decided by three runs or fewer, Joba's ERA was 0.79. In games decided by four or more runs, it was 8.71. If you have watched closers for any length of time, you know that they do not do as well in non-save situations. The theory is that their head is not in the game if the game is not on the line. In 2007, Joba always came in with the idea that the game was on the line and he consistently nailed it down. Here is another stat, if you are not already convinced. A loss for a reliever is when they come in with a lead or a tie score and the opposition takes the lead on their watch, followed by an eventual loss to their team. Joba has not had one since July 10, 2010 - that's 83 consecutive regular-season appearances. A blown save is when you have a lead and you give up the lead, regardless of the outcome. He has not had one of those since April 17, 2011. Granted, none of those appearances was as a closer, but it should make you at least curious as to whether or not he can close.
David Aardsma was an off season pickup last year this time, having just recovered from Tommy John surgery. The thought was that he could recover in time to be a 2013 option out of the bullpen, and one that was reasonably priced. Well, it is 2013 and now would be the time for the Yankees to cash in on the investment. He had two respectable seasons as the closer for the Seattle Mariners in 2009 and 2010.

In those two years, Aardsma converted 69 out of 78 save opportunities, to the tune of a 2.90 ERA. He was not an All-Star, but he was not terrible. In a pinch, I think we could have something worthwhile in him. If nothing else, he has extensive experience pitching the ninth, which no other Yankee pitcher besides Rivera has. By the way, we have a feature on Aardsma on BYB and we'll post it shortly.

One other option, which may have escaped the notice of many, is David Phelps. Okay, I know what you're thinking. He is supposed to be training to be a starter. You're probably right, that he is on track to be a starter and that we should not mess with him. There are just a couple of things that stand out, though. Seven times he came into a game in 2012 on 3 days rest or less (which is typical for closers), and he did not surrender a single run. All of those games were close (six were decided by two runs or less, one by 3 runs). In those games, opposing batters hit .071. That is noteworthy. Remember, Mariano Rivera first came up as a starter before they converted him to a setup man in the bullpen. It is something to think about.

None of us wants to think about Mariano Rivera not pitching well or that he is mortal and that he will one day have to call it quits. Nevertheless, the Yankees have to think about the future, and may even have to think about the present. It pays to have a backup plan, and it looks like the Yankees may have options.



--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Writer
Twitter: @KingAgamemnon



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