If Rivera Is Gone For Good, Yanks Have Man In Wings
By Jim Henneman
When Mariano Rivera crumbled to the ground while chasing fly balls during batting practice May 3 in Kansas City, the immediate overreaction was that baseball's premier finisher took the Yankees' title hopes with him. A more educated look after the shock wore off reveals that replacing Rivera may actually be the least of manager Joe Girardi's problems.
That may sound like heresy, considering Rivera's unquestioned status as the best relief pitcher in baseball history, but the reality is that the Yankees most likely will have more trouble replacing his replacement than they will Rivera himself. This is not so much a reflection on Rivera's ability as it is on the ability of David Robertson, who has been operating in Big Mo's shadow the last couple of years.
At the age of 27 -- which is precisely how old Rivera was when he moved into the closer role for the Yankees -- Robertson is poised to take Rivera's place. It might be argued that nobody is equipped to replace Rivera, but based on the numbers, Robertson may have already become the most effective pitcher in the New York bullpen.
What the Yankees are about to find out is whether Rafael Soriano can be as effective as Robertson has been in the setup role. If he isn't, then the role of closer will be greatly diminished. When the Yankees gave Soriano a ridiculous three-year contract after the 2010 season, they undoubtedly did so thinking that Rivera would be retired by 2013, a game plan the player himself seemingly endorsed.
With Rivera now out for the remainder of this season and vowing that he will return, the Yankees could be in a bind next year, by which time Robertson figures to be established at the back end of the bullpen. The $13 million player option on Soriano's contract for next year is unlikely to be declined unless Robertson bombs and he surfaces as the Yankees' primary closer this year. With Rivera vowing to return, the back end of Girardi's bullpen could get crowded.
But that's getting ahead of the situation. If the middle of the Yankees' lineup continues to struggle, and Andy Pettitte is unable to revive a struggling starting rotation, finding a closer will be the least of Girardi's problems.
Except for the sorry circumstances, the careers of Rivera and Robertson are eerily similar.
At the age of 26, Rivera pitched 107.2 innings in 1996, the most of his career, setting the stage for his replacing John Wetteland. Wetteland, who got a save during all four World Series wins that year -- and many outs recorded on the warning track -- was then allowed to leave for Texas as a free agent.
Last year, at the age of 26, Robertson established himself as Rivera's heir apparent, as he worked in 70 games (six more than his predecessor) to a miniscule 1.08 earned run average.
All the signs are there to suggest that Robertson is as prepared to take over the job as Rivera was in 1997. But replacing Wetteland is different from replacing Rivera, and this is not to suggest Robertson will be another Rivera, because that's not likely to happen any time soon. But whether Soriano can fill the void of setup man figures to be a bigger concern than Robertson taking over for Rivera.
If the middle of the lineup and back end of the rotation don't shape up, it won't matter.
The Yankees aren't even the big-money team with the most worries these days. The Phillies are not exactly enjoying a walk in the park, and it's just a wild educated guess, but I'm thinking that the job as hitting coach for the Angels is not the most secure position in baseball.
It's bad enough that Albert Pujols went through April and the first five days of May without a home run (or many other meaningful hits, for that matter). Then baseball's biggest star in effect reprimanded Mickey Hatcher, the man holding that tenuous position, for revealing some information about a team meeting to the media.
"Mickey shouldn't have said that," Pujols said in reaction to a story about a hitters'-only meeting. "No disrespect, but I'll talk to Mickey about that."
Although Pujols might be right to suggest some things are best left in the clubhouse, what Hatcher actually told one of the beat writers was how positive Pujols was in addressing his teammates, telling them slumps happen and urging everyone to stay focused. He obviously was a little confused about what might have set Pujols off, even after the Angels closed ranks and dismissed the little spiff.
"I'm not talking about it," said Hatcher, but he couldn't quite bring himself to stop there. "It's ridiculous. It really is. Everybody's laughing about it; anyway, I am."
There won't be a whole lot of laughing in Southern California if Pujols doesn't get out of his funk, which is only bringing more attention to the fact that last year, as good as it was, was the worst of the perennial All-Star's first 11 years in MLB. It also featured a less-than-splendid start.
The way the Orioles went about remaking their bullpen is reminiscent of what the Tampa Bay Rays have done the last couple years -- investing in a few high-reward, low-risk arms capable of lighting up the radar gun.
I did make a preseason vow that I would not predict an improved bullpen until the final results were in, because those same predictions proved to be unfounded the last half-dozen years or so. So far, though, it looks promising.
Just in case anybody needs a refresher course on the importance of pitching, the O's staff has ranked either 29th or 30th during five of the last six years. Consider that a public service announcement.
Before you get all caught up with the fact that the Orioles threw a "whopping" 273 pitches during that 17-inning marathon with the Red Sox May 6, consider this: that averages out to 16 pitches per inning, merely one higher than what is considered efficient.
If Cole Hamels thinks Bryce Harper is a rather brash rookie, he has a lot of company. That much was assured three years ago, when as a 16-year old high school sophomore, Harper predicted in a Sports Illustrated story that he would be in the big leagues by the age of 19 (he was) and headed toward a no-brainer Hall of Fame career.
He may be cocky, brash, full of himself or however you want to describe it, but he has the goods to back it up. For Hamels to plunk Harper in the middle of the back just because he felt like it, and then be stupid enough to go out of his way to admit it, qualifies as sheer idiocy. I'm not quite sure what Hamels expected to accomplish, but whatever it was, I'm guessing he failed big time.
To give you an idea how intimidated Harper was, after reaching third base on a single, he proceeded to steal home while Hamels was lackadaisically making a lame pickoff throw to first base. There's not a veteran on manager Davey Johnson's team that would have had the gonads to attempt to make such a bold statement, but you get the impression that Harper will be up for an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better challenge any time.
I'm sure Phillies fans will have their way with Harper when they meet up for the first time, but somehow I don't think he's going to be doing much blinking for the next 20 or so years. I doubt blinking is part of his DNA.
In the meantime, all Hamels' chutzpah got him was a fine and a five-day suspension, just enough either to cost him a start or mess up manager Charlie Manuel's rotation for a few days.
Either way, Hamels earns "Dunce of the Month" for May. Sounds like an award in the making, if you ask me.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Issue 173: May 2012