By Chad Jennings
Within a few weeks — if they haven’t already — the Yankees are going to have to finalize an approach to Dave Robertson’s pending free agency. They’re going to have to determine how much he’s worth and whether they need him at all, and in making that decision, it will be worth remembering that Robertson got hurt this year.
And that might be all the more reason to sign him.
Just as the Yankees have to build some rotation depth to ease their overwhelming rotation injury concerns, they also have to keep in mind the importance of depth and options in the bullpen. Health is not a guarantee, and given the inconsistent nature of most relievers, neither is performance. Just this year, Robertson went on the 15-day disabled list in April, the bullpen was saved by Shawn Kelley’s ability to step into the closer role while Dellin Betances and Adam Warren emerged as reliable setup options.
In deciding what to do about Robertson, the Yankees have to look at their own 40-man roster and decide whether they have the bullpen depth they need. Or do they need to bring back their closer and rebuild the depth that so often served as a real strength in an otherwise disappointing year? These are the relief options already in place on the current 40-man roster.
THE RETURNING SETUP CREW
Dellin Betances – After just one year in the big leagues — and even after being declared a near-bust in the minor leagues — Betances was so good as a rookie that he’ll surely return next season as a trusted reliever from the moment the Yankees break camp. Whether he slides into a setup role or moves into the ninth inning will likely depend entirely on what the Yankees do with Robertson. Betances looks like a future closer, but he’s proven he can be incredibly valuable getting more than three outs before the ninth inning.
Shawn Kelley – One last year of arbitration eligibility, Kelley will surely get a raise but probably not enough of a raise for the Yankees to non-tender him. He’s still relatively cheap and legitimately valuable on a one-year deal. Kelley emerged after a minor trade in 2013, and last year he temporarily filled in as a replacement closer. He has the ability to get strikeouts, and he now has experience in the late innings. Back injury might account for some of his rocky moments this year.
Adam Warren – Despite that rough stretch in the middle of the season, Warren actually had a lower WHIP this season than Brandon McCarthy (counting only the part of the year when McCarthy was pitching for the Yankees). He did go through a pretty significant bump in late June and July, but Warren was terrific again at the end of the season (four hits and 17 strikeouts in the month of September). Came up as a rotation prospect, but might have found a home in the late innings.
THE ROTATION/LONG RELIEF CANDIDATES
David Phelps – Not at all an unusual position for Phelps. Ever since he broke into the big leagues as a surprise long man in 2012, Phelps has consistently bounced between rotation consideration and bullpen potential. No reason to think he’ll be looked at any other way in spring training. An elbow injury this year derailed his season just when Phelps was getting on a role. Ability to pitch multiple innings is a real plus, but he could have a Warren-like emergence into the late innings if necessary (and if he pitches well in short bursts).
Shane Greene – For the time being, I wouldn’t peg Greene as a real bullpen candidate, but depending on who the Yankees bring in to fill out the rotation, Greene could potentially slide into a relief role. He certainly did enough in his big league debut to suggest he deserves to stick around in some capacity. Maybe he’ll win another rotation job, maybe he’ll head to Triple-A as rotation depth, or maybe the Yankees will put him into the bullpen and find a way to use him as a reliever.
Chase Whitley – Without a big fastball or a wipe-out breaking ball, Whitley put up strong numbers as a Triple-A reliever but never gained much traction until the Yankees tried him as a starter. Pitchers usually take the opposite development path — from starter to reliever — and maybe that’s what’s next for Whitley. Now that he’s broken into the big leagues as a replacement starter, he could find a more permanent home as a long man who has minor league experience in the late innings.
THE MINOR LEAGUERS
Preston Claiborne – Big league success has come in bursts for Claiborne. He came up in 2013 as a kind of surprise selection, but earned his keep for a while before being shipped back to Triple-A. This year, he shuttled back and forth between the big leagues and the minor leagues, but he again had some very good moments in the majors. Could yet again come to camp fighting for a job, and could yet again end up being Triple-A depth looking for another chance to prove himself.
Jose Ramirez – This time it was a lat injury that forced Ramirez to the disabled list. Once considered a high-risk, high-potential rotation prospect, Ramirez was actually converted to the bullpen in an effort to keep him healthy. It was a move that got him to New York, but the end result was another season cut short by injury. Ramirez did not need surgery, though, and he’s expected to be healthy and ready for spring training. Ramirez has a pretty big fastball and a good changeup, and he could pitch his way onto the Opening Day roster if the Yankees leave a bullpen opportunity open for competition.
Branden Pinder/Mark Montgomery/Dan Burawa — I mention these three because they’re Rule 5 eligible this winter and could be added to the 40-man. Earlier today I named some minor league starters who could be added to the 40-man roster this offseason, but the relievers are the safer bets. My sense is that Pinder is the best bet of this group — big guy, good minor league numbers — but Montgomery has also put up huge strikeout numbers in his career, and Burawa has a massive fastball. Ultimately, the point is that the Yankees have bullpen depth well beyond the guys currently on the 40-man. These guys could be added this winter, and guys like Jacob Lindgren, Tyler Webb and Nick Rumbelow (who aren’t Rule 5-eligible yet) could also force their way into the mix if they keep pitching well.
THE SOON-TO-BE FREE AGENTS
Dave Robertson – Obviously this is where the bulk of the immediate curiosity comes from. Will the Yankees give Robertson a qualifying offer? Would he accept it? Does it make more sense to offer a multi-year contract? Should the Yankees let him walk? Has Robertson taken it personally that the Yankees didn’t try to extend him when they had a chance? Robertson has been terrific, and he’s homegrown, and now is the time for each side to make a big decision about his future.
David Huff/Rich Hill – Huff is a non-tender candidate, and Hill is at the end of a one-year contract. They fit together to really show that the Yankees don’t have a dependable left-handed reliever locked onto the roster. They let Matt Thornton go in an effort to cut salary, and that might very well open the door for one of the young guys — Lindgren, Webb and James Pazos in particular — to come into spring training looking to win a big league job (and a pretty important one) despite having no big league experience. Either that or the Yankees are going to have to sign someone.
Esmil Rogers – The Yankees clearly like this guy’s arm, and he’s still arbitration eligible, but I’m listing Rogers among the soon-to-be free agents because he really stands out as a non-tender candidate. He made nearly $2 million this year, and if the Yankees were willing to let Thornton go for nothing because he’s making $3.5 million next year, it would be surprising to see them commit roughly $2 million for a guy like Rogers who wouldn’t have a clear role going forward.