The New York Yankees don’t need to panic. Even after losing first-ballot Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, the Yankees bullpen is strong enough to absorb the loss. No trades need to be made, no inexperienced pitchers need to try to slam the door shut with a small lead in the ninth inning while Yankees fans collectively bite all of their nails off. The Yankees are well suited to handle the situation until Mariano is ready to take the mound again.
Prior to last season, the Yankees signed former Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano to a huge deal. Since then, Soriano has been helping bridge the gap between the starters and Mariano. Now, he will be asked to help save games in place of Mariano along with David Robertson. Between Robertson and Soriano, the Yankees have one of the better closer-by-committees in all of baseball. Right now, manager Joe Girardi smartly won’t commit to either one as his full-time closer but one will probably emerge as his favorite as the season wears on.
Soriano led the American League in saves in 2010 with 45. He is no stranger to pitching in the ninth inning, having recorded a total of 90 saves over his eleven-year career. Seventy-two of those saves came in 2009 and 2010. He has the ability to close out any game for the Yankees just as he did for the Rays and the Atlanta Braves. He might not look like Mariano while doing so but he is more than capable of closing for the Yankees.
In Robertson, the Yankees have one of the most dynamic bullpen arms in the game. Yankees fans are accustomed to seeing Robertson come into a game in a high leverage situation and slam the door shut, usually by striking out the next couple of batters. Sure, he can make things exciting by sometimes walking too many hitters or allowing an early base-hit, you don’t earn the nickname “Houdini” by performing easy tricks. However, Robertson’s ERA is the best in baseball over the last two seasons. Last season, Robertson pitched to a 1.08 Era in 66.2 innings. This season his Era is 0.00 over 12 innings. The combined ERA is 0.92 over 78.2 innings. No other pitcher comes close. The only problem with Robertson is he tends to have a higher pitch count per outing than other closers because he is an extreme strikeout pitcher. Those high pitch counts might mean he isn’t available on back-to-back-to-back days like Mariano would sometimes be.
The Yankees also quietly signed a Tommy John-rehabbing David Aardsma prior to Spring Training this year. Aardsma was the Seattle Mariners closer in 2009 and 2010, collecting 69 saves over those two seasons. I don’t expect Aardsma to be a factor before August just because it takes time to regain the feel of your pitches after an extended time away from a mound in game situations. However, when he is healthy, he should be able to give the Yankees some good innings out of the pen, possibly in the seventh inning or eighth depending on pitcher availability. Adding Aardsma in mid-season is akin to making a trade. Instead of giving up prospects, the Yankees need only to await his arrival.
Then, there is Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain is already working out and will arrive in Tampa to resume his Tommy John rehab where he left off before suffering an ankle injury that some said was life threatening. Well, Joba is now in a basketball-style brace and should be able to make an impact in the Yankees bullpen in August or September.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has quietly built the best bullpen in the game both through the draft and with free agent signings. The Yankees bullpen is probably the most capable in Major League Baseball to absorb the loss of a Hall of Fame closer. You can’t replace Mariano but at least the Yankees can ease the pain until he returns. Now, the pitchers just need to go out there and prove me right.