For the first time in what seems to be an eternity, the New York Yankees enter a season without the certainty from the media and experts that they will just blitz thru the regular season and straight into the postseason. Some of that has to do with an improved American League East division, as the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox have revamped their squads in hopes of joining last years three 90-win teams (Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles) in the race for the division title.
A bigger reason for the lack of optimism surrounding the Yankees has to do with all the questions regarding the team, one of those being the return of the greatest closer of all-time: Mariano Rivera.
After suffering a season-ending ACL injury in May of 2012, Rivera is set to return to his closer role for the 2013 season. Despite his incredible career, it is yet to be seen if Rivera can return to the form that has made him into the greatest reliever baseball has ever seen. It isn’t everyday that we see a 43-year old athlete attempt to return from an ACL injury.
It was during batting practice before a Yankees game against the Kansas City Royals on May 3, 2012 when Rivera was running down a Jayson Nix batted fly ball and fell victim to a torn ACL in his right knee. Rivera missed the rest of the regular season, one that many believed would be his last, especially after the injury. However, he vowed he would return, not allowing the image of him in lying in pain to be his last in a major league uniform.
There is no doubt that the Yankees will be careful with Rivera this Spring Training, making sure he doesn’t push himself too hard and limiting his innings as they’ve had the past couple of springs. However, it was a bit concerning to hear today that manager Joe Girardi will have no issues with Rivera shagging fly balls during batting practice, a routine he’s carried on his entire career.
If Girardi is indeed okay with his star closer still participating in the routine that led to his catastrophic injury last season, then he’s already made his first bad move of the season without the first workout taking place or first pitch being thrown.
The Yankees need to do everything possible to make sure Rivera has an injury free season and preventing him from shagging batting practice fly balls is one of them. Yes, Rivera has had the same batting practice routine his entire career. It would seem to be an overreaction to take away that privilege now after 18 seasons. However, Rivera has probably never been as important to the Yankees success as he will be this upcoming season.
Last season, the Yankees fought thru Rivera’s injury to make the postseason, thank to the luxury of having closer turned set-up man Rafael Soriano on the roster. Soriano is now gone, having signed with the Washington Nationals this past offseason. While there are some good arms in the Yankees bullpen, none has the resume to assume Rivera’s role if another injury occurred.
Let’s remember that before Soriano was given the closer’s role last season, the first person up for the job was set-up man David Robertson, and he struggled. In his first save chance, he escaped a bases loaded situation before getting the save. The very next night, he blew a save chance, giving up four runs in the ninth inning.
The Yankees need all their main pieces to produce at a high level for the team to be successful. In order for those pieces to produce, they must remain healthy. In the case of their 43-year old closer, shagging batting practice fly balls should be totally off limits.