Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Yankee Bullpen: When a Glaring Weakness Becomes a Reliable Strength

The 2009 season began with promise and high expectations for a young but talented Yankee bullpen cast.

Damaso Marte was re-signed in the offseason, and would team with Mariano Rivera, Jose Veras, Phil Coke, Edwar Ramirez, and Brian Bruney to create a formidable fireman’s squad—ready to put out flames during the final third of games.

Not far off into the horizon waited Mark Melancon, a much-advertised minor league clone of Joba Chamberlain, who was expected to contribute nothing but swings and misses by the All-Star break.

Some fans remained skeptic regardless of their stellar 2008 campaigns, but most were at worst “cautiously optimistic” that the bridge to Rivera would hold up against the freely flowing winds of the new Yankee Stadium.

Weeks into the season, however, hope rapidly began shifting toward fear and uncertainty.

Marte had injured his throwing shoulder, and Bruney would soon follow with elbow pain. Veras and Ramirez would require a GPS system to get within miles of home plate.

Coke was offering up souvenir balls to fans in right field like it was pregame batting practice. Melancon looked as overmatched as a tadpole wrestling an alligator, and went running back to Triple-A like he had just hopped the fence near the Mexico-US border.

Even the immortalized Rivera had struggled over the early months of the season, appearing oddly human like a werewolf staring at a crescent moon.

Fans rightly attacked Brian Cashman’s $423.5 million offseason expenditure—not a dollar of which was spent acquiring a reliever outside of the Yankee organization.

Suddenly, Queens had the unflappable bullpen—a team torn down like the Berlin Wall the past two seasons by a bullpen as heartless as a storefront manikin.

The currents then began to change direction without warning, and the Yankees were now free from attempting to swim upstream toward the ninth inning.

Alfredo Aceves arrived initially in long-relief duty, but was soon molded into Ramiro Mendoza circa 1998. Phil Coke re-emerged as the dominant lefthander of the final months of 2008, and Rivera became…well, Rivera.

A serviceable bullpen became a trustworthy one with the addition of David Robertson and Phil Hughes—unlikely late-inning heroes now counted on for some of the game’s biggest outs.

A crew that was once the butt of jokes across Major League Baseball now sports five relievers with an ERA under 3.00—including Hughes’ 1.23 ERA, 0.61 WHIP, and remarkable .120 BAA.

Hughes represents one of four Yankee relievers with a WHIP below 1.00—which could continue if the starting rotation stops putting them in so many precarious situations.

If New York is able to acquire a birth into the 2009 postseason, even more help will be on its way to the bullpen mix.

Due to innings limits and subsequently not needing a five-man rotation in October, Joba Chamberlain will be returning to short-relief.

There are concerns as to whether or not he can once again dominate like years past, but he will undoubtedly add a different dynamic and energy level than he displays in the starting rotation.

A postseason bullpen of Robertson, Aceves, Coke, Chamberlain, Hughes, Rivera, and a possibly resurrected Bruney would rival the best bullpens in MLB.

A bullpen nightmare has become a dream come true for Yankees Universe, and they will need every successful inning of relief they can get their hands on—considering only two of five starters are offering consistency every five days.

The bullpen crew has been eating plenty of spinach as part of the Popeye diet—let’s just hope none of their inventory has been stricken with E. coli.

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