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March 2, 2009
Learning to Spell Relief
The Yankees received a lot of attention this past offseason for the vast sums of money that they committed to improving their lineup and starting rotation. What might be most improved, however, is a part of the team that had no attention paid to it or much money spent on it at all: the bullpen.
Other than re-signing 2008 trade acquisition Damaso Marte to a three-year, $12 million deal, the Yankees made the statement, however implicit, that they are committed to their homegrown relievers in 2009. One of the bright spots in the team's first October-free season since 1994 was the emergence of hurlers such as Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras, who combined to strike out 126 men in 113 innings with a 3.74 ERA. By the end of the season, Phil Coke and David Robertson were making contributions in low-leverage situations. Add in free-talent pickups like Brian Bruney and Alfredo Aceves, and the Yankees have more than enough effective relievers to go around, whether you've heard of them or not.
Staying out of the reliever market is a good idea for the Yankees, who have spent most of the decade trying and failing to recapture the magic that was Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson in the seventh and eighth innings. The set-up tandem from 1997 through 2000 contributed to three division titles, four playoff appearances, and three World Championships. Joe Torre's ability to run a bullpen was in no small part predicated on having those two pitchers around; since '01, Torre has never seemed quite as comfortable with his relief staff.
Attempts to rekindle that effectiveness, and even re-assemble the duo-both pitchers eventually found their way back to the Bronx, albeit not at the same time-have never quite taken, and at great cost. The Yankees have committed, almost annually since 2001, to free-agent relievers coming off of career seasons that would never be repeated:
Other than the signing of Gordon, the Yankees' excursions into the relief end of the pitching pool available on the market have been a waste of time and money, costing the team cash from its coffers and wins on the field. Now, however, they're swearing off outside help for the first time in years, and attempting to win using the players on hand. It's the best plan they've had; Ramirez and Marte should be the closest thing to Nelson and Stanton that Yankee fans have seen in a while. Jose Veras can get both righties and lefties out in the seventh inning, and when he's unavailable, Alfredo Aceves can get ground balls. Phil Coke should make a good second lefty as more of a specialist than Marte is, and that still leaves Robertson for long relief, as well as free-talent pickups Brian Bruney and Dan Giese.
Fame and ability are only loosely correlated in baseball, and the relationship deteriorates further when you talk about non-closer relievers. There's a perception that the Yankees have a skills gap between their rotation and Mariano Rivera. That perception has driven the ridiculous and ridiculously popular idea that the team needs to use Joba Chamberlain as a reliever, specifically as an eighth-inning set-up man. Chamberlain had success in that role, but because of the nature of it-get three guys out-lots of pitchers can and do succeed there. The gap between Chamberlain and Edwar Ramirez in one inning a game is tiny, if there is one at all. Of the two, however, it's Chamberlain who can be an effective pitcher as a starter for 150-180 innings this year, and more in seasons to come. The Yankees can't replace that so easily.
Not wasting money on old relief pitchers and giving those jobs to $400,000-per-year players is one way to afford market-value commitments to free agents. The Yankee roster is increasingly bifurcated into eight-figure and six-figure players, and that's the proper way to assemble a baseball team these days. Concentrate your resources in your stars, then use player development, scouting, and performance analysis to fill out the roster with inexpensive players who are worth far more than they're being paid. The assembly of the 2009 bullpen, as much as the $400-odd million spent on free agents, is what should be scary for the rest of the AL East. That kind of quality decision-making goes a lot further than a checkbook does.