With David Robertson tapped as the new Yankee closer, the next question manager Joe Girardi faces is who might replace Robertson as the pitcher tasked with getting the Yankees through the eighth inning? Robertson filled this role over the past few seasons, and he was absolutely lights out, giving the Yankees one of the best bullpen tandems in the majors between him and Mariano Rivera. During that time, if the Yankees had a lead after the seventh inning, it was all but guaranteed to be a win.
Now, the bullpen is no longer a source of confidence. Robertson should be a great closer, but getting the ball to him may be a problem, one the Yankees haven't had to deal with much over the past few seasons. With a bullpen consisting of Dellin Betances, Shawn Kelley, Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Matt Thornton, Joe Girardi certainly has a lot of options for how he'll handle the pitching at the end of games (and if there is one thing Girardi likes, it's options). He's gone on record to say that the bullpen, and everyone's roles in it, are not as set as they once were, saying "I think that's something that's going to have to work its way out a little bit. I envision using Kelley back there [at the end of games] and Thornton back there. Will it be as clear-cut as last year? Probably not."
Based on both Girardi's comments and internet speculation, the general consensus is that Shawn Kelley is the best eighth inning option for now. Jason endorsed him here at PSA, and Kelley's been written about as the primary setup man on various Yankee sites. Kelley broke into the big leagues with the Mariners back in 2009, and produced solid numbers in relief over the past few years. In 2013, though, he produced what very well might be his best season in the majors. He posted a FIP of 3.63, a HR/9 ration of 1.35, and a ridiculous K/9 ratio of 11.98. While he was pretty atrocious at the end of the season (16.20 ERA over his final six appearances), his overall performance shows that he's a solid reliever that strikes a lot of guys out. If he can get his walk numbers down a bit (3.88 BB/9 in 2013), he should be more than capable of setting up Robertson.
Most of the other pitchers already have established roles: Thornton and Nuno will be lefty specialists (with Thornton potentially playing some larger role late in games, as Girardi said), and Warren and Phelps will be used for long relief and spot starts. That leaves Betances. While Kelley may start the season as the setup man, Betances could very well lock down that role after a few months. Once one of the Killer B's and heralded as a potentially great starter, Betances found the success that long eluded him by moving to the bullpen last season. In Triple-A Scranton last year, Betances posted a 2.69 FIP in 84 innings, along with an 11.57 K/9 ratio. While his walk rate was even higher than Kelley's (4.50 BB/9), he's been extremely successful as a reliever over the past year, and he built on this success with a strong spring (0.73 ERA, 11 strikeouts over 12.1 innings). If he keeps producing (he got off to a good start against Houston on Tuesday, throwing a scoreless inning while striking out two and allowing no hits), he very well could end up being the setup man the Yankees are looking for. And with the inconsistency Kelley showed last season, Betances could be the eighth inning guy sooner rather than later.
Betances is still too unproven to simply give the setup role to at this point of the season. But while Kelley will be serviceable in the eighth inning for a time, it shouldn't be too long before Betances starts getting some late inning appearances. He has the potential to be a terrific reliever, and if he keeps producing these strong showings, Girardi will have no choice but to start using him to get the ball to Robertson. So while it may be mainly Kelley's job at the beginning of the season, look for Betances to get more and more eighth inning, high pressure, work as the season wears on.