No other team in baseball has enjoyed the same stability as the Yankees at the back end of the bullpen over the past twenty years. From the acquisition of John Wetteland in 1995, through the greatest-of-all-time career of Mariano Rivera, to a brief un-tuck-ful encounter with Rafael Soriano, then back to Rivera again, locking down ninth inning leads has never been much of an issue in the Bronx. This year, David Robertson has taken the reigns and the early returns have been nothing but fantastic.
Despite an April DL stint, Robertson is tied for eighth in baseball with 22 saves in 24 chances. He leads the majors in strikeout rate at 16.2 per nine innings, and he's near the top among qualified relievers in pretty much every stat that matters. His 1.4 fWAR is tied for seventh, his 1.79 FIP is ninth and his 5.70 K:BB ratio is tied for tenth. He's achieved all that despite suffering career-worst marks in BABIP at .362 and home run to fly ball rate at 17.6 percent.
A superb performance as closer was to be expected from Robertson after the three years he spent in the setup role as one of the most dominant relievers in the game, but there were those who questioned whether he'd make the transition from the eight to the ninth, even if their misgivings were based on no factual evidence whatsoever. By now those folks (we'll call them the Mitch Williams crowd, in honor of the MLB Network analyst's constant need to denigrate non-closer relievers, probably to validate his own mostly mediocre career) have been thoroughly silenced. As it turns out, doing the same things he's always done in a differently numbered inning was something Robertson could handle and he does have the prerequisite "mental toughness" and "closer's mentality" after all. While Williams, who argued that he should be shuffled back to the eighth as recently as this May, essentially criticized him for "not being Mariano Rivera", D-Rob's done an excellent job of being David Robertson. Blasphemous as it may be to say, the Yankees have actually upgraded their closer spot from last year's version of Mo.
Robertson has become the Bernie Williams of relief pitchers. Great as he is, he's never the one in the limelight. After serving as Rivera's understudy for the better part of his career, D-Rob is now being overshadowed by another teammate in Dellin Betances, who's been the real story of the Yankees' bullpen this season. While Robertson's devastating curve and sneaky low-90's fastball have achieved the higher K and swing-and-miss rates, it's Betances' 96.1 mph average heater and his ability to go multiple innings per outing a la '96 Rivera that have fans, media members and other players talking. With Robertson a few months from free agency and Betances under team control through 2019, there's a very good chance that the former's first year as Yankee closer could also be his last.
As a free agent, Robertson will probably seek to match the four-year, $50 million contract that Jonathan Papelbon got from the Phillies three years ago. That might be a bit ambitious. Robertson hasn't shut down playoff and World Series games the way Papelbon has and the closer role has been devalued by many teams around the majors. Beyond that, the Yankees are likely to slap him with a qualifying offer, and being linked to draft pick compensation will lower his price tag. Robertson will still be expensive, though, and should easily double the $5.22 million he's earning this year. Craig Kimbrel got four years and $42 million from Atlanta despite having all his arbitration years left, and Soriano and Joe Nathan have snagged eight-figure closer salaries over the past two off-seasons.
From a fan's perspective, I'd like the Yankees to do whatever it takes to keep Robertson around. He's homegrown, fun to watch, easy to root for and supremely talented. Having Robertson and Betances working as a tandem for the next few seasons would be a major asset and whatever contract he receives will seem puny next to many of the other mega deals the Yankees have given out. Objectively, though, it's a tougher call. There may well be better ways to spend $10-$12 million per year than on a closer who'll be 30 in 2015. There's an obvious replacement in house and the bullpen is one area the Yankees are actually successful at developing from within. The team spent its top draft pick in 2014 on a relief arm in Jacob Lindgren, which seemed an ominous sign for Robertson's future in pinstripes, and guys like Tyler Webb and Dietrich Enns may be MLB-ready within a couple of years. Additionally, a few of the Yankees' starting pitching prospects will eventually wind up in the pen like Betances and Adam Warren before them.
If they aren't going to re-sign him, would the Yankees trade Robertson? If they're out of the division race by July 31st, he's their most attractive chip, at least among players who aren't signed long-term. Contending clubs who've had some trouble late in games like the Tigers, Angels and Giants probably wouldn't part with a top-50 prospect the way the Marlins dealt Adrian Gonzalez for a half-year of Ugueth Urbina in 2003, but a couple of solid role player types might be had. Even if they're buyers, the Yankees could work from a position of relative strength in the bullpen to go after help in the starting pitching and offensive departments. A trade might benefit Robertson, too, since he'd be ineligible for a qualifying offer if another team gets him at the deadline.