Importance of Yankees middle relievers growing by the day due to starter injuries

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The spot starters are now suddenly in the rotation, and that means the bullpen will be playing an even greater role in ballgames.

The Yankees' bullpen has certainly gone through its share of trials and tribulations already during this young season. Closer David Robertson had to miss time due to a groin injury, bumping everyone in the mostly-inexperienced bullpen up a notch on the depth chart. They weathered that storm nicely, but were then dealt another blow when it was revealed that Ivan Nova needed Tommy John surgery. That meant lefty long reliever Vidal Nuno would move to the rotation and a roster spot was quite unclear in the 'pen.

Things only got worse when Michael Pineda was suspended for 10 games due to having pine tar on his neck, and the Yankees learned that Pineda's absence would be longer than expected because of a lat injury that will keep him out for a month. David Phelps thus takes Pineda's spot and yet another bullpen spot is now in flux. For those keeping score at home, here's who is left of the seven relievers the Yankees had in the bullpen on Opening Day:

David Robertson
Shawn Kelley
Matt Thornton
Adam Warren
Dellin Betances

Joe Girardi obviously has confidence in Robertson, Kelley, and Thornton, and both Warren and Betances seem to be finding themselves in more important roles. However, there are two more spots in the bullpen, which are currently occupied by Preston Claiborne and Chris Leroux. Pineda's suspension means that the Yankees won't be able to fill his roster spot by putting him on the DL until it is complete, and even then, there's a decent chance the Yankees will just call up a position player to take his spot since they're currently playing with a short three-man bench.

Claiborne and Leroux's spots have also been filled by numerous other temporary call-ups already this year. Matt Daley, Cesar Cabral, Bruce Billings, Shane Greene, and the unused Bryan Mitchell have all been up to the majors at points in April. It seems like the Yankees are playing these spots day-to-day and could very well recall other minor league relievers if they so desire. Alfredo Aceves, Chase Whitley, Mark Montgomery, and others are all waiting in the wings at Triple-A Scranton should the Yankees want them. In three games this year, Claiborne has pitched decently after an awful second-half and spring training, so perhaps his spot is a little bit more secure than the long reliever Leroux, who just made his 2014 debut yesterday.

Regardless of who exactly is out there in the 'pen these days, it's quite evident that the middle relievers are going to have to do some work getting leads to Kelley in the eighth and Robertson in the ninth. Nuno and Phelps are still both getting stretched out. Nuno has averaged about 70 pitches in his first two starts in place of Nova, and Girardi stated that he hopes to get between 70-75 pitches from Phelps in his first start, be that today or tomorrow due to the foreboding weather. That's not many innings at all, likely only five or so at most, and while neither is a terrible emergency starter like Hector Noesi (somehow starting today for the White Sox despite two DFAs in one month) or anything like that, it's difficult for fans to hope for that much from them.

Hopefully, Nuno and Phelps will be able to give the Yankees a little bit more length in their next starts, but for now, the middle relief is essential. Hell, Hiroki Kuroda has only averaged 5 2/3 innings in his five starts thus far, so the middle relievers could be crucial to his games, too. Betances is going to have to prove that his dynamic potential (15.5 K/9 and .130 average against in 13 1/3 innings thus far) can last without his control problems sneaking up. Warren is going to have to continue honing his commendable control and the 1.93 ERA he's posted in 12 games. Thornton might have to step up and retire some righties as well as lefties, which he once was fine with as recently as 2012. Yes, even Claiborne will need to pitch some crucial innings. Hell, the mystery man who we can only refer to as "Leroux placeholder" (Greg can come up some clever portmanteau of his name and the other mops, I'm sure) is going to have to soak up some innings, too.

I remain confident in Joe Girardi's skills in control of the bullpen. Even though the Yankees had the obvious advantage of Mariano Rivera and Robertson, it's not an accident that the Yankees have some of the best bullpen numbers in the league since he took over in 2008. Betances, Warren, Thornton, and company all have the skills to succeed, and Girardi is typically superb at finding the appropriate spots to deploy these skills. It's going to be yet another challenge early in 2014 to spark some bullpen success, but there is still good reason to hope that the middle relievers will get the job done.

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