What would you do about the New York Yankees' bullpen?
It's pretty obvious that despite having the best record in baseball, the team's 'Bridge To Mariano', is in disrepair. If it hasn't completely collapsed into the Hudson River, it sure is swaying too much for comfort.
Joba Chamberlain has a 5.79 ERA, and has hardly been the dominant eighth-inning presence the Yankees envisioned when they bumped him from the starting rotation in favor of Phil Hughes. Which, for what it's worth, was still the right decision.
Chan Ho Park has a 6.18 ERA, and certainly has done nothing to inspire confidence that he will improve. David Robertson has a 5.46 ERA. Alfredo Aceves is likely gone for the season. Sergio Mitre, a long man the Yankees actually do miss, has been out for quite a while now. Damaso Marte has been OK, but he is a limited lefty specialist at this point in his career.
Everyone else is just filler. Chad Gaudin? Dustin Moseley? Boone Logan? Please, those guys are not answers. They are mop-up men. End of the bullpen, stick 'em in the game to eat up innings when you don't want to use your good pitchers, types of guys. Except, really, who are the 'good' pitchers?
Mariano Rivera has, as usual, been brilliant. He has a 1.05 ERA and 20 saves. Even with those gaudy numbers, the Yankees' overall bullpen ERA is 4.14, and that's not good enough. If things don't improve you know Joe Girardi will be tempted more and more often to try and squeeze four and five outs from Mo, and that is really not a regular-season road the Yankees should go down if they want Rivera at his best in October.
So, what do the Yankees do? Wheel and deal? Turn to the farm system? Cross their fingers and hope pitching coach Dave Eiland can get inside Chamberlain's head and remove some of the rocks that seem to have embedded themselves in there?
Let's examine the options.
In all honesty, this has to be a priority regardless of what other moves the Yankees decide to make -- or not to make. He isn't the 98-100 mph phenom of 2007 any more -- yes, admit it, Joba-mania is dead. But, he is better than what we have seen thus far -- the 5.79 ERA, the 1.50 WHIP, giving up more than a hit per inning, surrendering three runs or more in five of 39 appearances thus far in 2009, allowing opponents to hit .282 against him.
He is definitely better than all of that. Isn't he? I mean, he has also had 12 appearances of an inning or more this season where he has not surrendered a hit. The fastball is 93-97 on any given night, the slider is still sharp and the occasional curveball is effective.
So, what gives? WFAN's Sweeny Murti thinks the biggest problem is between Chamberlain's ears, and he might have a good point.
Joba has great stuff. It should translate into the late-inning role. He continues to run the ball up there mid-90s or higher, but his control and command are major issues, and it appears that repeating his delivery has become a problem. The Yankees have invested a great deal in Joba, so they will continue to work with him. The baffling part is how great he can look one night, like he did in Oakland, and then just a few days later blow up like he did in Seattle.
I still think the biggest problem Joba faces is trying to live up to 2007, and in many ways that’s unfair. He was facing hitters who had never seen him and was used very carefully, with the Joba Rules in place and never pitching back-to-back days. Now, as a full-time reliever for the first time ever in his career he has to learn how to be ready with his good stuff every time out and back-to-back days and three times out of four, etc. His arm should be able to handle it, but maybe mentally he’s not fully accustomed to it.
Whatever the case, and its hard to tell because Joba rarely gives great insight into the process, I don’t believe the Yankees "ruined" Joba as many are fond of saying. Whatever they asked him to do, they still asked him to pitch and get guys out. If he’s as good as we all believe, he should be able to do that.
Chamberlain has become the A.J. Burnett of the bullpen. Sometimes electric, sometimes awful. Can't have that in the eighth inning of close games in a pennant race. No matter what else the Yankees do, let's hope Eiland can get Joba back to the pitcher the Yankees need him to be.
The Yankees have Gaudin, Moseley and Park eating up space at the end of the bullpen, and while I'm not 100% ready to give up on Park none of those guys seems likely to be trustworthy enough to get key outs during August, September and October. So, where to turn?
First up is likely to be Jonathan Albaladejo, who has been lights out closing at AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Yes, we have seen Albaladejo before and he has not been impressive enough to stick around, pitching to a 4.88 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP in 39 games over two seasons. But, the word is that he has become a different pitcher this season, while saving 29 games and pitching to a 1.01 ERA. He has enough fastball and a good sinker. Yes, he's a one-inning guy but right now the Yankees are carrying three pitchers who are, basically, long men. Give him a shot.
Forget Mark Melancon, who has been highly touted as the closer of the future, but who seems to be heading backwards at age 25 rather than proving he belongs in the Bronx. I thought Melancon would be the second-half secret weapon in the Yankee bullpen, but he has not been impressive in two short big-league stints and is struggling to find the plate at Scranton, walking 28 in 49 innings and pitching to a 1.69 WHIP. Not good enough.
Maybe Romulo Sanchez, who impressed with a blazing fastball in one emergency relief appearance and has been moved into the SWB bullpen -- probably in the event the Yankees want to bring him up. Royce Ring? The journeyman lefty has a 1.57 ERA at AAA, but the Yankees obviously prefer Logan's 95-mph fastball.
So, looks like the only one almost certain to get a real shot is Albaladejo. Based on past performance, though, we can't be sure he will be able to get key outs in a pennant race.
So, that leads us to ...
The Trade Market
There are a variety of lists out there detailing who might be available via trade the next few weeks. ESPN Insider recently ran a pretty exhaustive list, if you are an Insider. The always-informative MLB Trade Rumors has a list of potentially available right-handed relievers. In a list of probably buyers and sellers he posted a couple of weeks back, SI.com's Jon Heyman said the Kansas City Royals might be willing to part with closer Joakim Soria. There is speculation the Yankees might take a look at lefty George Sherrill, recently released by the Dodgers. Heyman also figures the Baltimore Orioles to be sellers, and lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez is about ready to return from a shoulder injury. In my mind, he bears watching the next couple of weeks.
If the Yankees trade for help, here are the guys I would go after, in order of preference.
- Joakim Soria -- I find it hard to believe that the Royals would trade the 26-year-old two-time All-Star closer, but if they really would move him, this is the guy General Manager Brian Cashman HAS to go after. This guy is an absolute stud closer. In four years with Kansas City he has an ERA of 2.13 and has never posted an ERA worse than 2.48. He has a career WHIP of 0.994 and an average ERA+ of 208. Rivera, by the way, has an average ERA+ of 205 for his career. So, it's an impressive number. Soria has 114 saves in four seasons with the Royals. Soria also has a contract the Yankees could easily swallow. He is signed thru 2014 to a deal that has club options each season and tops out at $8.75 million. To be completely honest, I would trade Chamberlain for Soria in a heartbeat, straight up. Thing is, I am pretty sure the Royals would want Joba AND a decent prospect or two. The only hesitation about Soria might be that he has never been in a pennant race. This guy has been good enough throughout his career that I would not worry about that and might just pay the price if I was Cashman.
- Scott Downs and/or Kevin Gregg -- The Toronto Blue Jays have apparently made most of their bullpen available, and these two guys are both incredibly intriguing. Downs is a quality, veteran left-hander who has held lefties to a .230 batting average during a nine-year career. He is an upgrade over Damaso Marte and would really allow Joe Girardi to mix and match to get to Rivera, something we know he loves to do. Gregg has closed the past few seasons for Florida, Chicago and Toronto, but I always thought of him as more of a set-up man. Not the lock-down guy Joba can be when he is right, but from closing and from pitching in Anaheim early in his career he has lots of experience in pressure situations. Not a bad option.
- Kerry Wood -- The Cleveland closer has a 6.30 ERA and just eight saves after signing a two-year, $20.5-million free-agent contact. I am pretty sure the struggling Indians would be happy to unload the contract. Wood has been better the past two months, pitching to a 3.48 ERA in June and a 3.86 ERA in July. I have no fears about Wood handling New York after all the ups and downs of his career.
- Matt Capps -- Capps, 27, is under control of the Washington Nationals through 2011. He has 23 saves, a 3.18 ERA and just picked up the victory in the All-Star Game. Couple of things make me nervous about Capps, particularly with what we have seen in the past from relievers who are brought in to the New York pennant-race pressure cooker mid-season. He has spent his six-year career in Pittsburgh and Washington, so pitching important innings in September and October would be uncharted waters.
- Mike Gonzalez -- The Baltimore left-hander is expected to return from a strained shoulder soon. If he shows that he is healthy, Gonzalez could be an attractive option. He is a quality left with eight-inning and closing experience, and has been through pennant races with the Atlanta Braves. For his career, lefties hit a paltry .206 off Gonzalez and righties hit only .216. Keep an eye on whether the Orioles get him back early enough to make him tradeable.