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How Do You Spell Relief?

The Yankees have their second off-day of the week today, and I doubt anyone is as relieved as the Yankees' relievers. The Yankees have won 10 of their first 16 games, a 101-win pace, but the margin of victory in eight of those ten wins has been three runs or less. In addition, just one of the Yankees' six losses has been decided by more than three runs. As a result, Joe Girardi has leaned heavily on his best relievers. Girardi has called on Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano, or Mariano Rivera in 14 of the Yankees' 16 games thus far this season, and on Tuesday night, he used those three in their appointed sequence—Chamberlain in the seventh inning, Soriano in the eighth, and Rivera in the ninth—for the sixth time in the team's first 15 games. Were that pace to continue, those three would appear together in 65 games. Add in additional work in games that don't lend themselves as well to that exact three-inning sequence, and all three find themselves on pace for a career high in appearances.

Here are the projected games and innings pitched for the five pure relievers who opened the season on the Yankees' 25-man roster:

Pitcher Proj. G Proj. IP
Joba Chamberlain 101 101 1/3
Mariano Rivera 101 94
Rafael Soriano 91 84
David Robertson 81 70 2/3
Boone Logan 61 33 1/3

Of course, you can have a lot of fun with projections this early in the season. Troy Tulowitzki is on pace for 63 home runs. Prince Fielder is on pace for 171 RBIs. Carlos Quentin is on place for 90 doubles. Sean Rodriguez is on place for 27 triples. Starlin Castro is on pace for 270 hits. Jered Weaver is on pace for 351 strikeouts and 45 wins (or at least a win in every start, so maybe 35 wins). Dan Hudson is on place for 30 losses. Rivera is also on pace for 71 saves.

I feel comfortable saying none of those totals will be reached this season, nor will the games and innings projections listed for the Yankee relievers above, but for that last, the Yankees will need other pitchers to pitch those innings, and those other pitchers are going to have to be their starters. Thus far this season, the Yankees' starting rotation is averaging fewer innings per game than that of any of the other 29 teams, while the Yankee bullpen has had to contribute 41 percent of the team's innings pitched (compared to a league average of 33 percent).

That's why the Yankees had to pull Phil Hughes from the rotation last week. It wasn't just that Hughes was putting the team in an early hole, allowing five or more runs in each of his three starts and thus drastically reducing the Yankees' chances of winning the games he started. It was that he was taxing the bullpen in turn. Hughes averaged less than 3 2/3 innings in his first three starts, and while Bartolo Colon did fine work eating up those extra innings, averaging more innings pitched in those three games than Hughes while posting an ERA roughly ten runs lower, those outings effectively gave the Yankees a six-man rotation, eliminating Colon as an option in relief of the team's other four starters.

WANTED: Hector Noesi has spent a week in the Yankees' bullpen but has yet to make his major league debut. (AP)

With Colon tied to Hughes, the Yankees had a six-man bullpen. One of those men was the LOOGY Logan, who has only pitched a full inning once in six appearances and managed to take a loss without recording an out in another. Another of those men was Luis Ayala, who ate just five innings before hitting the disabled list with a strained latissimus dorsi. He was replaced by Triple-A starter Hector Noesi, who has been with the team for a week without throwing a pitch.

Noesi, I can only assume, lurks waiting for a Colon-like opportunity to relieve a disaster start. However, such an opportunity came and went without a Noesi appearance on Friday, when Ivan Nova allowed a Hughes-like five runs in 4 1/3 innings. Perhaps not wanting to have Noesi, who has been primarily a starter throughout his minor league career, make his major league debut mid-inning with runners on base, Girardi called on Robertson to get out of Nova's two-on, one-out jam. He then went to Lance Pendleton, not Noesi, to eat up the final three innings of that game. Pendleton pitched well, earning a chance to close out Wednesday nights' 6-4 win. However, in the later game, Pendleton got into a quick jam, prompting Girardi to summon Soriano for his first Yankee save.

With both Colon and Freddy Garcia having now made successful bows in the rotation, the time has come for Girardi to use Noesi or ask that he be replaced, for the good of both the team and the pitcher. Still, part of me suspects that with today's off-day and Nova starting again on Sunday, Noesi will again be held back in anticipation of another Nova disaster (Nova made a between-starts relief appearance in the tenth inning on Tuesday and lost the game over the course of four batters).

A.J. Burnett, though he has pitched reasonably well thus far, striking out 22 in 22 2/3 innings, going a minimum of five innings in each start, and only once allowing as many as four runs, needs to go deeper into games. Burnett, who has averaged just 5 2/3 innings per start, compared to nearly 6 1/3 IP/GS in 2009, acknowledged as much after failing to get even that deep into Tuesday night's game. Freddy Garcia threw six strong innings in his first Yankee start last week, but averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start with the White Sox last year. Bartolo Colon, though he worked a very efficient 6 2/3 Wednesday night, needing just 89 pitches, and has been defying expectations all spring, has to be considered as much of a short-outing risk as the other three non-Sabathia starters in the rotation.

None of this should come as a surprise. We all knew the Yankee rotation was held together with spit and baling wire coming into the season. The twist here is that, right now, the rotation isn't costing the Yankees many games, but it is costing the bullpen many innings, and that could come back to haunt this team in a big way, particularly if the spit dries up and the baling wire starts to rust. It could be the the best solution will be frequent use of the Scranton Shuttle, to continually replenish the underside of the bullpen, and perhaps even the back of the rotation, with fresh arms from Triple-A. If so, Girardi has to use the pitchers he's given. I have more faith in Girardi than in the rotation. Proper distribution of bullpen workloads has been one of Girardi's strengths in his previous three seasons as the Yankee manager, but this season seems likely to put that talent to the test.