Brian Cashman sparked some mild controversy last week when he told reporters he's not sure that 28-year-old David Robertson is the right man to replace the greatest closer of all time. It's long been assumed that the Alabama-born setup specialist who boasts an ERA of 1.91 and a WHIP of 1.11 over the past three seasons would take on the impossible mission of filling Mariano Rivera's shoes, but according to Cashman - not so fast.
Cashman's comments should be taken with a boulder-sized grain of salt. Robertson is arbitration eligible for the final time this winter before hitting free agency a year from now. Closers make a lot more money than eighth inning guys, and it would certainly help Robertson's case if he can convince an arbitrator that the Yankees intend to use him as the former. The Yankees have a couple million reasons to suggest that Robertson might not be their choice. Still, the team has taken things a step further by reportedly contacting the agents of veteran free agent closers Joe Nathan and Grant Balfour.
Signing Nathan or Balfour or any big money closer would be absolute lunacy. Handing Robertson the job should be their easiest decision this off-season. Here are five good reasons why:
Robertson is one of the best relief pitchers in baseball
By now most Yankee fans realize just how good D-Rob is, but in case you need a reminder, here goes: Since the start of the 2011 season, Robertson ranks third among relief pitchers who've thrown 150 innings or more in ERA- (46) and fWAR (5.9). That's not out of setup men. It's out of all relievers, closers included, and the two pitchers ahead of him, Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland are among the very best. Robertson's 2.31 SIERA ranks eighth, his K:9 rate of 11.99 is sixth and his HR:9 rate of 0.51 is fourteenth, ahead of top-end closers like Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Jonathan Papelbon, as well as Nathan and Balfour. Those numbers detail three full years of consistent dominance and they don't even include the second half of 2010, when after a rough start to the season, Robertson held opposing hitters to a .612 OPS.
Robertson can be trusted in the playoffs
Probably no reliever will ever duplicate the super-human statistics that Rivera amassed over sixteen postseasons, but D-Rob doesn't look like he'll descend into Armando Benitez or Billy Wagner territory either. In a sample of just seventeen innings, Robertson's playoff totals are still marred by a dismal 0.1 inning, five hit, five run thrashing in game three of the 2010 ALCS, but he's held opponents scoreless in sixteen of his other eighteen October outings. In the 2012 playoffs, D-Rob totaled 6.1 innings and allowed only three base-runners while striking out seven. He threw two near-perfect frames to earn the victory in the Yankees' 3-2, extra-inning win over Baltimore in ALDS game three.
The idea of a "closer's mentality" is utter nonsense
For some reason there's a widely held belief that pitching the ninth inning is "different" or that only certain pitchers have the "mental make-up" to close games. That's exactly the sort of thing that Cashman hinted at in his recent comments, knowing he had no logical leg to stand on. There is only one prerequisite for closing baseball games: talent. Robertson has that and then some.
There's no evidence that any top setup man can't make the transition to closing. A pitcher who gets outs in the sixth, seventh or eighth will do the same in the ninth and vice versa. In the past couple of seasons alone, we've seen plenty of pitchers successfully nail the move, from the above-mentioned Jansen and Holland to Sergio Romo, Koji Uehara and of course Balfour, he of the "closer experience" the Yankees are supposedly so interested in. If anything it's more difficult to pitch the eighth. Setup men are often asked to come in with men on base and pitch out of jams, while closers almost never are. They're more likely to be called on for multi-inning stints and in more diverse situations - tie game on the road, down a run and so on. D-Rob has been lights out in tight, high-leverage spots for years. There's no reason to believe that in the ninth, he'll be any less effective.
Back in the fall of ‘96 the Yankees knew they had the best reliever in baseball on the roster and that his name wasn't John Wetteland. How different would history be if they'd worried about whether Rivera had a "closer's mentality?"
Robertson closing makes more sense financially
Whether or not Robertson becomes their next closer, the Yankees will likely need to add a reliever this off-season unless they're willing to entrust D-Rob's old role to the likes of Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne. Saves are expensive. Regardless of quality and whether it's fair or not, closers get paid considerably more than setup men do. It will be far more budget friendly to find a decent filler for the eighth than it will be to find one for the ninth.
Not making Robertson the closer probably means losing him
Robertson is a free agent after the 2014 season. If the Yankees sign Nathan or Balfour - they won't get either on a one-year deal - he has no reason to give them a financial break as a reward for under-utilizing him. He knows how good he is - or if he doesn't, his agents do. He'll ask for closer money, meaning $10-$12 million per year or more. The Yankees will be left with a decision between letting him walk and paying two different relief pitchers eight figures a season. Sure, they did that in 2011 and 2012 when Rivera and Rafael Soriano were both bringing home big bucks, but with the current budget in place - whether its $189 million or slightly more - we're unlikely to see that again. Robertson is an elite home-grown pitcher still in his late twenties. Do the Yankees really want to give that up in order to hedge their bets on an inferior player a decade his senior?
Keeping him their setup man could also mean losing Robertson in a different way. Imagine a regular job: for years you work under a great boss, studying what makes him that way all the while performing your own duties at a sensationally high level. When your boss retires, even though he endorses you for the job, the higher-ups don't promote you. Instead they bring in someone from the company across town. After that blow it would take a special kind of person to maintain the same focus and energy. Joba Chamberlain appeared to lose all of his once the Yankees gave up on him as a starter and banished him back to middle relief for good. D-Rob seems a lot more together than Joba does, but it's still hard to believe that a resounding vote of no confidence from the Yankee front office wouldn't have some detrimental effect on his psyche.