The Yankees' bullpen has almost always been pivotal to their success, as capable relievers like Mariano Rivera and David Robertson earned a reputation over the years for shutting down their opponents late in games to clinch victories. With half of that dominant equation gone following the 2013 season due to retirement, the Yankees' bullpen arms already had a tough task ahead of them filling in for Robertson' setup man void, given the latter's ascendance to Rivera's old position as closer. Robertson was arguably the best non-closer reliever in baseball prior to Rivera's retirement, and despite all the hubbub about him replacing Rivera at the end of ballgames, other writers recognized that perhaps the Yankees would have their greatest challenge taking care of Robertson's previous setup innings.
After all, Robertson is an elite reliever already, so moving his work one inning later is unlikely to dramatically affect his performance, but the relievers set to pitch the innings prior to the ninth are more flawed. With Robertson on the DL for a couple weeks due to a strained groin though, these relievers are now required to step up even more than before. The onus cannot all be on the starting rotation to make up too many missed quality relief innings, either. CC Sabathia and HIroki Kuroda have both demonstrated signs of overuse in recent years, Masahiro Tanaka is adjusting to a four-days rest schedule after normally starting with at least five days of rest in Japan, and Michael Pineda is pitching his first MLB innings since major shoulder surgery. Ivan Nova appears to be a workhorse in the making and the Yankees will probably be leaning on some of those starters to make long outings anyway, but they will clearly need some help from the relief corps.
At first glance, the Yankees bullpen sans Robertson appears to have all kinds of flaws. The closer, Shawn Kelley, was just DFA'd by the Mariners 14 months ago and had a 3.9 BB/9 last year despite the nice strikeout numbers. Southpaw Matt Thornton certainly has his detractors since a shaky 2013 has made him appear to be more of a LOOGY than a complete reliever. That's it as far as experienced relievers on the Yankees' roster. Everyone else in their bullpen made their MLB debuts in 2012 or later. David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno all come from starting backgrounds. Dellin Betances and Cesar Cabral (who will be called up, per George King) have combined for 12 2/3 innings in the majors and that's it.
Yet while it would seem the Yankees are screwed if they have to rely on their D-Rob-less bullpen, it shouldn't be all doom and gloom. Non-Mo relievers are, by nature of the game, flawed. Properly managing the bullpen is about exercising each reliever's greatest strengths in the most optimal scenario for success. One of baseball's recent maxims is to not dismiss players too quickly for what they cannot do, but rather focus on what they can do and build up these strengths. All of these relievers have particular strengths that can be emphasized. Kelley produces strikeouts like a fiend, Betances has a nasty slurve to complement his fastball, Thronton and Cabral crush lefties, Warren throws heat that could play up in shorter outings than starts, Phelps's curve and two-seamer have made batter look poor on occasion, and with remarkable control, Nuno is seemingly unaffected by platoon splits.
It can be a challenge deciding how to most appropriately use all of these tools, but fortunately for the Yankees, they have a very capable person in charge of finding these scenarios in skipper Joe Girardi. For as frustrating as it can sometimes be watching some relievers used over others and all kinds of mixing and matching here and there, Girardi has clearly produced results while not burning anyone out, a la Joe Torre with Scott Proctor.
Since taking over as Yankees manager in 2008, the 'pen has pitched to an 83 ERA- (3.57 ERA), the best figure in the American League. Their 91 FIP- (3.91 FIP) ranks second, as does their 1.27 WHIP. They simply have a knack for getting the job done. While of course these bullpen numbers were greatly assisted by the efforts of Rivera and Robertson, is the makeup of the rest of these bullpens so different than the groups the Yankees have now? When Boone Logan joined the Yankees in 2010, he had pitched in the majors for four years with unimpressive numbers in Chicago and Atlanta. Four years later, he was given a three-year, $16.5 million deal by the Rockies due to his solid seasons under Girardi's watch. Part of that was surely due to his own development as a hard-throwing lefty, but he was also put in the proper position to succeed.
Although Logan was Girardi's greatest project, he also managed to produce several one-year wonders who managed to provide some value for the Yankees despite not being exceptionally talented. Alfredo Aceves, Brian Bruney, Hector Noesi, Cory Wade, Clay Rapada, and Cody Eppley all saw the greatest seasons of their somewhat-disappointing careers under Girardi's watch. Preston Claiborne in 2013 could probably be lumped into that group as well. Hell, it's hard to imagine now given how far Joba Chamberlain has fallen, but he was quite good for Girardi out of the 'pen in 2010 and 2011 before he got hurt. These previous examples provide confidence that Girardi knows what he's doing with this new reliever crop. For example, much like Phelps, Warren, and Nuno, Noesi and Aceves were starters who turned out to be fine relievers. Other comparisons can be found with this bunch and previous success stories.
The bullpen might look like a bunch of no-names, but Girardi's track record suggests that he will find a way to make it work until Robertson returns. While it might lead to some surprising pitchers emerging in late innings of ballgames, Girardi seems to have a handle on it. With the proper choices for bullpen use, the Yankees shouldn't miss a beat during Robertson's recovery, and when he returns, the bullpen should be stronger and more confident than ever.