There are many stats of intrigue you'll come across in spring training. CC Sabathia's weight, Stephen Drew's batting average, Alex Rodriguez's...well, anything A-Rod does tends to garner a lot of attention. However, this nugget is one that many fans and observers may not be completely aware of: in 2015, the Yankees will use their fourth different primary closer in the last four seasons.
The thing is, of course, we don't quite know who Joe Girardi will be giving the ball to in hopes of closing out prospective wins this coming year. Fortunately for New York, its options for the ninth make up what is perhaps the best back end of a bullpen in all the league: Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. The former was one of the top relievers in all of the sport a year go and the latter is coming off his best year as a pro and was the recipient of four-year, $36 million deal this offseason.
Before getting too deep into this spring training battle, it should be noted that this is a very good problem for the Yankees to have. Of all their issues, this is one that, most likely, will have a positive outcome regardless of the choice made at the end of March. The Yankees will unquestionably be a tough team late in games.
The 26-year-old Betances appears to have a slight inside edge for the closers' role, and would anyone at all criticize Girardi if he made that choice? Betances' rookie season saw him compete as a full-time reliever in 2014, hurling his way to an All-Star nod in July and a third-place finish in the American League's Rookie of the Year voting. The right-hander led the league in strikeouts by a reliever and posted an incredible .778 WHIP. Once again, all of this in his rookie season. Betances is as close to a "phenom" as the Yankees have right now, and a year after he broke Mariano Rivera's single-season franchise record for strikeouts out of the bullpen, it would be fitting for him to take reigns of the job once held by #42. While only recording one save during the 2014 campaign, Betances' remarkable season suggests that he is ready for the pressures of recording the final three outs of a game. In save situations, Betances posted a 1.67 ERA in 32.1 innings, and a WHIP of .649, lower than his season average. Most impressively, he registered a 10.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in said situations, a huge plus for a potential closer.
Then there is Miller, who was just given the biggest contract ever to a reliever with no prior full-time closing duties. Between Boston and Baltimore a year ago, Miller was just as dominant as Betances. The southpaw hurled to a 2.02 ERA and a career-best 14.9 K/9 over the course of 60.2 innings. 2014 didn't see Miller appear in nearly as many save situations as Betances, but the small sample size is encouraging--and then some--for the Yankees and their fans. Albeit in just 18.1 innings, Miller posted a .382 WHIP (!!!) and a 0.98 ERA. Miller's claim to the vacant ninth inning is his reputation as a more "established" reliever than Betances and that hefty payday. Following an off-season where the Yankees seemed so reluctant to spend big, it would certainly make a statement if they had a hypothetical set-up man making $9 million.
So, it's the homegrown upstart versus the veteran newcomer.....or is it? Is there a third option? Could the Yankees--gasp!--have multiple closers? Based on the quotes coming out of Steinbrenner Field in the first days since pitchers and catchers reported, it sounds like it is at least being thought about. Joe Girardi said Sunday that while it "would not be (his) first option", that there is potential for Miller and Betances to be "interchangeable" in the late innings of a game. This is known as the "let them figure it out" approach. Eventually, one of the two bullpen cogs would emerge as the more suitable option, with the other certainly available to sub in occasionally while still holding down the eighth.
It's not much to venture a guess that the dual-closer option is unlikely at best. No matter who wins the role out of Grapefruit League play, it will be their first experience as being a team's primary closer. That will be enough for either Miller or Betances to deal with. Not needed in this equation is the additional pressures of knowing that the next blown save could be their last chance, with a very viable option lurking just an inning before.
The Yankees' options at closer for the upcoming year have similar backgrounds, in the sense that both were failed starters at the onset of their professional careers before adapting and becoming lights-out relievers. While that might not have much weight on this competition, it is an indicator that both of these hurlers are used to changing up styles and working out flaws that might have otherwise hindered their careers. Does that apply to overcoming the adversity that comes with being a Major League closer? That remains to be seen, but the Yankees have to hope that even if both Miller and Betances regress from their super 2014 numbers (which is likely), that the drop-off won't be anything too noticeable.
Come April 6th, should the Yankees entire their season opener with a ninth inning lead and a save situation beckoning, expect Betances to get the call from the dugout. His reputation has already pegged him as one of the most dynamic relievers in all of the league, and frankly, the team should be promoting the fruits of its minor league system as much as possible in an era of so few homegrown studs for the Yankees. Miller will certainly get looks in the role and there is no reason to expect him to fail. The backend of the Yankees' bullpen figures to be the strength of the team this year. Of course, it's up to the offense and starting rotation to get them the lead.