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September 27, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Here's something that I doubt any of you know about me (and why should you?). I don't have a car. That's right, 26-year old Larry doesn't own a vehicle, so he has to rely on public transportation, a bicycle, or his feets. Sometimes life doesn't work out the way you expected it to (and sometimes that's good, and sometimes it's bad), and for me, the big thing is that I don't have a car. Oh well.

Well the brake pads on my bike are totally worn out, so when I'm coming down the hill on the way home from work, I'm rolling along at about 25 miles an hour with no way to stop. Now, that might sound fun, but it's really kinda scary. "Boy, I really hope no cars are coming through this intersection. Boy I really hope no cars are coming through THIS intersection..."

Now, I'm not stupid, I only did that once, and down one hill, and walked the rest of the way home. So, until I get a chance to buy replacement brake pads (but not replacement level brake pads!), I've got to walk a mile and a half to and from work. Which is tiring, especially when you're fat and lazy like I am.

The plan was to come home from work Thursday and write up my bullpen review for Friday morning. Well, after a long walk to work, a long day at work, and a long walk home, I was exhausted, and the plan was revised to "go to sleep, wake up in the morning and write my bullpen review." Except I woke up about five minutes before I had to go to work, so that didn't work out so well. So, no post on Friday, and I'm sorry for it.

But, as I was going to write on Friday, here's my review of the Yankees' bullpen:

Like every modern bullpen, the Yankees' relief corps is centered around their closer, Mariano Rivera. He's the ace at the end f the game, the guy you want to get the ball to, and once he's in, you feel pretty confident that it's game over. The rest of the staff is built around getting the game to the ninth inning, or at least into the eighth, where Rivera can, if he has to, convert six outs.

In 1996, John Wetteland played the Mariano Rivera role (though not quite as well), and Rivera played the setup role. If the Yankees had the lead after six innings, Rivera would come in and retire the next six batters, and Wetteland would come in, put the tying run on third base, and finish it off. That script won them a World's Championship with a team that was pretty good, but not great, and the decision to use Rivera in that role is the best Joe Torre has ever made--and that's not a backhanded compliment.

Rivera pitched so well in '96--he may have been the best pitcher in baseball that year--that the Yankees let John Wetteland go in the offseason and put Rivera in the closer's role. Jeff Nelson was moved up into the setup role along with free agent acquisition Mike Stanton, and the Yankees were on their way to establishing one of the great postseason bullpens of all time. Nelson, Stanton, and later, Ramiro Mendoza were almost untouchable in the postseason from 1998-2000, and the Yankees won three straight championships.

Jeff Nelson left town after the 2000 season, and the struggles of his replacements in 2001 were well publicized. The Yankees probably would have lost the World Series to Arizona that season if they still had Jeff Nelson--it was offense that they were lacking that series--but another righty setup man was high on the Yankees' priorities that offseason, and they filled that "need" by overpaying Steve Karsay. Much like the Derek Jeter contract, the Yankees were probably better off overpaying him than not having him (they can afford it, anyway), and he pitched well for them, though not nearly as well as he had the season before.

Unfortunately, after the starting pitching and defense failed the Yankees in the Division Series, Karsay and the rest of the bullpen failed them, too. The Yankees were pounded by the Angels for 31 runs in 4 games, and failed to advance to the League Championship Series for the first time since 1997.

The blame for the loss fell squarely on the starting rotation and bullpen, and the defense was more or less let off of the hook. The offseason priority was to improve the pitching, and overhaul the bullpen.

The first act was to let the axe fall on the last two pieces of the late 90's setup tandem, Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza. Mendoza was on the wrong side of 30 and about to become expensive for a middle reliever--though one would be a fool to have expected what happened this season. As for Stanton, they had to move on sooner or later, but the way they did it was classless and more than a little foolish. They offered Stanton, Chris Hammond and Mark Guthrie the same contract--a lowball offer for Stanton and too much for Hammond or Guthrie--and said that whoever called back first would get the deal. Hammond's agent probably accepted before Cashman hung up the phone, and with that, Stanton's days in pinstripes were over.

The rest of the bullpen, it seemed, would work itself out. With seven nominal starters on the roster, it was assumed that the two leftovers--Sterling Hitchcock and someone else--would throw long relief, and if it was Jeff Weaver or Orlando Hernandez, it was hoped that they could fill the Ramiro Mendoza role. And then the Yankees decided to go overboard, signing Cuban free agent Jose Contreras for no apparent reason other than to keep him away from the Red Sox--and then proceeded to float rumors that they were thinking about trading for Expos starter Bartolo Colon, again, just to keep him away from the Red Sox, or at least drive the price up for him. Eventually, the Yankees did get involved in the Colon trade, sending Orlando Hernandez to Montreal while Colon went to the White Sox and right-handed reliever Antonio Osuna came to the Bronx. It seemed a good deal for all involved, the Expos got rid of salary while getting a solid starter in return (though Hernandez would end up missing the season with injuries), the White Sox got a solid #2 starter (though generally talked about as an ace), and the Yankees got a righty relief pitcher far more suited to the role than Hernandez or Weaver would be. Juan Acevedo was brought over from the Detroit Tigers to see if he could be of any use in setup, and rookie Jason Anderson made the squad out of spring training. Steve Karsay was out until mid-May while recovering from offseason surgery, and Mariano Rivera would miss the first month with a pulled groin. The bullpen looked shaky going into April, but it appeared that by the time the opponents got tough, the bullpen would be okay.

The bullpen did stink in April, but it didn't really matter much. Strong offensive play by Alfonso Soriano and Raul "I Suck" Mondesi, combined with a weak schedule carried the Yankees to a spectacular start, even with star shortstop Derek Jeter out for a month and a half, as well.

But then things started to turn sour. The offense and the starting pitching cooled off, and the bullpen started having a greater impact on games. Led by Juan Acevedo, they became very good at being very bad. With the news that Steve Karsay was going to be out for the season, panic started to set in. For a brief while Sterling Hitchcock seemed to be the best relief pitcher before Rivera--not a good thing. The Yankees needed someone to step up, and the person who did was Juan Acevedo. With one pitch in Wrigley Field, he turned Roger Clemens's 300th win into a loss, and sealed his fate as a Yankee. He was released shortly thereafter (only to be picked up by the Blue Jays, where he came back to hurt the Yankees again--blowing a ninth inning lead in Fenway Park).

The best options Joe Torre had before Rivera at the time were probably Jason Anderson and Antonio Osuna. Anderson was young and unproven, and Torre has a penchant to avoid using a young player until well after he's established his worth, but his failure to use Osuna in tight spots was curious. Osuna started the season pitching well, but his value was limited by the situations he was put in. He ultimately was injured and when he returned, was not all that effective.

When the Yankees signed Chris Hammond, I for one was furious. He had pitched well the season before, but not as well as his ERA indicated, and the reason he had such great numbers was 1) he gave up only one home run to the 311 batters he faced, which was unlikely to happen again, 2) he was hit lucky, which you shouldn't expect to happen again, and 3) he had gotten good defense behind him, which you'd be a fool to think he'd get with the Yankees. But the biggest red flag on Hammond was that he had simply never done it before, and at 37, it seemed more likely that 2002 was a fluke than anything else.

But Hammond, it seems, actually has become a pretty good pitcher. His peripherals aren't nearly as good as they were last season, but they're still good. Not $2.2 million good, but good. His changeup is deadly to righties, who have only a .645 OPS against him. The problem is that he doesn't do very well against lefties, who hit him for a .806 clip, and that may be part of the reason why Joe Torre hasn't used him much lately. The Yankees could have found a dozen pitchers like Hammond for a lot less, but they're not hurting by having him on the roster. From strictly a personnel standpoint, it was a positive addition.

But the Yankees needed to make an addition to the bullpen, and they did it right after the All-Star Game, trading Jason Anderson and some minor league nobodies for Mets closer Armando Benitez. The New York media mocked the move (Benitez was a big-game "choker", but then, so was Barry Bonds...), and the rest of the media seemed to lament the Yankees' buying of another All-Star. On the whole, it was (at the time) a good move for both teams. The Mets got a good young relief pitcher, and the Yankees got a potentially dominant reliever who could (and likely would) bring them two first-round draft picks at season's end. They then traded for Ancient LOOGY Jesse Orosco, hoping to get one last useful stretch out of him.

But Orosco was ineffective and Benitez had a couple of poor outings, killing Torre's already shaky confidence in him. Soon enough, Benitez was shipped out of town for the equally shaky, less potentially dominant (and less draft pick compensating), but familiar Jeff Nelson. Nelson, it turns out, is a shadow of what he once was. He still has the funky motion, he still has the frisbee slider, but he can't hit the strike zone with it consistently, and instead of flailing away at the pitch out of the zone, right handed batters are simply taking their walks. It's a minor difference, and you can't pick it up just by watching the game, but it's happened, and it's made Nelson a mediocre pitcher.

But they made two other transactions that would have a significant, positive impact on the talent in the 'pen. The first was the Aaron Boone trade, and if there was anything I would be willing to call positive to come out of that deal (I'll talk more about Boone in the next couple of days), it would be the acquisition of lefty Gabe White. Having a shockingly great season in Coors Field in 2000, White was perhaps the most valuable reliever in baseball that season. He followed it up with a more predictable bad season at altitude, and returned to the Reds, where was good again--though misused by manager/idiot Bob Boone. When Boone was axed in mid-season, and his son was traded to the Yankees, Gabe White was sent along in a "separate" deal so the Yankees would be allowed to send more cash to Cincinnati. It took a while for Torre to figure out how to use him--usually using him as a matchup lefty or a filler to get to Jeff Nelson at first--but he figured out soon enough that White might be the Yankees' new Mike Stanton. White has become the Yankees' prime setup option, as Torre has realized that he's effective against both lefties and righties.

The other acquisition that helped greatly was the claiming of Felix Heredia off of waivers from the Reds. Another pitcher who had been misused as a situational lefty in his career, Heredia has good stuff and can get out batters on both sides of the plate. He's never going to be a dominant relief pitcher, but he's a pretty decent one, being much more likely to get you safely to the next arm than to turn a two-run lead into a deficit. Heredia is a good example of why Theo Epstein was right. Why pay $2 million for a pitcher who probably won't be great, and might flop, when you can take the same performance risk for $600 k with the Felix Heredias of the world? Heredia's not going to carry the Yankees to the championship, but he'll be an important link on the chain that pulls them there.

And finally, there's Mo. Rivera may be the greatest relief pitcher of all time, but it's no sure thing. Hardcore Yankees fans will argue until the end of time that he's undoubtedly the one, while Yankee haters will argue vociferously for half a dozen other guys, most of whom are his contemporaries. The truth, of course, lies in the middle, and while he might not be the best there has ever been, he's got to be in the discussion. He is truly a great relief pitcher, a fact that is emphasized by the sudden concern that he'd "lost it" when he had a couple of weeks where was good, but not dominant. It's tough to live up to high expectations, and Rivera has struggled to all year. Still, he's on of the top closers in the game, and when the first notes of Enter Sandman blare over the Yankee Stadium P.A., you can fell pretty confident that the game is in hand. Sure, he'll blow a few, and he might do it this October, but you should expect that he won't.

That's the bullpen. I didn't put Weaver on there because while he might make the postseason roster, it would certainly only be as a mopup man, to save the rest of the bullpen for games that the Yankees would have a chance to win. If Torre brings Weaver into a close game, and he succeeds, maybe all will be forgiven, but if he fails...well, Joe can just clean out his desk, then.

For their value going forward, I'll rate Weaver a D-, Osuna a C, Nelson a C+, Hammond a B, Heredia a B, White a B+, and Rivera an A.

Tomorrow (I hope), the bench. That's right folks, I've saved the most irrelevant for last. Kinda like the Oscars finishing up with awarding "Best Supporting Role in a Foreign Documentary Short".