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November 4, 2005

Fixing the bullpen
by SG

A few days ago, I looked at the starting pitching options on the free agent market to confirm that the Yankees' non-pursuit of a starter made sense. Today, it's time to look at the relievers, an area of obvious need for the Yankees.

We'll start with the rock at the top, Mariano Rivera. At the age of 35, and after facing close to 3000 batters, Mo had the best season of his potential Hall of Fame career. 78.3 inning, 80 K, only 50 hits and 2 HR allowed, and an ERA of 1.38 which equated to an ERA+ of 323. He's certainly at a worrisome age, but he's a superstar talent, and superstars age well. Even if he declines a bit this year, he should be fine.

Tom Gordon had another strong season setting up Rivera, but his K rate has dropped pretty sharply over the last three seasons.

2003 K/9: 11.1
2004 K/9: 9.6
2005 K/9: 7.7

That is a pretty alarming trend, especially for a pitcher who has had injury problems and will be 38 next year. He has also mentioned that he would like to finish his career as a closer somewhere. Fortunately for the Yankees, they are in the position of having a likely Type A free agent that they can afford to let walk, and whom they can afford to offer arbitration. The benefit to this is that the Yankees will receive draft picks. They can then be players on the free agent market, and actually end up in a better draft position since the teams rumored to be interested in Gordon (Mets, Cubs) were worse than the Yankees. Thanks to the free agent compensation system in place, even if the Yankees sign multiple free agents, they won't lose these picks.

I think the smart move is to let Gordon walk, and I think that's what the Yankees will do.

Tanyon Sturtze has a $1.5 million dollar option for next season, which the Yankees should probably decline. Through June 27, Sturtze was a solid reliever, with a 3.43 ERA in 42 innings, and an incredibly low walk rate of 1.1 per nine innings. However, he was on pace to pitch in 66 games at this point, which is not unreasonable for a reliever,but would be 20 games more than Sturtze had ever pitched in his career. Whether it was fatigure or the return of the real Tanyon Sturtze, he had a 6.25 ERA over the rest of the season, with his BB per 9 spiking to 5.5. He had to get an MRI at the end of the season, and he'll be a 35 year old with a career ERA+ of 88. I wouldn't even bring him back for league minimum, to be honest.

I touted the misuse of Felix Rodriguez in this space many times over the course of the season, but he ended up having a pretty lousy season. It's tough to say that Torre's misuse of him was the only reason, and it's not fair to Torre to do so. He just stunk. He's probably another guy the Yankees can risk offering arbitration to with the hopes he signs elsewhere. If he accepts, they can cut him in spring training.

Scott Proctor continued to alternate good flashes with bad. He'll be 29, so it's not like he's young. I can't fault the Yankees for continuing to run him out there with his fastball and curve. Proctor is a dominant reliever against righties, holding them to a line of .217/.270/.358, which is about as well as Adam Everett hit last year. Unfortunately, against lefties, he allowed a line of .315/.405/.630, or about as well as Albert Pujols. I'm not a pitching coach, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once. It would seem to me that he needs a changeup or splitter that would move away from lefties. As a long man and mopup man, I think he'd be fine.

Alan Embree and Wayne Franklin should be express-mailed out of town as soon as possible. I wouldn't even offer them arbitration. They both suck, but their handedness makes them attractive to the manager, so they need to go.

So right now, the Yankee bullpen likely consists of two people, Mo and Proctor. That's pretty scary to me. If they don't trade Aaron Small, that makes three, so there are three spots to fill. I think the Yankees should fill one of these spots with someone in the organization, be it Jaret Wright until he gets hurt or someone from the minors. The most intriguing minor league candidate to me is Matt Smith, a lefty who was a mediocre starting pitching prospect until this season, when the Yankees stuck him in the bullpen in Trenton.

For Trenton, Smith pitched 54.2 innings, allowing 46 hits, just 2 HR, with 23 BB and 59 K. Promoted to Columbus, he pitched another 27.2 innings, allowing 24 hits, 3 HRs and 13 BB, while fanning 33. He's not young at 26, and is more of a breaking ball pitcher, but he's in the organization, he's cheap, and he's worth a flier. Plus, as a player with minor league options he will give the Yankees the roster flexibility to shuffle around as needed when injuries strike. He's also been named to the US Olympic qualifying team, which would seem to be more evidence that he has some talent.

Jason Anderson had a very good year for Columbus and should be in the mix, and Colter Bean would be another guy who deserves a chance, but if he didn't get it last year, I doubt he ever will get it.

This leaves two spots. I really think the Yankees should go after two power relievers, and there are some intriguing candidates out there, ranked by my preference.

B.J. Ryan, lhp (IP:70.1, ERA+:170, age:30) - I know the Yankees have a huge gaping hole in centerfield, but to me this the most important guy the Yankees can target. He's relatively young, he's AL East tested, he's got filthy stuff combined with a deceptive motion, and he's a lefty. I would throw closer's money at him if necessary, starting at 3 years, $21 million. The concern is that he'll want to be a closer somewhere, but it's mitigated by the fact that he and Lee Mazzilli have a good relationship and that he is from Louisiana and grew up idolizing Ron Guidry, who may be the next Yankee pitching coach.

Billy Wagner, lhp (IP:77.2, ERA+:300, age:34) - There's only one Sandman, so I'd pass on Wagner. Seriously, he'd be a nice fit, but he's climbing up the all time saves list and will likely get plenty of offers to be the ninth inning guy elsewhere, so I don't think he's a realistic option.

Octavio Dotel, rhp (IP:15.1, ERA+:128, age:32) - Dotel had his struggles in Oakland before requiring Tommy John surgery. Reports are that he is progressing at an amazing rate and will be ready at the start of the season. The recovery rate of ligament replacement surgery patients is pretty good, so I think an incentive-laden deal would be a good fit. If he comes back with his 97 mph fastball and nasty slider, he'll be fun to watch. He was a dominant setup man and would probably accept the role again.

Bobby Howry, rhp (IP:73.0, ERA+:166), age:32) - Howry's a guy who may fly under the radar, but he has had two very good years for Cleveland since coming back from injuries. He's another pretty hard thrower, with a 91-93 mph fastball that reaches 96 at times, a slider and a splitter. The one concern I would have is that he's a pretty extreme flyball pitcher and will likely have a bad OF defense behind him.

Kyle Farnsworth rhp (IP:70.0, ERA+:198), age:30) - 100 mph fastball and a 10 cent head. He had a dominant season last year. I'm not sure how much of it is the new slider he started throwing, and how much of it was just luck. If the Yankee scouts feel the slider is the difference maker, he'd be another nice option if he's willing to be a setup man.

Julian Tavarez, rhp (IP:65.1, ERA+:125), age:33) - I'm not crazy about Tavarez, but he is a solid ground ball pitcher with a good sinking fastball that tears up righties(.239/.293/.318 from 2002-04, .271/.345/.384 last year). I'd consider him depending how everything else shakes out, but he played in front of a stellar infield defense last year, so I don't know how good he really is.

Ugueth Urbina, rhp (IP:79.2, ERA+:123), age:32) - Mr. Urbina may or may not be an option depending on his legal issues with a machete. In a pure baseball sense, he's not the pitcher he was five years ago, and I'd probably avoid him. That whole kissing thing skeeves me out too.

Bob Wickman, rhp (IP:62, ERA+:166), age:37) - No thanks.

Jeff Nelson, rhp (IP:36.2, ERA+:110), age:39) - See Wickman. Bob.

Tim Worrell, rhp (IP:48.1, ERA+:109), age:38) - Man, some of these guys are not very appealing.

Roberto Hernandez, rhp (IP:69.1, ERA+:162, age:41) - He had a very good year for the Mets last year but it looks like a big time fluke. I wouldn't trust him to repeat it.

Ricardo Rincon, lhp (IP:37.1, ERA+:104), age:36) - If the Yankees get stifled for Ryan, I think they can consider a LOOGY like Rincon or the next three guys.

Scott Eyre, lhp (IP:68.1, ERA+:157), age:34)

Scott Sauerbeck, lhp (IP:35.2, ERA+:102), age:34)

Joey Eischen, lhp (IP:36.1, ERA+:123), age:36)

Eddie Guardado looked like a potential pickup until Seattle picked up his option, so scratch him off your lists.

If it was me, I'd sign Ryan and Dotel or Howry. Then, you'd have this bullpen next year:

Wright/Bean/Matt Smith/Anderson

I think that would work out pretty well.