Times are changing for the Yankees bullpen, which will officially be without Mariano Rivera starting next season. The future Hall of Famer confirmed the 2013 season will be his last as a player over the weekend, but the club and its fans got a sneak preview of what life without Mo will be like last summer. Rivera threw only 8.1 innings before blowing his knee in a freak (fly ball!) shagging injury in early-May. Rafael Soriano stepped in and saved 42 games, but was allowed to leave as a free agent this winter.
For now, the team’s bullpen will resemble their bullpens of the last three or four years. There is a new face or two and a player coming back from injury, but the core is unchanged. That’s generally good news for fantasy owners.
Even at 43 years old and coming off major knee surgery, it’s hard to bet against the Hammer of God. Rivera made his Spring Training debut over the weekend and looked like his old self, dotting the edges of both sides of the plate with 90-91 mph cutters. If you didn’t know he missed basically all of last season, you would have never known. The age and injury make Rivera more of a question mark now than ever before, but his track record should still make him one of the top five closers off the board. He’s risky but hard to bet against.
Robertson, 27, has emerged as one of baseball’s best setup relievers these last two years and is the obvious candidate for save chances should Rivera get hurt or simply need a day off. He’s a super-high-strikeout right-hander (34.8 K% since 2011) who basically cut his walk rate in half last season (7.7 BB%), but we’re going to need to see a little more before declaring that permanent improvement. For what it’s worth, Robertson walked just five (!) batters in his final 36 appearances and 33 innings of 2012. That’s pretty spectacular for a guy with a career 11.2% walk rate. Even if the limiting walks stuff was just a flash in the pan, Robertson is worth owning because of the strikeouts, holds, and potential for saves.
Chamberlain, 27, missed most of last season following Tommy John surgery and his infamous trampoline-related ankle injury. He stunk for the first five weeks or so after returning in early-August, but he finished the year by allowing one run and one walk against 17 strikeouts in his final 13 innings. Joba hasn’t had a full season since 2010, but ZiPS likes him to get back to being the reliever he was before the elbow reconstruction: 4.24 ERA with 9.16 K/9 and 2.68 BB/9. The ERA will always been tough to predict as a reliever, but Chamberlain misses bats and should limit walks as he gets further out from surgery. Either way, he’s likely right behind Robertson for potential save chances.
The 28-year-old Logan has flown under the radar has a high-strikeout left-hander (26.9 K% since 2011) these last two years, plus he is manager Joe Girardi’s primary southpaw and will see plenty of holds chances for you AL-only/deep leaguers. It’s worth noting Logan’s elbow has been barking in Spring Training, but he started throwing over the weekend and is expected to be ready in time for Opening Day.
The Yankees signed the 31-year-old Aardsma to a one-year deal worth $500,000 last offseason knowing he would miss most (if not all) of 2012 following Tommy John and hip surgery. He had a midseason setback and appeared in one only game in late-September, but the contract included a club option worth another $500,000. That was picked up and he’ll join the right-handed relief group after essentially missing the last two seasons. At best, he’s third in line for saves behind Rivera and Robertson. At worst, he’s a high-strikeout (career 23.0 K% and 24.3% the year before he got hurt) reliever with sleeper holds potential.
Rapada, 32, is a classic lefty specialist with a funky low arm slot and little fantasy value. He did manage a 2.82 ERA and 24.5 K% last summer — held lefties to a .238 wOBA — but it came in just 38.1 innings spread across 70 appearances. Rapada might be worth a fantasy roster spot if Logan’s elbow continues to bark and he assumed those primary lefty matchup spots/holds chances, but otherwise he’s not worth it. The 26-year-old Phelps is competing with Ivan Nova for the fifth rotation spot but is expected to start the year as the swingman. He did some fine work in that role last year — 3.34 ERA (4.32 FIP) with 23.2 K% and 9.2 BB% in 99.2 innings — and will inevitably find himself in the rotation at some point. Injuries are unavoidable. Since this is a bullpen post, Phelps won’t have much fantasy value in that role because he won’t see many save or holds chances. He will have SP/RP eligibility though and is worth keeping an eye on for your rotation.
The Yankees also have 28-year-old Shawn Kelley and 27-year-old Cody Eppley in camp competing for bullpen spots, but they have options remaining and are expected to start the year in Triple-A. Kelley had a history of arm problems and missing bats (career 22.6 K%) while with the Mariners while Eppley is a low-arm slot righty who spent a bunch of time with New York in 2012 (3.33 ERA and 16.5 K% in 46 innings), but both are fantasy afterthoughts at this point. Kelley could find himself in a setup role if a series of injuries or poor performances strike, but that’s not enough of a reason to stash him on your roster at the outset of the season. Rivera and Robertson are the Yankees’ relievers to watch here. Joba, Logan, and maybe even Aardsma less so.