Questions linger for Yankees bullpen
Dependable few joined by erratic majority as October arrives
Heading into October, the Yankees can be confident in their ability to shorten the game at the back end of the bullpen. It's the soft underbelly of the middle relief corps that draws the concern.
With fireballing rookie Joba Chamberlain and future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera set to take the ball in the late innings, the Yankees head into the American League Division Series boasting a formidable one-two punch that should accentuate to the Indians the importance of scratching out an early lead and keeping it.
"We're good," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "We need to pitch. I think everybody in the postseason knows how important pitching is, and luck, especially in that first go-round with five games. As far as what we've gone through this year as far as the pressure, hopefully we get a good result."
While Chamberlain and Rivera were able to shine down the stretch, permitting five runs in 25 2/3 September innings for a 1.75 ERA, the rest of the Yankees' relievers struggled mightily. Bullpen contributors not wearing No. 42 or No. 62 ran off a 7.51 ERA in the season's final month, allowing 49 earned runs in 58 2/3 innings.
That might have been acceptable if the Yankees had been mostly asking for outs from Triple-A participants, getting rookies' feet wet with the postseason already secured. But many of the shaky performances came from hurlers either vying for a spot on the playoff roster or already locked in to contribute.
Rookie changeup artist Edwar Ramirez's September ERA was 11.17, and veteran Luis Vizcaino -- the heart of the bullpen's midsummer renaissance after being tweaked with advice from pitching coach Ron Guidry and Rivera -- seemed to tire, his right arm requiring rest and attention while producing a 10.12 September ERA.
"[Vizcaino] might be struggling now because we over-abused him at one point in time," Guidry said. "But at one point in time, he was the guy doing the job. They all pitched in at some point in time, and they did what we wanted them to do.
"The longer the season goes, the more chance you have of struggling. It catches up with you. You don't want to see that, but I think they know what's demanded of them. We have guys who are pitching well, so those are the guys we're going to use in key situations. What's working at the time is what you go with."
That philosophy is a major reason why the Yankees are likely to run up against the noon ET deadline on Thursday to finalize their playoff roster. Already committed to carrying 11 pitchers, New York is expected to insert Mike Mussina into its rotation for a Game 4 start and could try using rookie Phil Hughes, who has never relieved in the Major Leagues, as a long man out of the bullpen.
One-time setup man Kyle Farnsworth has been assured of a roster spot if healthy, though his availability and effectiveness were in question before recent mechanical tweaks seemed to help. Along with veteran Ron Villone, the only left-hander in the bullpen, a recent run of success has the Yankees considering carrying rookie sinkerballer Ross Ohlendorf, who allowed two earned runs and struck out nine in 6 1/3 innings after being called up.
Also on the bubble is right-hander Jose Veras, who compiled a 5.79 ERA in September but provides a little more reliability than Brian Bruney, a one-time closer with the Diamondbacks who saw his candidacy falter due to control problems. Bruney was part of an ill-assembled early bullpen that included Farnsworth and the since-traded Scott Proctor, a trio of relievers with repertoires too closely resembling each others'.
"They were all the same," Guidry said. "Hitting off one guy was like the same thing. We had three guys, but it was all the same guy -- fastball, slider, fastball, fastball. With Chamberlain, you're talking about a guy throwing as hard as the other guys, but he has a real good slider and command of his pitches, as well. He brings a type of energy. Ramirez has got the changeup and fairly good control. It gave that bullpen a little bit different look.
"It gave us more of a variety of guys to throw at hitters, because they weren't accustomed to seeing the same thing all the time. We needed a change, and we did what we thought was the best. Overall, it worked out pretty well."
In the end -- literally and figuratively -- the Yankees' bullpen comes down to Chamberlain and Rivera. Chamberlain has thus far served as Torre's equivalent of a get-out-of-inning free card, his so-called "Joba Rules" recently shed in an effort to prepare him for working on back-to-back days or entering in the middle of an inning in the postseason.
"He just gives us depth and flexibility," Torre said of Chamberlain. "If you need to pitch him in the seventh or use him in the eighth or finish a game, he's done all those things. I think he's just giving us a lot of choices."
As for Rivera, often billed as the greatest postseason closer of all time, he insists there are no sour feelings emanating from his final appearance of the regular season, when he was assigned to protect a three-run lead on Friday evening at Camden Yards before loading the bases and surrendering a bases-clearing triple to Jay Payton.
Rivera shrugged in the visitors' clubhouse and called it a "bad day," and the Yankees did much of the same, preferring to believe that Rivera was -- as he said -- just throwing the ball up there, treating it like a final Spring Training appearance.
That's all well and good, but the true test is about to begin. Considering their current state of relief affairs, the Yankees can ill afford any more bad days.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.