Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is the Bullpen the Weak Link of the Yankees?

Everyone take a deep breath. Please remain calm. Promise me you won't give away your stereo, Whitesnake record and other possessions like the depressed guy from that one after-school special.

The Yankees are in a slump. They've lost four of their last five games, and now sit 2.5 games behind the Rays in the American League East.

Again, do not part ways with your Whitesnake record.

Chances are strong the Yankees will right the ship quickly. They still have two games remaining with the putrid Orioles (who did everything in their power to blow last night's win), CC Sabathia gets the ball today, and a cushy six-game homestand is on the horizon.

That said, there's an 800-pound gorilla in the room, and I'm not talking about Nick Johnson:

Alfredo Aceves 4.70 ERA, 1-0 W-L, 0 HLD, 1 K, 1.30 WHIP

David Robertson 10.80 ERA, 0-1 W-L, 0 HLD, 2.20 WHIP

Chan Ho Park 4.76 ERA, 1-1 W-L, 0 HLD, 3 K, 1.06 WHIP

Damaso Marte 6.23 ERA, 0-0 W-L, 1 HLD, 3 K, 1.62 WHIP

Joba Chamberlain 3.86 ERA, 0-1 W-L, 4 HLD, 10 K, 1.39 ERA

The middle relief was directly responsible for kicking away a potential win for Phil Hughes last night, and if not for the occasional success of Chamberlain and constant brilliance of Mariano Rivera (6-for-6 saves, 0.00 ERA), the bullpen's struggles would've already been a topic of hot debate.

Such is the power of the G.O.A.T., as Rivera's greatness has managed to obscure the warts of Joe Girardi's bullpen.

Hughes' importance to the bullpen in 2009 cannot be overstated. Postseason not withstanding, Hughes took a major question mark and turned it into a team strength with his lights-out setup work.

The Yankees are betting big on Chamberlain to fill that role. If he can pitch with similar success to Hughes in '09, the bullpen will need to navigate through just one inning—the seventh—on many nights.

But Chamberlain to this point has shown little in his career in terms of consistency, making the eighth inning anything but locked down. With Hughes solidified in the rotation, there's no white knight to come save the 'pen if Joba can't get it done.

As Marte proved during the postseason last year, he can be an effective reliever. Aceves, too, is proven, coming off a 10-win season out of the 'pen. Robertson, Park, and newcomer Boone Logan are question marks, but all have the tools to succeed.

Andy Pettitte is (probably) not going to pitch like it's 1996 all year. A.J. Burnett will have his inevitable funks, Hughes will have growing pains, and Javier Vazquez has already shown how he can struggle.

The bottom line: The bullpen will play a huge role in how good the Yankees can be. If the relievers put it together, there's no ceiling on this team. If they continue to struggle, it will haunt them all season.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.

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