Yankees should get creative with Robertson
In the wake of receiving some truly terrible news, the Yankees have an opportunity in front of them. An opportunity to be creative, to be innovative and to gain an advantage.
Mariano Rivera is apparently done for the season, and there's no way that's anything but bad for the reigning American League East champions. All they can do now is react, however, and the best reaction to Rivera's knee injury isn't the conventional one.
"This is bad, no question about it," manager Joe Girardi told reporters on Thursday night. "This is not what you come to Kansas City to hear. But good teams find a way to overcome things. If we want to play in October, we're going to have to find a way to overcome it."
Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild can overcome Rivera's loss -- in part by not using their best reliever in the set, stifling role of pitching three outs with a lead in the ninth inning. They have the opportunity to commit this baseball heresy with minimal blowback. It's a chance that comes along rarely, and they should take it.
The Yanks' best course of action for the rest of the season, or at least for the time being, is to plug Rafael Soriano into closing duties and keep David Robertson doing what he's doing now. They could and should even expand Robertson's role, pitching him more aggressively in tie games and before the eighth inning.
They'll miss Rivera either way. The Hall-of-Fame-bound righty is as good as any reliever around, even at 42 years old. But his loss does not have to be a crippling blow, not at all. New York has a deep bullpen and multiple options for how to handle the ninth.
The obvious option, and most likely, is simply to move everyone back an inning. Make Robertson the closer, Soriano the top setup man, and so forth. It's the path of least resistance, and that's a common path for big league clubs.
It only takes a little creativity, though, to come up with a better option. Let Soriano take that prescribed closing job, pitching with a lead and the bases empty in the ninth. It's not easy, and it's not that "anybody can do it." But it's also not necessarily the most efficient and effective way to use a pitcher like Robertson.
By using Soriano to close, the Yankees could then let Robertson keep doing what he's doing -- or more than he's doing. He should be the man in a tie game in the seventh or eighth, the man with runners on base and the heart of the order coming up, and, yes, the man pitching the eighth to get to Soriano sometimes.
It's not the dreaded "closer by committee," and therefore the Yankees would be immune to much of the kneejerk criticism that comes when a team tries something unconventional with its relief corps. But it is a different way to look at bullpen alignment, and a smart one.
There's little doubt Robertson is the Yanks' best reliever in the absence of Rivera. He's one of the best in the game, and at least arguably the single best right-hander who doesn't have that coveted "closer" designation.
He's extremely effective with runners on base, an ability that would be wasted by using him as a conventional closer. And he's every bit as effective against left-handers as against right-handers, allowing him to be more than a three-out pitcher.
A pitcher like Robertson is a tremendous asset, and should be used as such. Using him for 60-65 innings is a waste, and virtually no closer ever gets much more than 70 innings in a season. (The fact that Robertson himself only pitched 66 2/3 innings last year is a separate issue, and its own indicator of some less-than-efficient distribution of innings.)
Besides, even the Yankees have a budget. And while this should never drive the decisions of a team trying to win a World Series, the financially prudent thing is to use Soriano, as well.
Soriano is signed through 2013, then he becomes a free agent. He'll make whatever he makes on the open market. Robertson, though, is up for arbitration for the first time this winter. Arbitration hearings rarely hang on advanced metrics. Saves earn money for relievers in arbitration, though. If Robertson racks up 20-25 saves from here to the end of the year, closers become his arbitration comparables. That makes him more expensive.
Again, it's about the last reason that any team, especially the Yankees, should have for making a baseball decision. Win games first and worry about the payroll later. But it would be an added benefit to going with Soriano in the ninth and keeping Robertson in his current role.
That's the best baseball decision, and the best way to make the most of a lousy situation.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. MLB.com reporter Paul Casella and regional editor Kristen Zimmerman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.