Around the Horn: Bullpen
After Rivera, uncertainties exist for the middle innings
The following is the sixth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Bullpen.
NEW YORK -- From the first day that Yankees pitchers and catchers are required to be present in Tampa, Fla., there will be exactly six weeks until the club packs up and begins the trek up to New York, stopping only for a brief two-game visit with the Marlins in Miami.
The way the Yankees' bullpen shapes up heading into Spring Training, it may be fortuitous that a scheduling quirk is offering manager Joe Girardi a two-day reunion at Dolphin Stadium. Not only can he revisit the place where his managing teeth were cut, but Girardi may need those final 48 hours just to whittle down whom gets to take the charter north for Opening Day.
As it is, the Yankees have precious little settled for their pitching staff as a whole, and that goes doubly so for the relief corps. General manager Brian Cashman has said that only three roster spots are set in stone for the bullpen -- Mariano Rivera obviously retains his closing role, while veteran relievers Kyle Farnsworth and LaTroy Hawkins will be leaned upon to soak up the majority of the setup innings.
From there, Spring Training will provide the Yankees with ample open competition. Pitching coach Dave Eiland paints a scenario where just about anyone with a big league uniform and a healthy pitching arm will have a crack at the bullpen.
It may keep the scouts and coaches busy in March, scribbling names on clipboards and wielding radar guns, but it also provides an exceptionally fair shake, no matter the players' contract status or service time.
"Going into this thing with our bullpen, I don't think we're ruling anything out," Eiland said. "There's a few spots that are wide open. When guys start competing, that should bring out the best in guys. Competition is good."
The natural place to begin, then, would be with the roster spots that appear to be ironclad. The closer's role was locked down in December, when Rivera was wooed back to New York with a three-year, $45 million pact, closing a chapter in which the 38-year-old right-hander publicly flirted with the idea of leaving the only club he's known.
Could Rivera, the author of 443 regular-season saves plus a Major League-record 34 more in the postseason, really have pitched in another uniform? Derek Jeter, who knows Rivera about as well as any teammate, insisted it'd never happen, and in the end, he was proven right. Even now, Rivera grins and says, "It wasn't that close."
That settled, the Yankees retain their relief ace, who went 3-4 with a 3.15 ERA and 30 saves in 67 appearances in 2007. Rivera was even sharper after overcoming a shaky opening to his campaign -- in his final 59 appearances of the season, Rivera was 2-2 with a 2.23 ERA and converted 30 of 32 save opportunities after blowing his first two of the season.
"I never saw myself on another team," Rivera said. "It's hard to picture myself in another uniform. We owe the respect for the rest of the team. I've been a member of the Yankees for so many years -- I live here and I have my family here. I don't think I could be on another team."
Behind the tested and true Rivera, things grow a little more uncertain. Farnsworth may have, in Eiland's opinion, some of the best, pure stuff in baseball, but much of it remains unharnessed.
New York Yankees
At times, Farnsworth was just too wild for former manager Joe Torre to stomach, relegating the hard-throwing right-hander to mop-up duty. His struggles (2-1, 4.80 ERA in 64 appearances) forced the Yankees to accelerate Joba Chamberlain's development by converting him from a Minor League starting pitcher into a big league reliever.
Yet Farnsworth has the Yankees' trust. At the Winter Meetings, Cashman revealed that numerous teams had shown interest in the 31-year-old Farnsworth, but given his relatively acceptable salary terms (one year remaining at $5.5 million), the Yankees were more inclined to keep him.
"I think he's here to stay," Cashman said of Farnsworth. "I'm not going to guarantee it, but I'm just telling you I'm getting action on him. I doubt we're going to move him, because we're going to need him."
The most noticeable switch over the offseason came with the acquisition of Hawkins, who signed a one-year, $3.75 million deal after helping the Rockies win the National League championship last season. In a coincidence, his bullpen predecessor, right-hander Luis Vizcaino, departed New York to sign a two-year deal with Colorado.
Though Hawkins, 35, has had his ups and downs over a journeyman Major League career, the Yankees are hopeful that his Coors Field experience will carry over. Hawkins made adjustments while pitching in the thin air of Denver that helped his ground-ball ratio, something the Yankees will look for him to continue while assuming duty in the sixth and seventh innings.
From there, the Yankees' bullpen mix becomes increasingly cloudy. Logic would seem to dictate that the Yankees would want at least one quality left-hander in their bullpen to record tough outs against hitters like Boston's David Ortiz, but one year after muddling through with Sean Henn, Ron Villone and Mike Myers, no immediate improvement appears in sight.
Henn is the only one of that group remaining, and though he's ceded his No. 34 to Phil Hughes in a goodwill gesture, the southpaw will need a little more to bounce back from a disappointing year that saw him bounce between Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and the Majors five times.
The Yankees will also be looking at Japanese import Kei Igawa, who flopped to the tune of a 6.25 ERA over three stints in his debut big league season, as well as rookie Chase Wright and non-roster invitees Billy Traber and Heath Phillips.
Those left-handers will join a cast of right-handers, some similar, some not, but all holding one thing in common -- affordable contracts and opportunities to make the club. It wasn't necessarily part of the Yankees' blueprint to try and fill the remaining holes from within, but market conditions forced the scenario.
For example, the Yankees had some interest in bringing free agent Octavio Dotel back to New York on a one-year contract this offseason, but there was no chance the Yankees would have outbid the White Sox on their two-year, $11 million offer.
Could Jonathan Albaladejo, Brian Bruney or Ross Ohlendorf fill a relief role as effectively -- and far less expensively -- than a player like Dotel would have? The Yankees are ready to find out. Chris Britton, Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras all received tastes of the Yankees' bullpen in '07 and could be primed to return.
Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner also started in New York and served various roles before injuries cut their runs short; Humberto Sanchez missed all of 2007 with Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, but he could be ready for big league duty by midseason.
If there's one certainty forecast for the Yankees' Spring Training, it's this: buy a scorecard if you're truly curious who Girardi and Eiland are considering for those last few precious bullpen spots. Like the old-time hawkers would have said, you really may not be able to tell the competitors without a program.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.