CC Sabathia. A.J. Burnett. Derek Lowe. CC Sabathia. Oh, sorry. Are there other parts of the game besides starting pitching?
Not if the media covering the Yankees' hot-stove maneuvers are to be believed. The Yankees' offense fell off a cliff last season, yet the team is portrayed by the media as only interested in the most expensive of arms.
But people haven't talked about a need for retooling in the bullpen. The Yankees didn't have any shortage of capable arms last season. No one except Mariano Rivera perfect, but most people in the 'pen outside of LaTroy Hawkins had extended stretches of quality pitching. None of them appears to have been particularly lucky either.
All pitchers, but especially relievers, need to be able to strike people out to be effective. Judging starters by their ERA isn't the best method, but at least they have enough innings to give a reasonable sample size. But relief pitchers can have low or high ERA that are flukes. And don't even ask about saves.
Relievers who strike out more than a batter per inning are generally doing their jobs well. Jose Veras struck out 63 in 57 innings. Edwar Ramirez K'd the same number in 55. While they were with the team, Kyle Farnsworth struck out 43 in 44 and Damaso Marte struck out 24 in 18 innings. On the other side, Hawkins struck out 23 in 41 innings. No wonder he stunk.
Getting K's is important for several reasons. For one, it eliminates the reliance on the team's defense. Considering how the Yankees have played in the field, that's a good thing. For another, strikeouts come in handy when inheriting runners on base. As much as Bronx Cheer belittles "productive outs," pitchers who keep the ball out of play have value in the late innings.
Joe Girardi helped make the Yankees' bullpen the team's secret weapon. He didn't have a true stud setup man a la Scot Shields of the mid-2000s or Rafael Betancourt of 2007. But he did have more than his share of guys who are more than filler. By not relying on one or two arms exclusively -- ahem, Joe Torre -- Girardi discovered he had multiple trustworthy options warming up behind Monument Park. Yes, Ramirez had his rough stretches in which he gave up home run after home run, but Girardi didn't bury him. He used him in some lower-leverage situations until he felt ready again to bring him in a big spot. He had a similar approach with Veras. He even stopped using Farnsworth, a personal favorite, during his struggles in April and May.
Of course, how smart a manager looks depends on how good his relievers are. Girardi is too aggressive for Bronx Cheer's taste when it comes to applying the hit-and-run and starting runners on full counts. But his pitching decisions look intelligent because he had a deep bullpen that could get outs when he called on his relievers. Given the number of innings the Yankees
didn't get got out of their starters, Girardi needed to be creative when coaxing relief innings.
Want more good news about the bullpen? The Yankees have plenty of potential that wasn't tapped in 2008. Humberto Sanchez brought over in the Gary Sheffield deal, has been plagued by injuries but has big-league stuff. Brian Bruney walks too many hitters. But if he harnesses his control and can turn in a full season -- he missed a good portion of 2008 with a foot injury -- he could be a nice middle reliever. Jonathan Albaladejo, whom the Yankees
fleeced acquired from the Nationals in exchange for Tyler Clippard, will be coming off a shoulder injury but has a promising arm. And don't forget Chris Britton, who has never gotten a true shot despite his more-than-capable performance at Triple-A and in brief Major League stints during the past two seasons.
The best way to build a bullpen is to throw plenty of strong arms at the wall and see who sticks. Ramirez and Veras could slide back in 2009, but maybe Bruney or Albaladejo will step up. The media may be wrong for ignoring the Yanks' offensive dropoff. But they are right in not paying much heed to the 2009 bullpen.