Passing Judgment – Closing Ain’t Easy

Last week’s season-ending injury to Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera put a lot of things in perspective for baseball fans and fantasy baseball players.  Getting saves and closing games is a complete crapshoot, and NO ONE except for Rivera could ever be relied upon to succeed.  Sure Rivera has had a few hiccups in his career, including some in the biggest possible spots during the season (see Game 7 of the 2001 World Series or the infamous collapse during the 2004 American League Championship Series).  But overall, Rivera’s body of work has been impeccable and will likely never be replicated.  His dominance over such a long period of time is unmatched by anyone in baseball history and you could easily make the argument that he has been the most valuable pitcher during this era of the game.  Without Rivera, the Yankees would not have won five World Series since 1996. 

The Yankees always knew there would come a time when Rivera would retire.  They would have to find someone who could fill those Hall of Fame shoes and step out of Mariano’s shadow, which is a daunting task all in itself.  In 2007, there was a lot of buzz that Joba Chamberlain would be that person who could succeed Mariano when he retired.  Chamberlain was called up during the second half of 2007 and dominated batters as Mariano’s primary set-up man.  He blew people away with his fastball and he also had a devastating slider as part of his repertoire.  But then those infamous bugs got to him in Cleveland and he really has never been the same since.  The Yankees toyed with him in the starting rotation, limiting his innings, only to move him back to the bullpen.  But Tommy John surgery and a dislocated ankle have derailed Chamberlain since last spring. 

Before the 2011 season, the Yankees shelled out $35,000,000 to bring in former Tampa Bay closer Rafael Soriano to be Rivera’s primary ser-up option and potential heir apparent.   Soriano was a complete disaster in 2011 between injuries and ineffectiveness.  Instead, David Robertson emerged as a dominant reliever with overpowering stuff and a Houdini-like ability to get in and out of trouble.  He, instead of Soriano, eventually established himself as the eighth inning man and the heir apparent to Rivera. 

When Rivera got hurt in Kansas City, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was asked the obvious question of who would be the new closer for the team.  He was non-commital at the time, intimating that both Robertson and Soriano would be used.  But the general consensus was that Robertson was the next in line and was also deserving of the chance given his dominant numbers to date.  He picked up his first save on May 8 against Tampa Bay and looked ready to run with this new role.  However, on May 9, he came in again to protect a 1-0 lead and firmly establish himself as the new closer.  Instead, he got bombed for four runs and was taken out of the game in the middle of the inning.  It remains to be seen what Girardi will do in terms of possibly giving Soriano a chance.

Outside of the Bronx, there is a league-wide epidemic of 9th inning failures.  Several other closers have been sidelined with injuries such as Brian Wilson, Huston Street, Sergio Santos, Andrew Bailey, Drew Storen, Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson, Jim Johnson, Kyle Farnsworth, and Joey Devine.  Others such as Heath Bell, Jordan Walden, Javy Guerra, and Carlos Marmol have been removed as their team’s closer because of ineffectiveness.  Whether any of these demotions are permanent or not is unknown.  But what is known is that closers are volatile and one can never assume or expect anything from anyone.  The only exception there ever was, or likely ever will be, is Mariano Rivera.  He had the uncanny ability to use one pitch to dominate the end of a game and protect a victory.  He also had the requisite mental strength to be responsible for the team’s fate in most instances.  That is a testament to his strength, conditioning, endurance, consistency, heart, passion and talent.  There will never be another Mariano Rivera again – just ask the Yankees and every other baseball team in the league.

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