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Is Rivera Retiring? Who Will Replace Him?

By Mike Silva ~ February 22nd, 2012. Filed under: New York Yankees.

“Doesn’t depend on how I pitch. Always I want to do my job, but I’ve made my decision already,” Mariano Rivera told reporters the other day. He added that his decision has been made, “even if I save 90 games, even if they want to pay as much money as they want to.”

It sounds like we saw the beginning of the “Mariano Rivera farewell tour,” which undoubtedly puts a scare into the loyal fans of the pinstripes.

Do you believe Rivera is retiring at the end of the season?

Personally, I do. It might be Mo’s way of having fun with reporters, but he’s never been so definitive about his “mind being made up” in the past.

The good news is the Yankees are set for the 2012 season. Long-term, however, there needs to be an heir apparent and there is no shortage of choices in the bullpen.

Rafael Soriano is the most obvious since he has a resume of closing games in Tampa Bay and Atlanta. The Yankees are paying him $25 million the next two years to pitch the 7th inning, provided that he doesn’t opt-out. Knowing that his agent is Scott Boras, I could see Soriano exercising the player-friendly opt-out clause gift courtesy of Randy Levine and negotiating another deal; preferably with the Yankees. Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell received 4 and 3 year deals, respectively, in a saturated market. Next season, the market potentially has some top closers (Ryan MadsonFrancisco Cordero, Jose Valverde), but Scott Boras is never afraid to put his clients in the fray. If Soriano has a big year as a set-up man I could see him being the favorites; especially if he accepts the $14 million dollar 2013 option.

There are no shortage of homegrown bullpen arms that could be up to the task as David RobertsonJoba Chamberlain, and Phil Hughes could be in line. Each has a season of dominant bullpen work on their resume. Who would be the best fit? I say Hughes based on his 2009 performance.

For as good as Robertson was last season, his walk-rate of 4.7/per 9 is scary. Without the obscene K/rate (13.7/per 9) those walks become a huge issue. Relievers never sustain such insane strikeout rates, so I continue to be skeptical about how long Robertson can sustain his effectiveness.

Joba Chamberlain? We saw his dominant upside in 2007, and to a lesser extent, last year before his elbow blew out. Chamberlain never has come across as a “pressure player,” and taking over for Rivera might be the most thankless job in all of sports. No one will ever measure up to the “Babe Ruth of closers,” so disappointment is inevitable. The person needs to have a strong stomach for criticism; that, quite simply, doesn’t sound like Chamberlain. Not to mention the fact that he’s hasn’t produced a full bullpen season like Robertson or Hughes in his career. How he came to camp unprepared to compete for the starting rotation in 2010 has never sat well with me. The “just happy and comfortable to be here” mentality of Chamberlain is not the type of persona that breeds success in the ninth inning. It also doesn’t keep you employed in this league for a very long time.

Why Phil Hughes? In 2009 he had a 1.40 ERA, a WHIP under 1.00 and 11.4 K’s/per 9 in 51 bullpen innings. Remember, he was a starter for the first three months, but when he moved to the bullpen he took to it like a fish to water. Unlike Robertson and Chamberlain, Hughes walked only 13 batters in those 51 innings. Low walk and high strikeout totals are the foundation you want out of any reliever, especially a closer.

Before you anoint Hughes, there are some others to consider. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances have yet to prove they can put in the innings to be a starter. Perhaps they throw themselves into the mix. Doubtful, but an option. Another name to keep an eye on is George Kontos, who struck out a batter per inning and posted a 2.62 ERA out of the Scranton bullpen. Kevin Whelan, acquired in the Gary Sheffield deal, saved 23 games in Triple-A last season, but is 28 and has a history of control problems (5 walks/per 9 in MILB career, although he posted his best walk rate (2.4) last season.

In the end, my vote is with Phil Hughes. Perhaps this will play into the Yankees decision about whether to add him to the rotation this spring. Also, a big year as a starter from Hughes and the game changes.

What do you think?

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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