Mailbag: Who will be in the bullpen?
Beat reporter Bryan Hoch answers Yankees fans' questions
Another week has gone by in Spring Training, and it's right about the point where hitters feel ready for Opening Day and get that regular-season itch.
But there are still battles to be won in camp, even as players fine-tune their mechanics and think about lining up at Yankee Stadium on March 31. No one wants to get that call to be sent across the street to Minor League camp.
Not surprisingly, the final few roster spots are fresh in many of your minds. Let's break down some questions:
If the Yankees carry 12 pitchers at the start of the season, as seems likely, that means there will be seven relievers. Who are the most likely ones?
-- Bob W., Rockville Center, N.Y.
A few of us were just trying to pencil this one out. Let's start by knocking out the concrete ones -- Mariano Rivera, LaTroy Hawkins and Kyle Farnsworth are in the bullpen, done deal. Toss in Joba Chamberlain, who looks like he'll start the year in relief, and we're down to three open slots.
The rest is a guessing game. Manager Joe Girardi has said that he wants to carry a left-hander, and even though Billy Traber hasn't locked down the job, the fact that the Yankees added him to the 40-man roster last week speaks volumes about their thought process. That's bad news for guys like Sean Henn (who is out of Minor League options) and Heath Phillips. I'll get to Kei Igawa later.
We can bang out a quick one by figuring that Jeff Karstens outpitches Darrell Rasner for the long-reliever job. Girardi wants a guy who can serve as a spot starter or soak up innings in a blowout, and one with big league experience. Once again, Karstens is having a strong spring -- he drew the start against Virginia Tech -- while Rasner has struggled.
One spot left now, and this is really anyone's guess, a mixed bag of right-handed relievers. I happen to believe it's down to Brian Bruney, Ross Ohlendorf and Jose Veras, but there are still two weeks left to change the minds that matter. You look at Jonathan Albaladejo, Chris Britton, Scott Patterson and Edwar Ramirez and wonder how this decision is going to get made. All I can predict is that there'll be plenty of arms at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre vying to be next on the callup list.
Chamberlain is obviously a power threat for one or two innings, yet he tends to fizzle after that. He also tends to lose his head with less-than-stellar pitching conditions. Do you think he will turn into a first-rate starting pitcher with maturity?
-- Rona S., Harvey Cedars, N.J.
The potential is definitely there, but none of us have seen Chamberlain as a starting pitcher in the big leagues. It seems more likely that the Yankees will open the regular season with Chamberlain in relief, since there's no way he can pitch six months in the rotation and not surpass his innings limit.
The organization still sees him as its answer to a Josh Beckett-type ace as early as 2009. For now, the club is satisfied to let Chamberlain feel his way through. I would caution that it seems unfair to pigeonhole Chamberlain's future mound presence just because of one game with the Lake Erie midges.
Igawa has not had a good spring. What are the Yankees' plans for him, and if he consistently does not meet expectations, what then?
-- Naji F., New York, N.Y.
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Figure this one out. Beyond Alex Rodriguez (signed through 2018), who is the Yankee with the longest contract? You got it, Igawa, signed through 2011. In any event, the Yankees still want to see some production from Igawa, and that's why they've made certain accommodations to him this spring.
He's in the mix for a rotation spot, but that looks unlikely. Chances are that he'll open the year at Triple-A and be an option if a starting pitcher is needed. It'd be difficult to make a case for Igawa out of the bullpen over a guy like Traber when it's evident that Igawa isn't ready for prime time yet.
Ohlendorf was pretty hyped when the Yanks acquired him. He also performed pretty well in the playoffs last year as a reliever. What are his chances?
-- Alex H., Oceanside, N.Y.
There's no doubt the Yankees think highly of Ohlendorf. At his best, they compare him to having a Chien-Ming Wang-type sinkerball coming out of the bullpen. He's still working on refining his pitches, but Ohlendorf's velocity seems to be higher as a reliever. If Ohlendorf doesn't break camp in New York, he'll get there sooner or later.
Even with Morgan Ensberg's great spring so far, will he be signed, even with all the competition at first, including Shelley Duncan and Jason Giambi?
-- Ian H., Bronx, N.Y.
Good question. Ensberg doesn't seem likely to accept a Triple-A assignment, so it's basically New York or elsewhere for him. If Giambi is your everyday first baseman, is it worth $1 million-plus to keep Ensberg as a spare corner infielder? It could be.
General manager Brian Cashman tried to get Wilson Betemit for that role in two consecutive years and finally landed him last July; plus, Betemit can play the middle infield. Ensberg gives you less flexibility, but he's a professional hitter and not far removed from a 36-homer season. He's done nothing wrong this spring, but his presence would give the Yankees four legitimate first-base options.
Derek Jeter always referred to Joe Torre as "Mr. Torre." What does he call Girardi?
-- Anne Marie L., Brookfield, Conn.
Pretty simple. Jeter calls Girardi "Joe," just as he did when they were teammates.
Do you think Ramirez will be able to pitch well this season, and has Rivera been coaching him?
-- Mike S., Staten Island, N.Y.
At times last year, it seemed Ramirez was almost a one-trick pony, and hitters sat on that changeup. He'll need more to get by in the big leagues, and he knows it. Rivera mentors most, if not all, of the Yankees' young Latin players, but Ramirez has also had help outside the organization. Pedro Martinez took him aside in the Dominican Republic and tried to teach him his cutter. So far, Ramirez says it has helped.
How is Brett Gardner looking for making the team as the extra outfielder? He has impressed me during the spring. He seems to have all the tools.
-- Steve C., Schenectady, N.Y.
You're not alone. Girardi has repeatedly called him "intriguing" because he can serve as a pest and distract pitchers. He's also one of the Yankees' best speed prospects and can play a good center field -- possibly important since it looks like Melky Cabrera is going to have to serve that three-game suspension to open the regular season.
Gardner would be a great fit off the bench if the club decides to go that route, but the Yankees also don't want to stunt his development just as he's beginning to hit the ball with more authority. If they decide they need a pinch-running outfielder who can steal a base, Gardner's that guy.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.