TAMPA, Fla. -- A quick survey of the New York Yankees reveals a disjointed group of old sluggers hoping against hope to recapture the past, and of pitchers trying to get their frayed arms and knees through another day. Joe Girardi might say otherwise, but right now there is no connective tissue to be found in his clubhouse, nothing that links spring optimism with a realistic forecast of a playoff run to come.
On the surface Girardi's first team in the Year 1 A.D. (After Derek) doesn't have a lot of things, including an identity, at least until Dellin Betances walks into the room. Betances is 6-foot-8 going on 7-foot-1, and when he shows up at his Steinbrenner Field office there isn't a soul in this ballpark who doesn't know he's here.
His presence is bigger than his listed height. Put him on a mound, drop a baseball into his right hand, and ask him to unleash the fastball that topped out at 101 mph last summer on the Fenway Park board, and you have an asset more intimidating to opponents than the dimensions of the old Yankee Stadium that Betances often visited as a boy.
On May 17, 1998, he was a 10-year-old kid from Washington Heights and the Lower East Side sitting in the bleachers and watching David Wells pitch his perfect game.
"I remember Paul O'Neill making the last out and everybody going crazy," Betances said Tuesday. "It was a Beanie Baby giveaway day, and toward the later innings some officers were like, 'We'll give you 20 bucks for your Beanie Baby ticket.' They wanted a [souvenir], and that was more money than what we paid to go to the game. I was pretty excited for those 20 bucks."
And pretty happy to be a child of the city who understood why the old ballpark across the street meant so much to the dynastic Yanks of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Joe Torre, and to the fans who adored them.
"It was a hard place to play at," Betances said, "just because everything was on top of you. That made it pretty scary for opposing players."
The only things frightening opposing players about today's Yankees are Betances and his fellow candidate for the closer's role vacated by David Robertson (but really vacated by Rivera, of course), Andrew Miller, who allowed one hit in 7 1/3 postseason innings last fall for Baltimore. At 6-7, Miller is nearly as tall as Betances and nearly as explosive, and his vast advantage in big league experience and stunning crunch-time work for the Orioles suggest he'd be a worthy pick for Girardi.
Just not the best pick.
Based on last year's performance, health and age, Betances, who turns 27 later this month, is likely the Yankees' best player. "His physical tools are off the charts," Brian Cashman said, "and he was spectacular last year. He's got a really high ceiling, which we've been dreaming on for a long time."
With high-end prospects Manny Banuelos and Andrew Brackman, Betances was supposed to represent one-third of a pitching dream team once known as the Killer B's. All three needed elbow surgeries in the minors, and only one rebounded to become the player he was projected to be. The 6-10 Brackman was ultimately let go by the Yankees, Reds and White Sox before Banuelos was traded to Atlanta.
That made Betances the lone Killer B survivor, and he barely made it through. In 2012, his final season as a minor league starter, he walked 99 batters in 131 1/3 Double-A and Triple-A innings and posted a 6.44 ERA. He'd been in the Yankees' organization for seven years and appeared completely lost.
"I was losing hope," Betances said, "but I didn't want to quit. I wanted to keep going. I put a lot of pressure on myself once I got close because I wanted it so bad, but a lot of people were there to help me."
The Yankees mercifully moved him to the bullpen, and a teammate adjusted his breaking-ball grip to give birth to one of his two devastating weapons, the knuckle curve. If it didn't have quite the impact on Betances' career as the discovery of the cutter had on Rivera's, it was close enough.
As Robertson's setup man last year, Betances broke Rivera's franchise record for strikeouts by a reliever, finishing with 135 in 90 innings. The visual of this giant firing downhill at cowering Lilliputians, and cutting in half the 60-feet, 6-inch distance between mound and plate, reminded Cashman of what he saw at a pre-draft tryout in the Bronx in 2006, when the GM decided on the spot that Betances was worth a draft pick and a $1 million bonus to buy him out of his commitment to Vanderbilt.
"He was special last year," Cashman said. "But length and consistency are a big part of people's careers, and he hasn't had length and consistency. He had arguably one of the best reliever seasons you can have, outside of being a closer, in the history of the game. He was Mariano Rivera-like last year. We'll see what happens this year."
Like Girardi, Cashman wouldn't even call Betances the leader in the clubhouse for the closer's job. In fact, the GM said, "I don't think it's just Betances or Miller. We've got a lot of big arms in this camp, and I'm fine with it being anybody."
Betances has one career save to his name, same as Miller, and he doesn't feel it's his place to campaign for the spot. He said he just wants to help the Yankees win championships, nothing more, and it makes sense, too, since he's following Rivera's dignified lead. Old Man Mo is working this camp as a guest instructor, and the former Bleacher Creature who worshipped him and Jeter and Bernie and Paulie has studied his every move.
"I'm more of an observer, and I don't ask many questions," Betances said. "But I've always watched the way Mariano goes about his daily routine. You feel his presence when he's here, and one of the things he always preaches to the younger guys is that you have to believe in yourself to perform at your best.
"There's only one Mariano, and nobody's going to be like him. I just want to be the greatest pitcher that I can be."
The son of a limo driver and former amateur boxer from the Dominican Republic, Betances just doesn't provide Girardi with a fearsome figure in the back of the pen; he gives the Yanks a connection to the city at a time they desperately need one.
Even with Alex Rodriguez back on the field, longtime observers have struggled to recall a Yankees team that appears less interesting than this one. Spring training crowds have been painfully small here, and there is no Jeter or Rivera farewell tour to package and sell up north.
Betances, a graduate of Grand Street Campus High in Brooklyn, has roots in nearly every borough of the city. He had a tooth knocked out while playing high school basketball, and he was on the Grand Street Campus team that surrendered 49 points to Sebastian Telfair the day Telfair broke Kenny Anderson's all-time New York scoring record. The Yankees lucked out when young Betances decided he was better off on the mound than in the low post.
Now he has the tools and the chance to join the small circle of significant Yankees players who grew up in the city, including Lou Gehrig, Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford, Waite Hoyt and Willie Randolph.
"That was my dream when I was in the bleachers," Betances said. "As a kid you always dream big."
Right out of the cheap seats, the kind of scarred survivor New York loves, Dellin Betances figures to be a dominant closer for his hometown team. If his stuff doesn't quite match up with Rivera's, his story is every bit as good.