TAMPA, Fla. -- In barely more than a year, the New York Yankees have gone from having the greatest closer of all time, to having no closer at all.
That's the way manager Joe Girardi made it sound the past couple of days when he addressed the issue before the games in Port St. Lucie on Sunday and Viera on Monday. Speaking to reporters before Monday's 7-6 loss to the Washington Nationals, Girardi dropped a hint that he will go with two closers, most likely Dellin Betances on some nights and Andrew Miller on others -- rather than hand the job to either of them on a full-time basis.
"In years past we had a pretty defined closer so there was never a question,'' Girardi said. "In looking at the candidates that we have, neither one of them have really closed. And we could still name a closer but it’s not on the top of my priority list.''
True enough, both Girardi and his predecessor, Joe Torre, had the decision taken out of their hands for nearly two decades because of Mariano Rivera. But last year, Girardi did hand the job over to a relief pitcher, David Robertson, who like Betances and Miller had never actually been an official closer before. Robertson proved up to the task, but left in free agency this winter.
And yet, even though Betances was one of the most effective relief pitchers in the league last year, and by far the most effective on the Yankees, Girardi seems unable to commit to him as his full-time closer. Instead, he seems to be leaning toward deciding who will close his games on a nightly basis, determined by the personnel on the opposing team. Girardi spoke on Monday of going over opposing hitters before each game and assigning certain ones to certain pitchers. Obviously, with Betances a righty and Miller a lefty, late-inning matchups would go a long way to determining who would be on the mound for the final out.
(There is one experienced closer on the Yankees roster, Andrew Bailey, who was an outstanding closer for the Oakland Athletics for three seasons but is no lock to make the team out of camp after serious shoulder surgery two years ago).
"To me, the important thing is they understand if we don’t name a closer, in the later innings which guys are theirs,'' Girardi said. "In your mind you can start preparing in the sixth, sort of like a closer would, these are the guys I'm going to face. I think the most important thing is communication, and they understand you’re role isn't clearly defined as you’re the eighth inning guy and you’re the ninth inning guy, but your role is clearly defined when you’re going to pitch.''
Both Betances and Miller seemed unaffected by Girardi's plan.
"I don't really care,'' said Betances, who has struggled a bit this spring with a 4.50 ERA in four appearances. “I think it’s helpful to know what role you have. Not necessarily closer, but if you know you’re one of the late-inning guys, you kind of prepare yourself toward the end. Even when I was the eighth-inning guy, sometimes I came in in the sixth inning. You just have to prepare whenever your name is called and try to be ready.”
Miller, who improved significantly after being switched from starter to reliever by the Boston Red Sox after the 2011 season, pointed out that as a reliever, he has never had a defined role anyway.
"I never got called into [Boston manager] John Farrell's office and told I was the seventh-inning lefty specialist or I was the setup guy or anything,'' he said. "I think neither of us has been in a situation where we've been an anointed closer before, so it's not like we can say that's a comfort zone for us. When the phone rings, we'll pitch, and until otherwise I have no problem with it.''
Miller has pitched well this spring, allowing just one run and three hits in five appearances for a 1.80 ERA. he has also struck out 7 in five innings, a quality the Yankees, like every other team, covets in a closer. But Miller voiced a sentiment that may be gaining popularity among the Yankees now that it has come time to find someone to replace the irreplaceable Rivera.
"I think we've come to establish that closing, that three outs in the ninth inning doesn't have to be that specific as it has been historically the last couple of decades,'' he said. "For me, it doesn't matter. When they ask me to pitch, I'll be ready."