The volatility of relief

Updated: June 10, 2011, 11:10 AM ET
By Buster Olney

Mariano Rivera plays baseball but doesn't watch it much, and he hasn't seen Jonny Venters pitch yet. When Venters' name came up in conversation with Rivera the other day, Rivera had a lot of questions -- about Venters' style (understated), about his stuff (a wipeout two-seam fastball that dives), about his attitude (Venters doesn't care whether he starts or closes).

Venters might be the most overpowering reliever in the game today -- as in, June 2011 -- and as the chat about the Atlanta Braves left-hander ended, the greatest reliever baseball has ever known smiled a bit and said, "We'll check back in four or five years and see where he is."

It was a telling remark, because Rivera knows, better than anybody, how relievers can flame out, from injury or overuse or confidence abandonment.

Within 24 hours of Rivera's remark, the Yankees learned that Joba Chamberlain -- the working definition of a comet reliever, given his first-year success -- will almost certainly require Tommy John surgery. At the end of last year, Joakim Soria was the most dominant reliever in the American League and now, just months later, he is working to pick up the pieces of his early season, having lost the closer's job in Kansas City; he had a shaky inning but got the save on Thursday. Brad Lidge has journeyed from dominant setup man to overpowering closer to demoted to World Series hero to (when he comes off the disabled list) a middle reliever.

So you can understand why Yankees general manager Brian Cashman isn't going to dive into the trade market ready to deal fistfuls of prospects for a Grant Balfour or some other veteran. He isn't going to redirect Phil Hughes into a bullpen role when he knows he might eventually need the right-hander as a starter, now that he's making progress; Hughes threw 90-92 mph in his work on Thursday. The GM was emphatic in a phone conversation Thursday night that he won't try to rush any of his prized prospects, like Manny Banuelos, into a bullpen role.