For pretty much the first time ever, people are doubting Mariano Rivera. People inside the Yankees organization, even.
They don't question his ability to save Yankees wins, mind you. They just don't believe baseball's all-time best closer when he hints strongly about retiring upon the conclusion of this 2012 campaign.
"You never know," David Robertson said Tuesday of his teammate. "He could Brett Favre us. That's all I'm saying."
Said Rafael Soriano: "He's gonna come back and pitch for two more years."
These two pitchers, the most obvious candidates to succeed Rivera if he carries out his hints, claim they'll just focus on their current jobs and not sweat the long-term future. And if you're wondering how Brian Cashman and his baseball operations group should proceed, I'd offer them the same advice:
Don't worry about the specifics of who will close in 2013 and beyond. Keep doing what you're doing, which involves collecting as many quality arms as possible.
"I just know that most of the guys that wind up in the 'pen and have success are failed starters," Cashman said, smiling, after a Yankees workout at Steinbrenner Field.
You don't plan for a closer's succession the way you would for, say, a catcher like Jorge Posada or a shortstop like Derek Jeter. Your Triple-A closer is not your future closer. Maybe your major-league setup man is -- that's how Rivera prepared to replace John Wetteland, who signed with Texas as a free agent in December 1996 -- but not necessarily.
As Cashman pointed out, in the prior five seasons, we've seen four names floated -- Robertson, Soriano, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes -- as the potential Man After Mo. I'd add ex-Yankee Mark Melancon, who could set up for Boston's Andrew Bailey this season, to that list.
"It's a merry-go-round," Cashman said. "Who's to say who it's going to be? And who's to say [Rivera] is stepping down?"
A closer for Atlanta in 2009 and Tampa Bay in 2010, Soriano received a three-year, $35-million contract from Yankees ownership in January 2011 with the idea that he could step in upon a retirement in 2013. Yet his first Yankees voyage went so rocky that he wound up as the team's seventh-inning man, setting up for Robertson's eighth frame.
Robertson, however, admitted to being a little overwhelmed last Sept. 3 when he pitched two innings for his first save of the season (and third of his career).
"I think your focus has to be a little heightened" when closing, Robertson said. "You have to be able to know that you can't make a mistake. One-run game, runner on first, you've got the four hole up, you make a mistake and the game's over. It's just a matter of focusing and really keying in on the pitches."
A young arm such as Dellin Betances could wind up better suited as a closer, or a long shot such as the hard-throwing, wild Diego Moreno (acquired from Pittsburgh for A.J. Burnett) could shock the world and emerge. And if all internal options fail, experienced big-league closers such as Ryan Madson, J.J. Putz, Francisco Rodriguez and Huston Street could be available on the free-agent market.
The actual job of closing is hard, but many, many pitchers have pulled it off for at least a short while. What will make this particularly challenging is the pressure of following Rivera.
"The biggest thing about the guy coming in is you have to be yourself and you can't try to be Mo," Joe Girardi said. "And you can't try to replace Mo, and you have to be yourself."
"Those are big shoes," Robertson said. "Those are shoes that I don't think anybody is really going to able to fill. You've just got to hope that you can step in there and hold your ground."
I don't think Rivera is bluffing. This is no drill. The good news for Yankees fans is the team appears as ready as one can be for such a dramatic transition.