Short-term, there is no downside to Rafael Soriano in pinstripes. The Yankees had plenty of room in their budget, and aside from Andy Pettitte, Soriano was the impact free agent that fit them best. He makes the bullpen incredibly deep, and he provides considerable insurance for a 41-year-old closer whose workload has diminished in recent years.
Soriano makes the Yankees better. I’m not sure he makes them a lot better, but he makes them better, and surely that’s the point of any offseason move.
That said, it’s hard for me to be completely sold on the deal. Soriano is a great pitcher with a proven track record, but in the big picture, it’s hard for me to see this as a total win for the Yankees.
The structure of the deal
First, the obvious: A $35-million deal for a setup man is massive. It was pretty stunning when the Tigers gave Joaquin Benoit $16.5 million earlier this offseason. The Soriano deal blows that one out of the water. But, it’s obviously money the Yankees could afford to spend, so it’s hard to be too stunned at the amount of dollars involved.
Beyond the money, giving Soriano an opt-out clause after each season is bizarre. Just two years ago he was limited to 14 innings because of an elbow injury. He was similarly limited in 2004 and 2005. If he gets hurt again, Soriano can cash in for three years of Yankees paychecks. If he stays healthy and dominates, he can jump ship. I suppose the Yankees had to give him some sort of perks for agreeing to be a setup man, but right now that looks like a no-win contract for the Yankees.
One of the biggest perks to this deal is having Soriano as a replacement should Mariano Rivera get hurt. It’s a nice luxury, but obviously it’s not a best-case scenario. In fact, what is the best-case scenario with this sort of contract? That Soriano pitches well, but not so well that he leaves after one year? Do they want him to opt out so they don’t have to keep paying him this sort of money?
The impact of a setup man
With Soriano, the Yankees have a remarkably deep bullpen. As long as Soriano pitches like he did last year — and the other pieces do their part — it will be a bullpen much like the Yankees had in the final two months of last season, when Kerry Wood came over from Cleveland and became a dominant eighth-inning man.
There can be no doubt Wood made the Yankees better last year. The other relievers seemed to fall into line behind him, and the bullpen was terrific down the stretch. That said, without Wood, the Yankees were 66-37 last year. With Wood, they were 29-30. In other words, there are things much more important than the eighth inning. As Joe Pawlikowski pointed out, the Yankees were 80-7 when they carried a lead into the eighth inning last year. How many of those seven loses would Soriano have turned into wins?
As for the possibility of Soriano becoming the heir to Rivera’s ninth inning: If Soriano does takeover when Rivera’s two-year deal expires, it will happen when Soriano is already 33 years old and in the final year of his own contract. That’s a placeholder, not a replacement.
The need for a reliever right now
The last time the Yankees won the World Series, they won it in a season that opened with Brian Bruney as their primary setup man. By the end of the summer, Phil Hughes had stepped into the role. Two years before that, Joba Chamberlain stepped into the eighth inning. Last year, it was Wood, a cheap addition at the trade deadline.
A bullpen can be a work in progress. Relievers have a tendency to be erratic year-to-year, and a bullpen will need to be reevaluated at some point during a season. Right now the minor league system is overflowing with quality, upper-level arms. Relievers are always attainable at the deadline. I agree that Soriano makes the Yankees bullpen better — let there be no doubt, that’s true — I’m just not it’s a worthwhile addition right now.
With two young relievers already in the mix, the Yankees could have done what they’ve done the past three years and let the bullpen evolve, then reassess. It might be an occasionally frustrating method, but it’s been pretty effective. It’s certainly been more effective than throwing offseason money into the bullpen.
The lost draft pick
This is a fairly minor issue because draft picks — even the first rounders — come with absolutely no guarantee. The 2005 first-round class is considered one of the best we’ve seen, and there are maybe a dozen of those guys who look like true impact big leaguers. The 31st pick in that draft — the spot the Yankees gave up to sign Soriano — was a kid named Matt Torra who’s become a borderline prospect in the Diamondbacks system and has yet to reach the big leagues. Chances are, the Yankees gave up the rights to a player you’ll never hear about.
That said, relief pitchers are also risky, and the impact of a setup reliever is limited. Certainly, a first-round pick is going to have the potential to be more than an eighth-inning guy, which is what Soriano will be as long as everything goes to plan. Giving up a first-rounder might not be a huge issue, but it’s part of the equation. Two other notes about the draft pick:
1. It’s not just a lost first rounder, it’s a lost first rounder going to the Rays, who have done a great job restocking their system for another run at the AL East in the not-so-distant future.
2. Last week, Brian Cashman didn’t only tell me he wouldn’t surrender a pick this winter, he also told the Daily News and the Post. Pure speculation on my part, but I can’t help wondering if this move was pushed by someone else in the organization. Ben Shpigel writes that Cashman simply expected a higher financial cost when he vowed not to lose a draft pick.
Associated Press photo