The Hot Stove season will be heating up soon–although, one could argue that after the disappointing ALCS sweep, that has already begun for the Yankees. Much of the conversation has swirled thus far around Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson after their abysmal postseason performances. Other conversation has talked about Russell Martin, and whether or not he should be offered a free-agent contract after his down year in 2012. However, one under-the-radar move would be the potential for a Rafael Soriano opt-out.
When Soriano signed his multi-year deal with the Yankees prior to the 2011 season, many people wondered why the American League saves leader would be brought on to set-up for the best closer in history, Mariano Rivera. Not only did it seem like a superfluous move by the Yankees, but it came an staggering cost at $12 million/per year for a set-up man, which then became $12 million/per year for a 7th inning guy after Soriano struggled in his new role, and, after failing to gain Joe Girardi’s confidence, lost his set-up spot to David Robertson. However, for all the consternation about the move, it became a blessing in disguise during the 2012 season when Rivera blew out his ACL shagging fly balls before a game in Kansas City, especially in light of Robertson’s occasional struggles coming off an oblique injury early in the season.
Soriano had an outstanding year as the closer. He had a sparkling 2.26 ERA in 69 games, recording 42 saves in the process. In over 67 IP, he allowed just 17 runs and 55 hits, finishing with a 2-1 record. For good measure, he also tacked on over a strikeout per inning, with 69 Ks on the year. Further, Soriano only blew four saves the entire season. His WHIP was 1.167, and he issued only 24 walks, four of which were intentional, throughout the entire season. On the surface, Soriano had a great year. This is further supported by looking at the advanced stats, as well. Soriano had a 2.6 WAR, a very respectable figure considering his workload. Further, regarding his gmLI (game-entering leverage index), chronicling the highest-leverage situations, registered a 1.6. (Note: An average pressure situation is 1.0; above 1.0 is high pressure, while below 1.0 is lower pressure.) In other words, Soriano achieved his success over the season in some of the highest-leverage situations possible. Soriano’s Runs Above Replacement (RAR) rating was 23, meaning that he was saved 18 more runs as opposed to a replacement player at his position. When factoring in the slim margin for error, the division in which the Yankees played, and how they struggled to win the American League East until the last day of the regular season, such that every single win counted, this is significant. It can safely be said that by any standard, Soriano had a terrific year during his first season closing in the Bronx.
But, will his first season closing in the Bronx also be his last? The second year of Soriano’s deal just expired. After each year, the contract includes a player-controlled opt-out clause. Given his 2011 struggles, it was almost a given that he would return to the Yankees for 2012. However, Soriano is entering the final year of his deal with the team in 2013. While it is a hefty pay check, Soriano is not getting any younger, either. He will be 33 in December, meaning that if he stays in New York, he will be 34 when his contract expires. Not too many teams will look to lock up a 34 year-old closer to a multi-year deal for the kind of money he’s getting. That said, given the spectacular season he just had, and at only 33, perhaps if he opts out and there will be a team willing to take him on for a multi-year deal. It’s possible that he could take a pay cut per-year (though he is a Boras client, so I wouldn’t bet on it), but make more in the long run by securing additional years that are not included in his current contract with the Yankees. As we have seen before, and will no doubt see again, some team will surely overpay an aging baseball player for his past performance. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Soriano opted-out of his current deal to re-sign elsewhere, riding this wave of his 2012 success.
The other option (which I wouldn’t do, but it still remains an option), is that if Soriano does opt-out, that the Yankees could negotiate and extension. It bears repeating that the Yankees are on a mission to get to $189 million in payroll in order to avoid the payroll tax, so it is unlikely that they would offer another $12 million/per year given the money owed to A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and potentially a new deal with Robinson Cano that is likely to be lengthy and costly. However, it may be worth the investment to extend the current deal, for both parties. If Soriano likes New York, he can stay and continue to make an absurd amount of money that he might not make elsewhere–bad teams don’t need an expensive closer (take a look at the Marlins just dumping Heath Bell), and a great number of teams are already committed to a closer, while others, like the Tampa Bay Rays, continue to show that big money doesn’t need to be invested in a closer and can get the same results from a lightning-in-a-bottle season like their Fernando Rodney reclamation. From the Yankees vantage point, it might be a good insurance policy in case Rivera’s surgically repaired knee does not respond, and he cannot come back and be the same player than he was prior to the injury (although, really, even a “bad” Mo is still probably better than half the closers in the league). It also would continue to make the bullpen an unequivocal strength heading into the 2013 season, and would give Robertson more time to develop greater consistency that he lacked in the 2012 campaign.
All in all, it wouldn’t surprise me if Soriano opts-out, and why not? He should cash in on his success, and if he waited, it might be that he is unlikely to get as much money or years if he waited any longer. That said, I wouldn’t exactly complain if the Yankees worked out a deal–although, given their financial constraints (did I really just say that?), it wouldn’t surprise me if they held firm and didn’t re-up the set-up-man/closer for the next few seasons either. Time will tell as to whether or not Rafael Soriano will return to the Bronx in 2013, but it promises to be another interesting layer of what is sure to be a complicated offseason for the Yankees.