A lot has been said over the past few weeks about the Yankees signing of Rafael Soriano - the sensibility in giving an "8th inning guy" to a three year, $35M contract; Soriano's ability to transition from "closer" to "set-up guy"; Yankee GM Brian Cashman's public disagreement with the move, stating that they would have preferred the draft pick. One fairly important matter has been lost in all the noise. Rafael Soriano is a very good pitcher, and there is no reason to believe that he won't continue to be a very good pitcher in the near future.
Much attention has been placed about Soriano's ability to "save" games at a better rate than any other pitcher in the American League in 2010. During the season, a lot is made of having a guy who pitches only in the 9th inning, and only when his team is winning. 2-2 game, on the road, bottom of the 9th, middle of the lineup due up? Let's get our fourth best reliever in there - we don't want to waste our best pitcher, just in case our fourth best relieve holds the tie and we score next inning. For whatever reason, that is the logic that has permeated the minds of essentially every MLB organization for 23 years. There are exceptions - Jim Leyland's Pirates teams of the early 90's were the last team that had sustained success without the help of the trademarked proven closer. In 2003, the Red Sox attempted to go into the season with a "bullpen by committee" which failed miserably. In the Red Sox case though, too much attention was paid to their usage of pitchers, and not enough attention to the fact that those pitchers were not very good (with a definite exception of Mike Timlin, a good pitcher who had one of his best years).
For all the attention paid to the save statistic and the need for a proven closer, when they become free agents in the offseason, teams are just not interested in paying top dollar for what amounts to 60 innings a year. Coming off his record setting year in 2008, Francisco Rodriguez received 3 years, $37M. For comparison's sake, in the same offseason, AJ Burnett, a zero-time all star starting pitcher who is five years older than K-Rod, was given a five year, $82.5M contract. Sure, signing Burnett for that much money was really stupid, but it showed where priorities were for GMs.
In 2010, Rafael Soriano led the American League with 45 saves, and was to become a free agent. Based on his save total, many assumed that he would be flooded with offers from teams looking for bullpen help. Instead, he was unsigned into mid-January. The Yankees, whose bullpen beyond Mariano Rivera had been pretty bad in 2010, were considered by some to be a smart fit, especially when taking into account the money that they tried to and failed to spend on Cliff Lee. Brian Cashman, however, said that he wasn't interested in signing Soriano, because of the necessary money, and more importantly, the draft pick they would lose because Soriano is listed as a Type A free agent and had been offered arbitration. In the end though, Soriano did end up on the Yankees. The details are fuzzy, but as best as people can tell, Randy Levine overruled and went straight to the Steinbrenner Brothers, and Brian Cashman was peeved about the whole thing.
In the wake of the signing, some were quick to point of the dissention in the ranks of the Yankee organization. Others were mocking of spending $37M on a set-up man, and defended Cashman. However, I think those who question the deal are focused too much on the role of set-up man (and by extension, the ridiculous way in which modern bullpens are run), and not enough on the fact that Soriano is excellent. There is one proviso, that being Soriano's injury history. He missed significant time in 2004, 2005 and 2008. As a 31 year old, it's not impossible to see these injury issues cropping back up. That said, Soriano's numbers are outstanding. Since the start of 2005, when he was still with the Mariners, Soriano has pitched 291 innings. His ERA is 2.53, (an ERA+ of 167), with 319 strikeouts to only 87 walks. Over the last two years, he's been even better, posting a 2.41 ERA in 138 innings, striking out 159 and walking only 41. That's not Mariano Rivera's level, but the quality speaks for itself.
Cashman's reluctance to part with his draft pick in this situation reminds me of joke my friends and I have. Every year a round NFL draft time reports come out about teams who are refusing to part with draft picks for proven players, who are likely much better than the ones they'd be able to draft. Certainly, some of that comes from a payroll perspective - the proven players is going to get paid based on past performance, while the rookie will be a low cost measure. However, more than that, it is the new toy mentality. Sure, I'd like Randy Moss, but that fourth round draft pick could turn into ANYONE! Well, that #31 pick in the draft that the Yankees essentially traded for Soriano could turn into "anyone." But instead of anyone, lets look at #31 overall picks from 2000 to 2009.
2000: Aaron Heilman, P - New York Mets.
2001: Brian Bass, SS - Baltimore Orioles
2002: Greg Miller, P - Los Angeles Dodgers
2003: Adam Miller, P - Cleveland Indians
2004: James Howell, P - Kansas City Royals
2005: Matthew Torra, P - Arizona Diamondbacks
2006: Preston Mattingly, SS - Los Angeles Dodgers
2007: Josh Smoker, P - Washington Nationals
2008: Shooter Hunt, P - Minnesota Twins
2009: Tyler Matzek, P - Colorado Rockies
Yes, the Rays are better than most teams at making their draft picks turn into major leaguers, but the point still stands - the likelihood that the Yankees were going to get someone of Rafael Soriano quality at #31 this June is kind of silly.
Now that we're beyond the draft pick thing, the main criticism is that Soriano will now be an overpaid "8th inning guy." Critics say there's no way he'll "earn" $37 million over the next three years just by setting up by Mariano Rivera, no matter how well he pitches. Well, if that's true, isn't that more of an indictment on the way bullpens are used, and by extension, a criticism of Joe Girardi for his by-the-book sub-optimal system? If the Yankees can't get value out of one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, then shouldn't they be re-evaluating how they use their bullpen? Wouldn't the Yankees be devestating if Soriano were used earlier in one-run or tie games, or to come in between innings, leaving Rivera to do the standard one-inning closer role? Wouldn't it make sense to use Soriano on days after Rivera pitches, so that neither have to frequently pitch on consecutive days, and since they are pitching less frequently, are able to pitch for multiple innings more often? Wouldn't that even lead to them getting some silly combined nickname thing come the end of the season to describe their dominance, like Rafariano Riveriano? What should be feared as the most lethal bullpen duo in baseball is instead scorned, because onlookers believe Soriano isn't likely to get the opportunities to help his team win games.
So, what will Joe Girardi do? It's tough to say. But as a Red Sox fan, I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that he proves the critics and Cashman right, and uses his bullpen in the most predictable, standard, sub-optimal way possible.