The Logic of Rafael Soriano’s Opt Out

Now that Rafael Soriano is still out on the market with seemingly no viable landing spot to be a closer and get the long-term contract he and agent Scott Boras want, it’s easy to criticize the decision to opt out of the last guaranteed year he had with the Yankees and that he rejected the qualifying offer the Yankees extended to receive draft pick compensation when Soriano signs elsewhere.

It’s a “Why would you do that?/You had no choice,” situation that may end up backfiring, but will still be understandable.

Had Soriano not opted out of the last year of the contract, he was to be paid $14 million in 2013. Since he opted out and had a $1.5 million buyout of the contract, that plus the set-in-stone qualifying offer of $13.3 million would have netted $14.8 million in 2013.

Given Soriano’s history with Boras, however, why would he believe the media and fan reaction of implied craziness for opting out of a nearly $15 million payday over the agent who got him the $35 million deal from the Yankees in a nearly identical situation after the 2010 season when it didn’t appear that he had an offer that lucrative forthcoming?

When Soriano first entered free agency after the 2010 season, he had a bad reputation from his year with the Rays because of complaining about pitching in non-save situations and for disliking when manager Joe Maddon asked him to pitch more than one inning. But he’d had a great year with a 1.73 ERA, 45 saves and 36 hits allowed in 62 innings with 57 strikeouts. This was prior to the qualifying offer rule in the CBA, but there was still draft pick compensation for top tier free agents. No team wanted to give up the draft pick compensation to sign Soriano. That was until the Yankees, shut out of the free agent market when Cliff Lee chose the Phillies over them and facing the prospect of an empty winter shopping cart, saw Hank and Hal Steinbrenner and Randy Levine overrule GM Brian Cashman and sign Soriano. They surrendered the draft pick and made public the unsaid but known truth that the GM didn’t have final say in baseball matters. Cashman was borderline insubordinate with his open opposition to the contract.

Soriano was uncomfortable in the Yankees insular and stuffy clubhouse, didn’t do a good job as the set-up man and found himself demoted to the seventh inning rather than the eighth, with David Robertson—and his salary $9.5 million less than that of Soriano—taking over and making the All-Star team.

Soriano simply didn’t fit and this continued into 2012…until Mariano Rivera tore his ACL. Robertson proved unable to close and got injured himself, and they were left with Soriano.

They were rewarded with a different pitcher with a different attitude and wholly changed body language. Back in his comfort zone as the closer with the accompanying adrenaline rush of the ninth inning and the opportunity to accumulate the status symbol save stat, Soriano was indeed a savior for the Yankees and was, more than is presently acknowledged, a key component to the club winning the AL East again. As a bonus, the brilliant season forced Boras to look at this situation and the 2013 situation and advise his client to opt out of his deal.

The Yankees would have paid Soriano the $14.8 million without complaint in 2013 with the pitcher returning to his role as set-up man for Rivera, relatively safe in the knowledge that they had a suitable backup if Rivera’s unable to make it back from his torn ACL and that Soriano was not signed long-term and not sabotaging their attempts to get under the $189 million payroll threshold in 2014. But that was no benefit to Soriano in any way other than a guaranteed payday. It’s true that Soriano could have made $14.8 million and then accepted the Yankees qualifying offer after 2013, guaranteeing himself an extra $30 million. Presumably he would be the closer in 2014, but he’d also be two years older pitching for a team that, currently, doesn’t look like it’s going to be very good.

If the agent is saying he’ll receive $60 million from the team that signs him. If he was faced with the prospect of returning to the set-up role and maybe being the closer in 2014 if Rivera retires (or getting traded), he had reason to listen to his agent because his agent had come through for him before. Soriano was so good in 2012 as the closer and so terrible as the set-up man in 2011 and the first month of 2012, that his value was not going to be higher than it is now at age 33. It’s his last chance for a long-term deal and he went for it.

Boras will say to clubs, “You need a closer? Look, here’s your closer. He did it in New York and he did it replacing a legend.” There’s a logic to the argument. There’s also a logic to the argument that Soriano will be more valuable than the draft pick that closer-hungry clubs built to win now like the Tigers would trade for him.

Teams with a protected draft pick like the Blue Jays might go for Soriano and not give up anything more than a second round pick. They’re all-in as it is and Soriano is more proven than Sergio Santos and Casey Janssen, plus they have money to spend.

There aren’t many places for Soriano to go, but there weren’t many places for him to go after the 2010 season and Boras got him paid. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of him doing it again and as senseless as it seemed for Soriano to turn down the guaranteed money, it wasn’t a hasty decision. It might not work, but it made sense.

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