They Wanted The Stone Cold Killer…

Hot Stove

…and instead got El Profesor de Gack.

Amid all the implied intent of the “shutdown bullpen” the Yankees supposedly have with the addition of Rafael Soriano and the romantic hearkening back to the glory days of 1996, there are a few important factors that are being glossed over.

Yankees fans, stung by this disastrous off-season in which they failed to acquire their targets and sat by impotently as the Red Sox built a juggernaut, are clinging to the notion that they’ll be able to repeat the six inning strategy stumbled onto by Joe Torre; a strategy that won them a championship.

It’s a dream.

Here’s why.

Is Rafael Soriano comparable to Mariano Rivera?

Of course it’s a stupid question.

But in the Yankees current universe, as Soriano is supposedly part of “1996 revisited”, he has to be Rivera.

Like Buck Showalter before him, Torre didn’t know what he had in Rivera until the season was underway and Rivera was not only dominant, but he was dominant for multiple innings.

Look at Rivera’s 1996 Gamelogs—link.

What do you see?

You see a pitcher who was not a prototypical, one-and-done set-up man who pitched the eighth inning and gave way to the closer who racked up the saves and the glory. Rivera was exactly what Goose Gossage and the old-school closers who lament the diminished workload and accompanying degeneration of the “save” stat say he isn’t. He was a multiple inning workhorse.

Rivera appeared in 61 games that season; he pitched 107 innings; he provided multiple innings 42 times!!!

And it wasn’t simply multiple innings in which he went the occasional 1 2/3 innings; Rivera was regularly pitching 2-3 innings to hand the game from the starter directly to closer John Wetteland.

Rivera’s 1996 season was worthy of the Cy Young Award and MVP because of his importance to the club. Without him, they would have gone nowhere. In those 107 innings, he struck out 130; allowed 73 hits and one homer.

He was invaluable.

Can you find someone who could and would do that today? If you’re ridiculously lucky with a young pitcher, maybe. But it’s pretty unlikely.

Is Soriano—who is known to have refused to pitch multiple innings for the Rays and manager Joe Maddon—going to do the same thing? Even if he wanted to, could he? He pitched multiple innings once in 2010.

Once.

So it’s safe to say that Soriano is not going to be the 1996 Rivera.

There will never, ever be another Mariano Rivera as a set-up man or as a closer; to suggest that this desperation signing is anywhere close to that is absurdity at its height; hype from the Yankees fans and apologists who are justifying the maneuver as smart when all it is is a case of reluctantly taking the last item on the shelf.

The Yankees signed a “last item on the shelf” once before. I remember it well.

His name was Danny Tartabull.

Eerie similarities:

The Yankees have tried this before.

They’ve spent money on set-up men—big money.

Since we’ve established that Soriano is not Rivera, we can look at the other set-up men they’ve signed to be the bridge to the closer. Is Soriano going to be a Jeff Nelson/Mike Stanton?

Or is he more in line with Paul Quantrill; Tom Gordon; Steve Karsay; and the butt of everyone’s jokes (as long as he’s not in arm’s distance) Kyle Farnsworth?

Gordon pitched well in the regular season for the Yankees (when he was healthy) and was awful in the playoffs. Then he got hurt.

Karsay was good for a year, got rocked in the playoffs and then he got hurt.

Farnsworth was terrible.

Is Soriano—whose performance is eerily close to that of Farnsworth prior to his New York arrival—going to be trustworthy to get those outs in the playoffs?

The home run ball has been the bane of his existence. He allowed 2 homers in the ALDS for the Rays last season (his one and only opportunity in the post-season in his career) and no one felt comfortable with him in the game. The second homer he gave up was particularly devastating and not unexpected given his history.

The Rays were trailing 3-1 in the top of the ninth inning of game 5 and facing Cliff Lee; Soriano was called upon to keep the deficit at 2. Nelson Cruz singled to lead off the inning; then Ian Kinsler homered.

3-1 became 5-1. With Lee pitching for the Rangers, the game and the series were both over.

Sounds familiar.

Farnsworth had been brilliant for the Braves in 2005 until, called on to close out the series, he allowed a 2 out, 2 strike game-tying homer in game 4 of that series to…Brad Ausmus!

Had Farnsworth gotten that last out, the Braves were on the way to the NLCS.

That was the game in which Roger Clemens pitched three innings of relief for the Astros as they won game 4 on a homer by Chris Burke. They won game 5 and eventually went to the World Series.

Soriano, like Farnsworth, is susceptible to the home run ball. He gets nervous in important games; he tightens his grip and tries to throw too hard; his fastball flattens and he’s taken deep.

I have questions about his fortitude, his willingness to do what’s best for the team and his determination to grind it out and do what needs to be done for the team. I don’t think he and New York are a good fit.

Bullpens and grinders:

Bullpens win in the playoffs; but bullpens don’t automatically make the playoffs.

Back to the comparison of the 2011 Yankees to the 1996 Yankees and you see two starting rotations in radically different states of undress.

The 1996 team had Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Jimmy Key, Kenny Rogers and Dwight Gooden.

The 2011 team has C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and someone else (Sergio Mitre? Justin Duchscherer?).

With the 1996 team, you can criticize the back end if you so choose, but there was always the hovering specter of Rivera lurking to end the game after six innings. Now? Soriano’s not ending anything after six innings; Joba Chamberlain? David Robertson? Pedro Feliciano?

All this talk about the “best bullpen in baseball” is terrific; it’s wonderful…but it’s meaningless because teams with great bullpens don’t have much success in the playoffs if they don’t make the playoffs.

And with that starting rotation this team is not, under any circumstances, guaranteed a playoff spot. The AL East is an utter nightmare; the Red Sox are still far better than the Yankees; the Rays, despite their free agent losses are good and deep; the Blue Jays have a load of young pitching and can hit; and the Orioles will be whipped into a frenzy at the thought of beating the Yankees by manager Buck Showalter.

The other playoff contenders in the American League have something of an easier road to win cheap games because of the weakness at the bottom of their divisions. The Tigers, White Sox and Twins have the Royals and Indians to abuse; the Rangers, A’s and Angels will torment the Mariners.

There’s no walk into the post-season this time.

Good teams need to have grinders—players who aren’t mercenaries looking to get paid and latch onto the wagon of a championship team.

The relentless collection of star names was what doomed the Yankees in the early part of the 21st century.

Whereas the 1996 team epitomized teamwork and everyone chipping in to achieve the ultimate goal, the teams from 2002 onward had the likes of Jason Giambi; Gary Sheffield; Randy Johnson; Jose Contreras; Alex Rodriguez—players who wanted to get their money and their rings.

Good players in an individual sense doesn’t necessarily translate into fitting the team dynamic that was the hallmark of the championship clubs.

Go back through the World Series winners since 2001 and you see an interesting similarity—they all battled it out and fought for the title they wanted with courage and fearlessness of failure. That includes the Yankees 2009 champions.

Will this 2011 team and its glaring flaws be able to overcome that perception that they’re taking whatever’s left on the shelves because they have to do something to make this winter of emptiness look a little better because they got Soriano?

The money and the draft pick:

$35 million for 3-years to Rafael Soriano is an insane contract and another example of why Scott Boras is a genius. The Yankees had the money left over from the failed pursuit of Lee; the draft pick isn’t something to ignore, nor is it something to be overly concerned about.

I have to wonder whether GM Brian Cashman’s bosses told him to just do it and forget the draft pick; that the fans were getting restless and Soriano was a recognizable name to sell as improving the club.

There’s been a harping on Cashman having “lied” in saying that he wasn’t going to give up a draft pick to sign a free agent. I don’t consider that to be a “lie”, but a statement as part of a negotiation. Or perhaps Cashman didn’t have any interest in Soriano and was forced to do this.

We don’t know and he won’t ever say it publicly; I’m going to guess that Cashman didn’t want to surrender the draft pick and sign Soriano.

Cashman’s pitching acquisitions have been notoriously iffy and ignorant of their capacity to handle New York. Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown are two of the more egregious examples and the worst case scenario for Soriano; it’s not something to dismiss.Making the mistake with Vazquez once was understandable, but Cashman did it twice!!

As for the money, yes the Yankees probably could’ve gotten Soriano cheaper, but this was a case of “just get him”. There was always a chance that the Angels—as desperate and experiencing as terrible a winter as the Yankees—would’ve grabbed Soriano. Had that happened, the Yankees would have nothing.

The money’s irrelevant.

The final analysis:

Will Soriano be a flop in New York?

No. I think he’ll get the job done most of the time in the regular season.

Will he be the key to a Yankees “shutdown bullpen” like in 1996 and the other championship years of 1998,99 and 2000?

No.

He’ll give up his homers; he’ll have the deer in the headlights look in a big game and blow them. He won’t gut his way through as the Riveras, the Nelsons and Stantons did because he’s not that type of pitcher. Like the other big money set-up men the Yankees have signed before, Soriano will be good enough during the run of the mill regular season game against the Orioles; but against the Red Sox? In Boston?

Do you trust Soriano with his history?

Do you?

Spending big money on set-up men hasn’t worked before especially when they’re of the selfish, “I got mine” variety. Soriano has shown neither the stomach to handle an important game nor the attitude that was the main reason the Yankees battered the Braves, Indians, Mariners and Athletics in their title-winning years.

He won’t be a disaster, but he won’t be the savior either.

1996 revisited?

Dream on.

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6 thoughts on “They Wanted The Stone Cold Killer…

  1. I don’t think any Yankee fan is comparing Soriano/Mo to Mo/Wetteland. I also don’t consider Soriano to be nthe “last item on the shelf.” There are other relievers out there but Soriano best fit the bill. He can only make the team better. No more, no less.

  2. Soriano doesn’t have to be Rivera of 96. He just has to be good, like he’s been in the past. Yes, the contract was too big, but they now have the best setup/closer combo in baseball. This will not hinder their future spending. And they got the best available reliever — just at a price that no one else could pay.

  3. The big question I can’t stop wondering about is whether the Soriano signing will prompt the Yanks to give Joba yet another look for their starting rotation. Let the games begin anew.

  4. “He won’t be a disaster, but he won’t be the savior either.”

    um….you had to go there? No one is remotely calling him a savior or anything close to it…He’s a nice fill in piece. It’s nice for Yankee fans for our team to be able to spend $36mill for a set up man. End of story.

    The off-season has been a disappointment obviously because of Lee, but there simply weren’t any SP fallbacks that they missed out on. I happen to like the Russ Martin signing which more might have been made of in the press had the yanks gotten their #1 priority.

  5. This is one of the better (and more rational) analyses that I have read regarding this signing. Jon Heyman’s gut reaction was “best ‘pen in the majors” and I have a serious problem with that. Soriano only really serves to replace the loss of Kerry Wood from last year’s squad. I doubt he’ll be doing much more work than Wood did for them down the stretch.

    What the Yankees really needed was to get at least one starting pitcher and somehow address their older (and slower) fielders. Russ Martin was a good pick-up, but his hitting is questionable in my mind.

    As far as having the “best set-up/closer combo” I don’t know about that. I’ve seen the Rangers’ Ogando/Feliz combo and in a 1-to-1 pitch-off I think it’s a push. Especially considering that Ogando and Feliz will be older and wiser after their first full seasons in the bigs.
    [Disclaimer: I am a Rangers fan, so I’ll admit that I am a bit biased. I tried to think of another set-up/closer combo, but I’m not familiar enough with anyone else’s roster to know set-up men.]

    I’m surprised that more people aren’t looking at what this means for the reliever market in the next couple of seasons. $12MM/year is an awful lot of money to pay someone that isn’t even your closer. Even if he were the closer, he’s only topped 10 saves twice in 9 seasons.

    Considering that a player’s value is often based on how much he is getting paid compared to how much other players in similar positions (and with similar skill) are getting paid, what might this mean for signing relievers in the future? At $12MM, will anyone besides Boston or NY be able to afford a top-of-the-line closer?

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