By now there’s no denying that Rafael Soriano’s brilliant work in taking over as Yankees’ closer for the injured Mariano Rivera has taken a bite out of Rivera’s irreplaceable status. Whether it’s a significant bite or a nibble will be determined in the coming weeks.
The designation of “greatest closer in history” is based more on Rivera’s post-season success, his durability, and that he’s accumulated more saves than anyone else. In breaking that down, it’s easy to make a case that it’s not as huge an accomplishment as it appears on the surface. Rivera has had more opportunities to rack up those saves because for his entire career, he’s never played for a club that’s won fewer than 87 games. He’s been in the post-season every single year except one. And he didn’t have to handle the workload that the closers of the 1970s and 80s did.
The mere designation of “closer” is indicative of the change from the ace out of the bullpen pitching 2-3 innings in a game to what the job is now and how it’s news if a “closer” is asked to pitch in the eighth inning. Back then it was “fireman” because Rich Gossage, Dan Quisenberry, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers or any of the greats from years ago were asked to put out a fire in the middle of an inning. They were also called “short men” because they pitched briefly, and “briefly” didn’t mean one inning.
There’s no questioning Rivera’s greatness, but it’s watered down to a degree. He couldn’t have done what the aforementioned short relievers did with multiple innings and maintained his effectiveness and health for all these years. Those pitchers didn’t have to pitch in three separate, pressure-packed post-season series. It can’t be denied that Rivera has come up biggest when it counts with a 0.70 post-season ERA and a cold, brutal, fearless dominance that contemporaries—Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, Billy Wagner—didn’t have.
But what happens with Soriano in the coming weeks will determine Rivera’s perception. The Yankees have won six straight games to solidify their position to at least make the playoffs. The Orioles are matching them win-for-win so the division is still in question, but if Soriano is called upon to save a Wild Card play-in game or 2-3 games in the first round and blows it, Rivera’s legacy is solidified further; but if he does what Rivera did and closes the games out without incident, what then?
The Yankees were well-situated to replace Rivera in the event of a catastrophic injury. Initially, they didn’t go to Soriano and decided to use the succession concept to give the job to David Robertson. Robertson didn’t handle it in his opportunities before he got injured and the Yankees, by necessity rather than design, went to Soriano. Soriano has been at least as good as Rivera would’ve been and possibly even better. It’s in the Fall that his value will truly be determined.
The Yankees have to face the reality that Soriano is going to opt-out of his contract and go elsewhere to close in 2013 and beyond. Unless the Yankees again make a drastic overpay as they did when the signed Soriano against the wishes of GM Brian Cashman and promise him he’ll be the closer again in 2014 (if Rivera retires), he’s leaving. The Dodgers are spending wildly and although they have a dominant closer in Kenley Jansen, his heart problems have repeatedly sidelined him and they’ll need someone they can trust to be healthy. Other teams like the Tigers, Angels, Blue Jays, Reds (if they move Aroldis Chapman into the starting rotation), and Giants might be in the market for a closer and be willing to pay for Soriano.
Soriano is guaranteed $14 million from the Yankees in 2013 with a buyout of $1.5 million. He can certainly surpass that on the market if not on an annual basis, but with a longer-term deal. With Scott Boras as his agent, he’s going to opt-out. Will Soriano be happy to take a secondary role to Rivera again after the year he’s had? Extremely doubtful. Can the Yankees risk Rivera not being able to come back from his knee injury at top form? As ageless as Rivera has been, he’s still going to be 43-years-old. It has to end sometime.
Soriano’s going to walk from that contract, but will the Yankees let him walk away from them? And more importantly, can they afford to—not financially, but realistically?
The true answer will come over the next month and in the front office, they’re asking themselves the same question right now.