The Logic of Rafael Soriano’s Opt Out

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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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Mariano Rivera and Retirement

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Mariano Rivera hadn’t specifically said he was going to retire at the conclusion of the 2012 season, but the cryptic implication took the tone of retirement with some wiggleroom in case he changed his mind. If he’d made it official before the season, Rivera would’ve earned the Chipper Jones treatment with honorifics from everyone—including the Red Sox and Mets—as he made his way around baseball a final time, but for someone as humble as Rivera, the ambiguity was preferable. In addition, Rivera’s humility is matched by his competitiveness, so if he wanted to play in 2013, he didn’t want to have to backtrack and say, “Never mind,” after getting gifts from other clubs.

Then he got hurt.

Out for the year after tearing his knee on May 3rd, Rivera stated that he wasn’t going out like this and he’d be back. In many situations, this recent vacillation after an ironclad statement would be a negotiating tactic and the player would be seeking more money and a longer-term contract. That would be true regardless of the player’s age. Rivera is turning 43 next month, but considering his durability and performance, a 2-year deal wouldn’t be an overwhelming risk for the Yankees.

Rivera isn’t looking for multiple years, doesn’t have an ulterior motive, and he certainly doesn’t want to hamstring the Yankees’ planning for 2013, especially with Rivera’s 2012 replacement Rafael Soriano having an opt-out in his contract and Soriano’s agent Scott Boras giving every indication that he’ll exercise it.

Extenuating circumstances having to do with life are more prominent in this decision by Rivera than financial or team-related issues. When he was injured, his surgery was delayed by a blood clot in his calf. Then the procedure was done, labeled a success, and there was as collective sigh of relief from the Yankees, the media, and their fans that Rivera would be back in 2013.

Now it’s not so clear-cut.

Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman sounds as if he’s preparing the fans for the legitimate possibility that Rivera will hang it up. Money is not a factor. If it’s a 1-year contract, the Yankees will be glad to give Rivera the $15 million he’s likely to want. That’s not the obstacle. The obstacle comes when longtime players, coaches, and managers or anyone who’s done one thing for a long time ask themselves, “Can I live without it?” and answer in the affirmative.

How much did Rivera enjoy the time away from the everyday grind and travel to spend the summer with his family? Did he realize that he can live without it? If that’s the case, then the acceptance of not needing the game—ably combined with his faith and love of family—could spur him to finally retire.

The injury afforded Rivera the opportunity to know the heretofore unknowable of whether he’d be bored without baseball. He experienced some semblance of retirement without being retired. If he saw that he could live without it for an extended period in the summer while the season was in progress, that might’ve been his answer.

If he retires, it’s not because he doesn’t want to play anymore and not because he can’t, but because he doesn’t want to put forth the effort to maintain his level of greatness; because he doesn’t want to leave his family again; because the blood clot and knee injury might have made him realize that life and health are fragile; because he realized he doesn’t have that need. If it took being away from the game to make that discovery, then the knee injury might not have simply ended his season, but it might have ended his career in a different context than was initially feared.

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Yankees By The Mailbox

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Will the Yankees mail it in or will they put up a fight?

They know first-hand and on the wrong end that being down 3 games to 0 isn’t the end of a series, It’s laughable when a game is called a “must win” even when it’s not an elimination game. It’s in the same logical arena of “giving 110%.” It’s not possible. Of course it would’ve helped the Yankees’ cause to have won last night, but it wasn’t a “must” win.

Tonight is a “must” win, but I’m not sure that the Yankees collective hearts are going to be in it to make the commitment necessary to make this a series, let alone bring it back to Yankee Stadium. Deep down, they can’t think they can come back and win it with their pitching staff decimated, the lineup inert, and Justin Verlander looming for game 7 if, against all logic and reality, they get it that far.

The Yankees are not going to just give the series away and make it obvious that they know their fate, have accepted it, and are waiting for the guillotine to come crashing down, but with a veteran team that’s lucratively compensated and playing poorly, can they reasonably expect to win four straight games and then be ready to face one of two good teams in the World Series and win?

Even in the most predictable Hollywood scenarios it’s hard to envision, and in those scenarios like the one that actually happened against the Red Sox in 2004, there was still some momentum and a feeling of the series not being over. That comes from the players on both sides. The Red Sox of 2004 were not going to quit; they’d never won; hadn’t been together long enough to grow complacent; didn’t have these super-high priced items permeating the roster from top-to-bottom; weren’t old and exhausted; and put forth an effort in the face of defeat.

Can this Yankees team say any of that?

CC Sabathia threw 17 2/3 innings and 241 pitches within 5 days to lead the Yankees past the Orioles in the ALDS. His elbow has barked this season and he’s 32; the Yankees are going to need him in 2013. Is manager Joe Girardi going to push him that far again? Is Sabathia going to be willing to be pushed that far again in a cause that the sane factions of the organization know is ostensibly hopeless?

Nick Swisher (if he plays) is looking at free agency. He won’t receive the$126 million, Jayson Werth dollars he was implying he wanted earlier in the season, but someone will pay him a good chunk of change. Will he be willing to lay out or crash into a wall trying to make a catch when it’s not going to make a difference this season for a team that’s on life support, but might cost him his contract?

Alex Rodriguez is likely planning a nice long vacation to escape it all. The argument could be made that he began his vacation when the regular season ended.

Rafael Soriano is going to opt-out of his contract and command at least a 3-year deal from someone (maybe even the opposition Tigers). Will he agree to pitch 2 innings tonight if needed? And if they win, 2 innings tomorrow? 1 1/3 innings in game 6?  All to face Verlander in game 7? With Phil Hughes experiencing back spasms that forced his removal in the fourth inning, who’s pitching game 7? David Phelps? Are they going to deactivate Hughes and pitch Freddy Garcia? Against Verlander and that Tigers’ lineup?

Robinson Cano plays as if he’s entitled when there’s a viable chance of the Yankees winning a World Series, but what about now? Is he going to hustle tonight? Why would he all of a sudden decide to play hard especially if he and the rest of the team know they’re done and just want to go home?

Yesterday, when the Yankees’ lineup was posted, I was amazed and impressed that Girardi was willing to make such gutsy moves. I certainly wouldn’t have put Eduardo Nunez at shortstop (though I would’ve gotten him in the lineup), but it was a case of Girardi saying he’d seen enough of Swisher and A-Rod and wanted to try something else. That’s what it looked like anyway until GM Brian Cashman started talking.

In what was a masterfully Machiavellian job of inserting himself into the narrative, when Cashman said that the decision to bench these players and make these lineup maneuvers was made jointly between him, the manager, and the coaching staff, he effectively emasculated his manager in front of the world. Was Cashman trying to take the heat off the manager? Was he trying to exert his authority as he always wanted to do under Joe Torre and since the publication of Moneyball stated that the GM should dictate to the manager, not the other way around, to accumulate credit for himself? Was it both?

From 1998-2007, had Cashman walked into Torre’s office and said he wanted to discuss the lineup, trying to force the veteran manager who had become an icon into doing what he was told, Torre would’ve reverted from the calm, cool, conciliatory Papa Joe that everyone saw—that Torre wanted everyone to see in public—to the old-school baseball man that told one of his bosses, Randy Levine, to “shut the {bleep} up,” during a conference call in which the upper management was trying to tell Torre what to do with the players on the field. Torre would’ve either told Cashman he’d think about it; said he’d do it and then not done it; or told Cashman to get the hell out his office.

Cashman should feel the heat more than anyone else in this organization and it’s not a “the buck stops with me,” safety net that a boss says but doesn’t really mean because he knows he’s safe, but a job-on-the-line questioning of why the Yankees don’t have a super-utility player who can actually play defense and hit; or have a viable center field option to remove Curtis Granderson from the lineup; or the other ghastly moves—mostly with pitching—he’s made.

It’s already started.

The wheel of blame is spinning and everyone is trying to protect themselves. Once this is over (and it’s a great bet that it ends tonight), they’ll scurry to their positions, dig into their spot, and wait it out to see who’s going to be held accountable for their failure to live up to the mandate of World Series or bust. No one, including Cashman or Girardi, is safe. The fallout will be in the coming weeks, but for now it’s waiting out the inevitable.

The patient is not dead but like a suffering animal (or human), there’s a time to put it out of its misery; a time that it probably won’t fight and if it does, won’t have the strength to put up an extended amount of resistance. What it comes down to is who’s shouldered with the responsibility for this debacle.

There’s plenty to go around.

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Baltimore Orioles vs New York Yankees—ALDS Preview and Predictions

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New York Yankees (95-67; 1st place, AL East) vs Baltimore Orioles (93-69; 2nd place, AL East; Wild Card Winner; Won Wild Card Game over Texas Rangers)

Keys for the Yankees: Rafael Soriano; hit the ball out of the park; get good starting pitching; hit the Orioles hard and early.

Soriano has been gutty, durable, mentally and physically tough, and reliable—aspects that no one expected nor thought him capable of in his first year-and-a-half as a Yankee. What he does in the post-season as a closer could be the difference between getting a 3-year deal for X amount of dollars and a 5-year deal for Y amount of dollars.

I don’t see the Yankees reliance on the home run as a “problem.” Were their hitters supposed to stop trying to hit home runs? I don’t know what the solution was. The absence/return of Brett Gardner is being made out as an important factor, but I don’t think it’s as important as it’s being portrayed. Teams with speed are criticized for their lack of power; teams with power are criticized for their lack of speed. It’s only noticeable when it’s not there and the main strategy isn’t working.

If the Yankees lose, it won’t be due to a lack of stolen bases, it will be due to a lack of home runs.

The Orioles have responded to every challenge and naysayer this entire season, but the Yankees have been here over a dozen times and the Orioles haven’t. If the Yankees pop them early, they might be able to shake them and get this over with before the Orioles realize what happened or get to game 3 and start thinking they’re going to win.

Keys for the Orioles: Get the game to Jim Johnson; hit home runs of their own; have a quick hook with the starters; don’t be “happy to be here.”

The simplistic and stupid “key” you might see on other sites with “analysis” of “stop Robinson Cano” is ridiculous. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to “stop” Cano. The best the Orioles can do is to keep the bases clear in front of him and not pitch to him. Cano is not going to see one good pitch to hit this whole series.

The Orioles starting pitching is questionable at best and manager Buck Showalter knows this. He can’t waste time and hope the starters find it because it might be 10-0 by the time it’s realized they don’t have it.

For the first time in forever there’s no distinct advantage for the Yankees with Mariano Rivera closing games. Now we don’t know who has the advantage. In the regular season, it was a wash; in the post-season, we don’t know. Soriano has been bad and Johnson’s never been there.

The Orioles, after so many years of dreadful baseball, are in the playoffs for the first time since 1996 when they lost to… the Yankees. Getting there isn’t enough. They can win and they have to believe that and act like it.

What will happen:

The Yankees stumbled in mid-September with injuries and slumps among their big bashers. CC Sabathia’s health was in question; Ivan Nova was pulled from the rotation; Phil Hughes was inconsistent; and David Robertson allowed some big homers and hits. Sabathia pitched well recently, but that doesn’t mean he’s “back.” I don’t trust Hughes; Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte are pitchers to rely on.

Given everything on the line for Soriano and his shaky post-season history (3 homers allowed in 7.2 innings) I wouldn’t feel comfortable with him until he closes out a game without incident. Scott Boras is already planning Soriano’s contract opt-out and scouring MLB to see where he can steer his client to be a closer on a multi-year deal, but the dollar amount is contingent on October.

Alex Rodriguez cannot catch up to a good fastball anymore. There’s a mirror image aspect from The Natural between A-Rod and Orioles’ rookie third baseman Manny Machado. Can A-Rod do what Roy Hobbs did and have that moment in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career as happened in the movie? Or will he strike out as Hobbs did in the book?

Nick Swisher is also trying boost his free agent bona fides after years and years of non-performance; Ichiro Suzuki knows this might be his last chance at a ring. If the Yankees warriors don’t come through; if Soriano falters, they’re going to lose.

Mark Reynolds loves the spotlight and is a leader on and off the field. Machado, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Johnson—they don’t have the experience or history to know they’re not supposed to be doing what they’re doing; that they’re facing the “mighty” Yankees and should bow rather than hit them back. They’ve hit them back all season and Showalter has had a magic touch all year.

There’s a movement afoot from those who expected the Orioles to continue the decade-and-a-half of futility and embarrassment to justify their preseason prediction by continually referencing the poor run differential as a basis to chalk the Orioles’ 2012 success up to “luck”. These people—such as Keith Law—are more invested in their own egomania than enjoying the game of baseball. Rather than say, “Wow, the Orioles are a great story and it’s nice to see a storied franchise return to life,” we get, “They’re not a good team.” Why? It’s because those invested in stats who think reading a spreadsheet and regurgitating scouting terms they picked up along the way will replace a true, organic investment in the game by knowing its history and appreciating a story like that of the Orioles. The Orioles have had some luck, but they’ve also been opportunistic and clutch. A baseball fan understands this; a baseball opportunist and poser doesn’t.

It’s a great story.

And it’s going to get better when the Orioles take out the Yankees.

PREDICTION: ORIOLES IN FOUR

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