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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Reality is a Bigger, Hairier Monster For the Yankees and It Bites

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In keeping with yesterday’s autopsy theme I began yesterday, the dissection and search for the proximate cause of the demise for the 2012 Yankees is still underway. The problem is that, unlike the old Jack Klugman show Quincy, there’s not a rapid resolution and those preforming the examination are inept (Joel Sherman); partisan and delusional (Mike Francesa); and inexplicably allowed to escape from their cages and take to the internets—specifically Twitter—to put on their preschool-crafted “GM hat” made of day old newspaper.

Regardless of editorials and revisionist history, that newspaper still says the same thing for the ALCS: Tigers defeat Yankees 4 games to 0.

Quincy used to find a bullet to solve the case. In this case, Francesa might find what he thinks is a bullet when it is in reality a chunk of McDonald’s cheeseburger from 1983. Amid all of this is the reality that no one is addressing the crux of the problems that led to the Yankees’ disintegration and all are living in a world in which the Yankees are champions on an annual basis with endless amounts of money and the myth of professionalism, dignity, and class so effectively pushed by the likes of Sherman and the YES Network whether true or not.

What it comes down to is this: Are the Yankees going to maintain the road they’ve been on for the past decade and try to spend their way out of trouble or will they learn from what’s happened to them and other clubs that have done the same things and failed miserably? Judging from the statements coming from the Yankees as to their course of action, they’re not going to do much of anything different.

And that’s not good.

Let’s take a look:

  • Players wanted to join the Yankees because they won and accorded said players a chance to win a title

The Yankees were able to get the best free agents and acquire players via trade because of several reasons that no longer apply. The Yankees have outspent the rest of baseball by a wide margin over the past decade and have one World Series title to show for it. In fact, they’ve only been in the World Series twice in the past decade. Players aren’t signing with the Yankees to go to the World Series anymore; they’re signing for a chance to go to the World Series and this now is an evident possibility in about 10-12 locations every year. If a player doesn’t want the scrutiny or daily pressure of expectations that come with joining the Yankees, they’re free to go to multiple other places.

  • The Yankees pay more money than anyone else and can trade prospects for disgruntled players who want to get paid

As the club is trying to get the total payroll down to $189 million by 2014, can they blow a similarly wealthy club like the Angels out of the water in pursuit of a Zack Greinke?

The Yankees’ contract situations in 2014 aren’t as debilitating as is portrayed. They’re going to have to deal with Derek Jeter (he has a player option for $8 million in 2014 that, due to incentives, will probably be higher but still declined by the player); Alex Rodriguez is owed $25 million; they’re going to sign Robinson Cano to a contract that will probably average around $22-25 million annually; CC Sabathia is due $23 million; Mark Teixeira will receive $22.5 million. Performances and the ravages of age aside, they can afford to bring in younger “name” players to try and hand over the mantle from Mariano Rivera, Jeter, and the others to a new breed.

The Yankees used to raid low-revenue/poor-market clubs for players. Now those teams are signing their foundation players to long-term, team friendly contracts. The Pirates with Andrew McCutchen are an example. There were Yankees dreamers and apologists in the media like Sweeny Murti saying the Yankees are going to get Bryce Harper as soon as he hits free agency. That’s not going to happen.

Even Justin Upton, who is available and signed to a long-term contract, took the precaution when he signed the below-market long-term agreement to get it in writing that he can block trades to teams like the Yankees specifically so he won’t go to a team that has the money to pay him, but wants to get a cheap star-level talent.

These high-end players are not available to only a few teams that can pay them anymore and, in many cases, they’re not available at all.

With the conscious choice to get the payroll down to $189 million, the financial chasm between the Yankees, the Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, Phillies, Cubs and others is no longer as vast. Players won’t be going to the Yankees because of a higher offer if they can take a bit less and be in a place they prefer. Cliff Lee proved that.

As for the trades, what prospects do the Yankees have left that anyone wants? They dumped Jesus Montero for nothing; Manny Banuelos is out with Tommy John surgery; Dellin Betances had to be demoted from Triple A to Double A and was horrific in 2012; and David Phelps, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova are the types of pitchers that most clubs have and will trade for, but won’t give up anything other than a lateral-type talent.

  • The arrogance of ignorance—or vice versa

On his show yesterday, Francesa state authoritatively and matter-of-factly that Andy Pettitte will be back; that they’ll re-sign Ichiro Suzuki; and that Hiroki Kuroda will agree to a 1-year contract. He’s also consistently implied that Michael Pineda will be an important part of the starting rotation.

Neither I, you, Francesa, the Yankees, Pettitte, or anyone else knows whether the pitcher is coming back. No one expected him to retire after 2010, so to think that because he came back to pitch this season he’s going to do so again is speculation based on nothing. And don’t discount Pettitte’s own feelings on this matter. For all his down home country Southern politeness and Texas gunslinger attitude, along with the reverence to God and the New York Yankees (the 3 years in Houston with the Astros carefully edited from the narrative), he’s been far more calculating, cognizant and manipulative of circumstances than is commonly mentioned. If he looks at the way the team lost, the cumulative age, the injuries sustained by Rivera, Jeter, and Pettitte himself, and thinks the Yankees downslide is imminent, does he want to tarnish his legacy, return to a team that ends up as the Red Sox did, and possibly injure himself if he’s vacillating on the commitment necessary to pitch effectively at 41-years-old? He could decide it’s not worth it.

Who even wants Ichiro back? Has anyone looked at his decline and age? He played well for the Yankees in spurts, but he’s not going to want to be a backup player. GM Brian Cashman made the (somewhat disturbing on several levels) statement that he wants “Big Hairy Monsters” to hit the ball out of the park. Ichiro’s no big hairy monster, he’s a little flitting hobbit. Ichiro for two months as an extra player? Okay. Ichiro as a yearlong solution playing everyday? No.

I have a feeling that Kuroda’s going to turn around and go back to the Dodgers for a multi-year deal—the location he didn’t want to leave. Kuroda preferred the West Coast, but there were no landing spots for him. He joined the Yankees because they were a good bet for him to win a stack of games and re-bolster his free agent bona fides for 2013 and he did that and more. He’s going to accept a 1-year deal? After throwing 219 innings, with a 5.2 WAR; being a gutty, consistent, and mean presence on the mound; and behaving like a true professional who would’ve fit in perfectly with the Joe Torre Yankees of the late 1990s, why would he short-change himself to stay in a locale he didn’t really want to join in the first place?

And Pineda? He was pressured and tormented for his lack of velocity in spring training; he got hurt and had labrum surgery; and had been acquired for two of the Yankees’ top prospects. The return to effectiveness from labrum surgery is not guaranteed and judging by the Yankees failure to effectively develop pitchers, what makes anyone think they’re going to get 160 quality innings from Pineda? He’s a giant question mark that they cannot count on to: A) be healthy; B) pitch well and adjust to New York and being a Yankee.

  • A no-win situation and management question marks

Say what you want about Nick Swisher, but he played hard for the Yankees; he played hurt; he embraced the city and its fans and was rewarded with abuse because of his post-season struggles. Swisher made a mistake in complaining publicly about it, but if other players look at Swisher and his contributions to the Yankees over the years, why would they want to subject themselves to that if they have a choice of possibly going to a more relaxed atmosphere that, bluntly, probably has a brighter future than the Yankees such as the West Coast, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Arizona, or even the Mets?

This same fanbase that was weeping over the injury to Jeter and stupidly calling it a “funeral” and comparing it to a wounded warrior being taken off the battlefield were the people that booed him and referred to him as “Captain Double Play” in 2011.

Do players want to willingly sign up for that?

In that vein of player whispers, manager Joe Girardi’s treatment of A-Rod, Swisher, and others is not going to go unnoticed. If Cashman heavily influenced Girardi to bench A-Rod, the players are going to think Girardi’s weak and not in charge; if Girardi did it himself, they’re going to think he’ll abandon them during a slump after performing for him during the regular season.

Girardi’s contract is up after 2013 and a player might not sign to play for Girardi in particular, but they certainly didn’t sign to play for a different manager—many of the Red Sox will tell you how that turns out after the Bobby Valentine disaster.

How Cashman is not under fire is a mystery to me. If you look at his drafts and player development which have been, at best, poor; his pitching acquisitions and missteps; his failure to put together a quality bench; and his off-field embarrassments that permeated the organization, why is he never examined in an objective way to determine whether his negatives outweigh whatever positives he provides?

In short, the playing field has changed, but the Yankees’ blueprint is stagnant. It’s the same with less money to spend. How is it possible to maintain their annual playoff contention under these constraints of their own making and due to the changing landscape?

It’s not. But you wouldn’t be able to determine that through the biology class going on with the likes of Francesa, Sherman, and Twitter dismembering a frog like the oblivious amateurs that they are and believing they’re explaining to the masses while they’re indulging in the identical fantasy that has led to the unbridled panic that ensues when the Yankees don’t win the World Series. In case you hadn’t noticed, they’ve fulfilled that mandate once in the past twelve years. With the money they’ve spent, the demands on the baseball people, and the air of superiority they exhibit—by any metric—that can only be called a failure.

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