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January 14, 2011

Transaction of the Day

Soriano in Stripes

by Christina Kahrl

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NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Agreed to terms with RHP Rafael Soriano on a three-year, $35 million contract, with $1.5 million player opt-outs after both 2011 and 2012. [1/13]

It hasn't been the Hot Stove the Yankees expected, when all they have had to show for their off-season shopping was catcher Russell Martin, rubber-armed southpaw Pedro Feliciano, and the formal elevation of Cliff Lee to white whale status. Or, for premium-brand shoppers like the Yankees, the transactional equivalent of bupkis.

However, that finally changed with the decision to sign the best available player at one position: Rafael Soriano, the winter's best reliever. The money's of the sort that perhaps only they might be able to afford at this stage of the winter, and winding up with him is a fairly obvious bit of settling for something mound-ish because they've achieved little else beyond plaintive voice mails to Andy Pettitte.

The Rays' single-season stopper was back on the loose after last winter's arbitration-related debacle with the Braves. He was among the four best relievers in the game. This makes a second straight winter in which Soriano has to be left wondering if the market's ever going to give him his due: a job as a closer and top dollar. It wasn't there, but as the creative structuring of this deal reflects, he hasn't entirely given up hope. He'll make $10 million in 2011, $11 million in 2012, and $14 million in 2013, should he stay for all three seasons and not opt out.

However, opting out after 2011 would be fairly unlikely, or at least ill-advised. Not only would it leave $23.5 million on the table, but Soriano would be sailing into a market that might have Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, and Ryan Franklin available, plus Joe Nathan and Francisco Cordero if the Twins and Reds decide to cut costs by buying out their final option years. Page Noah or not, but a market doesn't get much more flooded than that.

Whether and when Soriano skips is unknowable, though, so we should turn to what's shaping up like an exceptional bullpen. Consider the current half-dozen likelies:

Pitcher
Relief IP
UBBr
SOr
HRr
ARP
WXRL
LEV
RA9
FRA
SIERA
Rivera 60.0 3.5% 19.6% 0.9% 15.7 3.7 1.9 2.10 2.39 3.46
Soriano 62.1 5.1% 24.1% 1.7% 16.8 5.9 2.1 2.02 2.16 3.27
Feliciano* 62.2 8.8% 20.0% 0.4% 6.7 1.6 1.3 3.45 3.43 3.77
Robertson 61.1 10.2% 25.9% 1.8% 4.3 1.8 1.2 3.82 3.62 3.66
Chamberlain 71.2 6.6% 25.3% 1.9% 6.9 1.3 1.1 4.65 4.01 3.16
Logan* 40.0 10.1% 22.5% 1.8% 9.1 0.4 1.1 2.93 3.11 4.00

Obviously, they already had five good relievers, but because their rotation looks like a mess (at least until the kids arrive), adding a premium reliever has its arguments for it. It might make for a busy season of trudging to and from the dugout for Joe Girardi, but adding Soriano to the late-game mix propels Joba Chamberlain and the rest to earlier assignments in-game, so he has the relief weapons to work with.

Will he use it to full effect? Lately, Girardi has generally avoided hooking his starters early, ranking among the AL's least-likely skippers to go with a quick hook the last two years. That has to change with this crew, because as things now stand he'll have at least three chuck-and-duck slots in the rotation beyond CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes. Whether Girardi adapts to the talent at hand will be a major factor for the Yankees' success in 2011; he has the pen for it, and he was quicker to hook a hurler in 2008, when he led the league. Then again, scarred Yankee fans might remember that we did just see him blow an ALCS Game Four by leaving a weak starter in a frame too far.

One line of argument against the money and the decision to sign Soriano at all is that the Yankees now lose their first-round pick in June to the Rays. Remember, if you're Soriano, that's not my problem. He wants his money, he deserves his money, and he got his money. Expecting Soriano to make any concession to the fact that signing him costs the Yankees more than money is pointless.

However, while the Yankees lost that late first-round pick next June to a division rival and next year's draft class looks very good, the Yankees' advantage in financial muscle can make up for the loss of that pick--OK, so they can't get a late-first talent, but they can still afford to go over slot with anyone who drops to them in the later rounds. That's a bit dodgy as propositions go, of course, because you never know how everyone is going to behave on draft day. Happily, they can still just go south of the border and snap up the best international free agents from Venezuela or the Dominican, while continuing to exploit what seems like a nice little corner in the Mexican market.

What they can't make up for is the fact that the Rays have the pick, and few teams draft better. If, in 2017 or so, whoever was selected with that pick is putting the Orlando Swamp Rays ahead of the Yankees in the AL East standings, feel free to start rending your garments then. Cashman has a responsibility to the present as well as to the future.

By arriving in time to pitch in front of Mariano Rivera, Soriano joins a long line of great Yankee late-game duos. As put out as Sparky Lyle was by the addition of Rich Gossage to the 1978 Bronx Zoo, the two combined to throw 246 IP, and accumulated 6.3 WXRL and 48.7 ARP. Of course, by then Lyle was fading, with just four years left in him; swapping Lyle out for Ron Davis for 1979 didn't hurt the Bombers over the next three years, as the Gossage/Davis combo crested in 1980 to produce 8.3 WXRL and 49.2 ARP. Davis got his shot at closing with the Twins after strike-shortened '81 in the trade for Roy Smalley, Jr. In '84 they replaced Goose with Dave Righetti and had Jay Howell setting up in front of him; that totted up 6.9 WXRL and 38.4 ARP, but that lasted just the one year before Howell was bundled off to Oakland for his shot at closing as part of the package sent to the A's in the Rickey Henderson deal. Even then, the Yankees replaced him easily enough, getting a great year from Jeff Fisher before he injured his arm.

But as good as all of that was, none of those tandems compared to the franchise rebirth-season duo of '96, when Mariano set up John Wetteland, with both finishing among the 10 best relievers in the game, combining for nearly 13 WXRL and 56.2 ARP. Mariano's 41.4 ARP that year ranks among the 10 best relief seasons ever by that measure, in his first and last season setting anybody else up.

Now the shoe's on the other foot, and he's the old man, with a closer-worthy flame-thrower in front of him. Could signing Soriano give the Yankees their best duo since that Wetteland and Mo combo? Not exactly, because Soriano isn't a young Mo, capable of throwing 100 IP; he's already 31, and not bound for anybody's Hall of Fame. But Soriano will overpower people, generating a ton of strikeouts and popups. Obviously, it's a consolation signing, and one made at a premium, but the Yankees needed to do something for their pitching staff.

Soriano's performance in the set-up role is something we ought to be able to take for granted, with the usual caveats: if he stays healthy, if he isn't felled by a meteorite, if he doesn't have a Whitson-like allergic reaction to pitching in pinstripes, etc. If signing him frees Girardi to use Robertson, Feliciano, and Logan in a dogged pursuit of mid-game tactical advantage, and if signing him sets Joba Chamberlain up for a multi-inning mid-game bridge role that gets the Nebraskan innings and a chance to just pitch and produce, it might do the trick, not just by itself, but because of what it makes possible for everyone else.

How? Well, here, I think the Yankees will have to change with the times. It puts the Yankees in the unusual situation of aping what worked so well in San Diego and Texas last year, relying on a deep pen to pitch a larger share of their innings to win games, not just finish them. If Girardi can take that page from the Bud Black playbook and use a deep pen to best effect, it might make the four-hour nine-inning Yankees game an everyday occurrence, but it might also be the way he puts this team back in the playoffs despite a dubious rotation.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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